“Sufferers’ Land” Post #50 – Railroads and Cholera –

For years, Norwalk’s prosperity depended on its position as Huron County Seat. The town of Milan dominated the commerce of the region with its canal connecting it to Lake Erie via the Huron River. Every summer and fall, huge wagons filled with grain converged on Milan, making it the largest wheat port of its time.

In the early 1850s, however, a new technology threatened Milan’s economic hegemony — the railroad. The citizens of Milan could have used their money and political influence to bring the railroad to their town, but they were so sure of the advantages of water transport that they spurned it. As a result, the “iron horse” passed north and south of them. The Conestoga Wagons no longer had to travel all the way to Milan, and the town went into a dramatic and irreversible decline. By the end of the decade, the once bustling port town was a sleepy backwater.

Norwalk was one of the towns that profited from the railroads at Milan’s expense. The first train line in the village was the Toledo Norwalk and Cleveland Railroad, which started service in January 1853. [1]

The advent of the railroad was a great boon to the economy of the village, but it also brought danger to the unwary. In the early years, many people and livestock met an untimely end because of this new means of conveyance.

In November of 1853, less than a year after train service commenced, a number of boys found a handcar sitting unattended on a sidetrack and decided to take it for a joyride. They crowded aboard and were soon speeding down the track. One boy, Hezekiah Smith, accidentally caught his scarf in the crank of the car and was thrown to the ground with a broken neck. [2]

Accidental death was not the only tragedy brought to Norwalk by the railroad. Trains transporting passengers from place to place also caused the rapid spread of diseases like Cholera. In 1854, a year after the railroad came to Norwalk, the disease made its final and most deadly appearance in the village.

William Wickham later described a deserted town, the inhabitants either gone to the country or hiding in their homes. Once again, the only sound in the village was the rumble of wagons carrying the dead to cemeteries. William recalled thirty-one names of those who perished from the disease, among this number were seven from one family. [3]

Another witness to those terrible days later remembered the valiant women who cared for the sick at great risk to themselves.     Cholera broke out virulently in Norwalk in 1854. The town was nearly deserted. But some there were who stayed; and some of these women made it their business to nurse the stricken ones. Some have been named to me: “Grandma Mason, mother of Sarah Mason the teacher; Mrs. John Green, mother of Miss Rilla Green; Lizzie Higgins and Mary Higgins Farr. They literally took their lives in their hands. Lizzie Higgins was very ill with it; Mrs. C.L. Boalt had her brought to her home and nursed her back to health. Mary Higgins Farr worked until worn out. The doctor said she must quit and go away. She replied that she was needed. I think she was dead the night of the next day. She was, even before the cholera, much beloved for her womanliness and her works. She was a daughter of Judge Higgins and the wife of Joseph M. Farr; Lizzie Higgins was afterwards his wife. [4]

With the coming of cold weather that autumn, the disease abated and disappeared. Never again would this contagion visit the Firelands. However, an even more terrible tragedy loomed on the horizon. The nation was less than ten years from a Civil War that would bring hardship and sorrow to the village of Norwalk.


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[1] “When the ‘Iron Colt’ First Dashed into Norwalk,” The Firelands Pioneer, December, 1918, p. 2065.

[2] From “Norwalk, Its Men, Women and Girls,” by William Wickham, The Firelands Pioneer, December 1918, p. 2077.

[3] William Wickham’s recollection of the 1854 Cholera outbreak in Norwalk is from “Norwalk, Its Men, Women and Girls,” The Firelands Pioneer, December 1918, pp. 2099-2100.

[4] “Ancient Dames of Norwalk,” by Charlotte Wooster Boalt, The Firelands Pioneer, December, 1918, p. 1998.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved


“Sufferers’ Land” Post #45 – Cholera Strikes Again –

The summer of 1849, Cholera struck a second devastating blow across the Firelands. Sandusky, being the largest town in the region, was again the hardest hit. Over a period of sixty-eight days, three-hundred-and-fifty-eight people died out of a population of two-thousand-three-hundred. Thirty-three people died on Monday, July 30, the worst day of the epidemic.

A letter dated Friday, August 3 described a deserted city. Most of the population had fled, leaving an insufficient number to care for the sick. [1]

In another letter dated July 19, a woman by the name of Priscilla Smith informed her sister that their father had died from the disease. Duty calls me to perform the painful task of informing you that our dear father is no more. He breathed his last at 12:00 o’clock tonight. We did not consider him dangerous until about three o’clock this afternoon when he grew very sick from being thrown into the last stages of the cholera. [2]

By this time, Norwalk had sufficient population density for the disease to take hold and spread. Soon the streets of the village were silent except for the rumble of wagons carrying the dead to their graves.

All summer and into the fall, the disease continued to terrorize the village. It finally ended with the first frost, and the survivors returned to their homes, wondering if it would reappear the following year.


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[1] The Firelands Pioneer, April 1930, pp. 726-727

[2] Letter from Priscilla Smith to her sister is from The Firelands Pioneer, April 1925, p. 327.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

“Sufferers’ Land” Post #34 – Cholera Comes to the Firelands –

Today, Cholera is largely unknown in this country and around the world. However, during the nineteenth century, it was an enormous health problem, the first modern pandemic.

Cholera is a serious diarrheal disease caused by bacteria. The method of transmission is water or food contaminated with fecal material. Without treatment, it is fatal in as much as fifty percent of cases. Victims die quickly, sometimes within two to three hours, but usually within two days. Prevention and treatment is simple, sanitation for prevention, and re-hydration for treatment. However, in the early nineteenth century, proper sanitation was not common practice, and most doctors did not understand the importance of hydration for those who were sick with the disease.

The first cholera pandemic occurred from 1816 to 1826, but it did not spread beyond South and East Asia. The second pandemic started in Asia in 1829 and this time expanded around the world, first to Europe and then North America. Residents of the Firelands no doubt had heard of this dangerous plague for years, and were on the lookout for it. In 1832, it arrived in Sandusky aboard a schooner named the Ligure. [1]

The evening after the Ligure arrived from Buffalo, an old lady became violently ill. She died the next morning. The schooner’s captain also fell ill and died, and the disease spread through the town. A Board of Health was organized and it ordered the schooner to anchor out in the bay. The board intended to burn the ship, but the owner persuaded them not to.

Although in Sandusky this outbreak was serious, with entire families wiped out, there is no record of it reaching Norwalk. At that time, Norwalk had only about one hundred and thirty inhabitants living in houses scattered along the ridge, lessening the effects of poor sanitation prevalent in larger towns like Sandusky. [2]

However, after the epidemic passed, Norwalk continued to grow. By 1836, the population of the village was about one thousand. When the disease next visited the Firelands, the village would not escape.

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[1] Information about the disease of cholera and the history of the first two pandemics are from the Wikipedia article: Cholera

[2] History of the 1832 Cholera outbreak in Sandusky is from The Firelands Pioneer, July 1878, pp. 26-27, 33-34.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

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