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This Week In Illinois History: The great horse epidemic (early November, 1872)

This image from the November 16, 1872 Harper’s Weekly depicts a chaotic urban scene during the horse epidemic.
This image from the November 16, 1872 Harper’s Weekly depicts a chaotic urban scene during the horse epidemic.

By the 1870s, railroads had created an easy way to transport goods and passengers around the country. But there were still skeptics, especially in rural areas, who did not trust this new technology and refused to use it. This changed in 1872 when a horse flu epidemic swept the nation.

Even though goods could be shipped faster than ever before, they still had to be transported to and from railroad depots by horse. In October 1872, the horse influenza quickly spread through the nation’s horse population, paralyzing the economy. By November, it had reached Illinois.

In Chicago, infected horses coughed and staggered in the street, too weak to work. People quarantined their healthy animals for fear of contagion. Overnight, horses, wagons, and carts disappeared from city streets. Merchants could not send or receive deliveries. Milk and produce shipments spoiled. Businesses that depended on horses closed, thousands of workers lost their jobs and piles of undeliverable freight lined the streets. Horses were also integral to coal mining, and the ensuing coal shortage sent prices soaring.

Newspapers carried daily updates of the disease’s impact and several Chicago businesses sent notices to their clients informing them of shipping delays. One such notice read:

Sir: You are probably well aware that the dreaded horse epidemic is fast spreading over the country. It has already reached Chicago, and scarcely a horse can be seen on the streets…. We are now obliged to deliver all of our goods at the trains.

The disease ran its course in a few weeks. Most horses recovered in a few days, but some remained sick for much longer and over 150,000 died.

There was one upside to the epidemic. Without horses, the travelers and rural business owners who had shunned trains were forced to use them for the first time. While the horse epidemic devastated the economy, it normalized railroad travel, an emerging technology that transformed the nation.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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