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Death in Red River Water


Typhoid is caused by bacteria associated with human waste. In the fall of 1893, Crookston had several dozen cases of typhoid, and as a precaution, authorities on this date flushed the city’s backed-up sewer main into the Red Lake River. Bad idea. 

Practically every downstream neighbor was affected, from farmhouses to small towns. Grand Forks, which had about 8,000 residents, was hit the hardest, with a typhoid outbreak about a month after the Crookston flush. Grand Forks drew its drinking water from where the Red Lake River met the Red River.

One of out every nine Grand Forks residents was sickened that winter. More than eighty people died. The epidemic peaked in January with 52 typhoid deaths. One Sunday saw 21 funerals. Grand Forks hospitals were at capacity. Doctors and nurses were stretched thin. A Grand Forks citizens’ committee led an investigation into the epidemic.

The situation created alarm in downstream Winnipeg, where a newspaper ad promoting a $6 water filter warned residents “There is death in Red River water.” 

A physician visited towns along the two rivers and found other outbreaks – including as many as 23 cases in a tiny river town east of Grafton. Lab analysis of water samples confirmed the water was “unfit for use,” and residents were advised to boil it. The North Dakota State Board of Health prohibited the sale of ice cut from the rivers that winter. Train passengers were fearful of stopping in Grand Forks. Former North Dakota State Auditor Archie Currie was one of those who died in the outbreak. He was 40.

The following summer, Grand Forks built a new water filtration plant for $40,000 that included a 1 million gallon, covered water reservoir and a 147,000-gallon settling basin. The city used a new experimental sand filter for the plant. This cutting-edge system was only the third plant of its kind in the nation, and the only one west of New York.

The year after the epidemic, Grand Forks logged only three typhoid cases and zero deaths during the same six-month time period. 

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Manitoba Morning Free Press. 1894, February 9. Page 8
Manitoba Morning Free Press. 1894, February 10. Page 6
The New York Times. 1894, May 13. Page 4
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1894, January 11. Page 1
Warren Sheaf. 1894, January 25. Page 4
Manitoba Morning Free Press. 1894, January 30. Page 6
Bismarck Weekly Tribune. 1894, January 19. Page 2
Manitoba Morning Free Press. 1894, January 29. Page 6
Manitoba Morning Free Press. 1894, February 28. Page 6
Manitoba Morning Free Press. 1894, February 3. Page 11
Manitoba Morning Free Press. 1894, March 27. Page 8
Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1895, January 10. Page 3
Engineering News and the American Railway Journal. 1895. Volume 33, January-June 1895. Engineering News Publishing Company: New York

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