Why you should care

This is what it looks like when a big flu disaster strikes, with unexpected long term consequences.

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It was early October 1872. Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House, Susan B. Anthony was getting ready to cast her first, illegal vote, Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt were making a killing in railroads and giving the Gilded Age its gilt, and somewhere outside of Toronto, a horse sneezed.

The sniffling animal was the Patient Zero in an epidemic that came to be known as the Great Epizootic, a continental plague that spread from city to city, paralyzing transit, hobbling business and helping to set the stage for the Panic of 1873, a financial freak-out that plunged the nation into its greatest depression prior to the Great Depression.

A continental plague that spread from city to city, paralyzing transit, hobbling business and setting the stage for the Panic of 1873…

Apart from its high infection rate (in some areas approaching 99 percent of exposed animals), the horse flu was not, for the individual equine, all that bad — only rarely fatal, it simply left the animal coughing and shivering in its stall for two to four weeks. But this was a time when America — especially urban America — was powered by horses.

“Horses jammed the streets of Gilded Age cities,” writes University of Pennsylvania historian Ann Greene in her book Horses at Work. “They hauled streetcars, omnibuses, drays, delivery wagons and private vehicles … Horses provided virtually all the power for the internal circulation of city life because no other prime mover could compete with them technologically.”

So a sniffling horse, multiplied by the hundreds of thousands, created a scenario right out of NBC’s blackout drama Revolution or Newt Gingrich’s electromagnetic pulse fever dreams. After ravaging Toronto (October 10) and Montreal (October 18), the horse flu crossed the border at Detroit and Buffalo. On October 23, the New York Times reported: “Business in Buffalo Almost Suspended for Want of Horses.”

Horses pulled the barges that moved on the Erie Canal, so the plague quickly moved east, hitting Gotham just two days later. “Fifteen Thousand Horses in this City Unfit for Use—Temporary Suspension of Travel,” the Times warned. Streetcars ran at reduced rates, and then didn’t run at all. In New York, Boston and Philadelphia, gangs of unemployed men were rounded up to pull a few streetcars, though, as transit historian John White notes, “Most citizens found the man-powered cars far too crowded, smelly, slow and ill-ventilated to warrant their patronage.”

A sniffling horse, multiplied by the hundreds of thousands, created a scenario right out of NBC’s blackout drama Revolution.

On October 30 the stacked subheads read, “Its Alarming Effect Upon the People Fully Realized —Total Suspension of Travel on Nine Lines of Cars and Stages — Disappearance of Trucks, Drays, Express-Wagons and General Vehicles.” The Times published op-eds extolling the virtues of walking and lamenting the fact that the velocipede had never and would never catch on (too many boys jeered the riders). Meanwhile, Greene writes, “Consumers lacked milk, ice, and groceries, saloons lacked beer, work halted at construction sites, brickyards, and factories, and city governments curtailed fire protection and garbage collection.”

By early November the epizootic was easing in the Northeast but was still spreading southward — “Not a Horse Visible on the Streets of Baltimore” — and on November 5 in Washington, D.C., the streets were more or less deserted (though this was partly because many of the capital’s temporary residents had returned home to cast their presidential votes for Grant or his challenger, Horace Greeley).

In Boston, things were beginning to get back to normal when disaster struck. On the night of November 9, a fire broke out in a hoop-skirt factory in the city’s business district. At the time, as many as half of the city fire department horses were still too sick to stand, and only one-sixth the usual number of engine companies were on alert that evening. When the alarm went out, the firemen proved to be nearly as quick as their sick-leaved steeds at pulling the engines, but a delay of just 10 minutes for reinforcements allowed the small blaze to spread across the neighborhood’s mansard roofs. By the next morning, 775 buildings and 1,000 businesses across 40 acres of downtown were reduced to piles of brick and heat-shattered granite.

It spread West — where the warring U.S. Cavalry and Apache resisters were briefly reduced to fighting each other on foot.

The disaster was made much worse because many of the businesses were “crammed from cellar to garret” with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods that had gone undelivered during the worst days of the plague. The devastating effect of the Boston fire, along with the incineration of Chicago a year earlier, set the shaky financial stage that allowed railroad speculators, led by the likes of Jay Gould, to trigger the Panic of 1873 the following September.

Headshot of horse on black background

The Horse Flu Disaster of 1872

Source Andrew McGibbob

The plague continued to spread through the winter of 1872 and 1873, postponing horse races in New Orleans, paralyzing St. Louis in December and reaching Cuba by year’s end. The next spring it hit Utah and Arizona — where the warring U.S. Cavalry and Apache resisters were briefly reduced to fighting each other on foot. On April 28, a Times dispatch noted, “The horse-disease has caused many branches of business in San Francisco to become almost paralyzed.”

What does such a cataclysmic event do to the life of cities?

Cartoon of people panicking in front of a bank.

The Panic - Run on the Fourth National Bank, No. 20 Nassau Street

Source Library of Congress

What does such a cataclysmic event do to the life of cities? At the start (at least outside of smoldering Boston), it doesn’t change much. The very human desire to get things back to normal means that most of the time, that’s what happens. The longer-term changes wrought by the Great Epizootic took months or years to kick in. Prior to the plague, steam-driven conveyances were generally banned in cities for fear of boiler explosions. Soon after, New York began allowing steam engines to pull trolleys on certain lines, and just six months after the the plague reached its peak in San Francisco, that city’s first cable car began shuttling passengers.

But within a half century, a lot had changed. Horses — the former engine of urban expansion — were all but absent and nearly irrelevant in American cities, displaced by the electric railway and the automobile. The epizootic had revealed a great susceptibility but people were, all in all, surprisingly unworried. For a time, the equine population increased. Horse colds came and went, but nothing as disruptive as the epizootic occurred again. As late as the 1890s, urban planners were concerned not with the horses dying off but what to do with all their waste — the Times of London famously predicted that at current growth rates, by 1950 every street in the city would be buried in manure nine feet deep. Now that would’ve been apocalyptic.

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