Annals of Epidemics: Cochrane’s 1923 Typhoid Outbreak

My great-grandfather, Edgar Caswell, wrote a brief history of the town of Cochrane, Ontario, where he lived for the balance of his life, in the program of the 1950 Cochrane Old Home Week:

Looking Back on the First Forty Years 

Cochrane Town, and the District surrounding it, had its beginning some 40 years ago in an almost unknown part of Ontario—the country lying approximately half way between Quebec and Winnipeg, the Great Lakes and James Bay. In the heart of this territory, at the junction of the Transcontinental (now the CNR) and the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario (now the ONR) railways, the first town sprang up, and almost immediately began to function as the mother of this vast Northland.

Like mothers of those pioneer days, the new community had no easy life. It had to establish itself and provide everything—roads, sidewalks, waterworks, sewers, light and power, municipal organization and buildings, police and fire services, schools, churches—all the services that a modern municipality needs, besides housing for its own citizens and the “corners and goers”.

The infant town was hard hit at many times and in different ways, but its cruelest enemy was fire. It might be said that Cochrane was built on a brush pile, and the ground was never really cleared until the 1911 fire did it. Then the people of the town realized what they were up against and set themselves to guard against recurrence.

Despite their efforts, the business section of the town was nearly all burned out again in 1916. Since then we have had several very close calls as fire crept in on the community from almost all directions. The danger from fire actually increased as clearing progressed, as the ground, stumps and remaining brush dried out. Fire could travel more quickly, and on some occasions became so hard to control that all men of the town had to be called on to help save the buildings.

Then there was the typhoid fever epidemic of twenty-five years ago, to which one of every four residents fell victim.

It is plain that Cochrane did not make her start with a silver spoon in her mouth. But these obstacles only seemed to draw her citizens more closely together, as the necessity for working in harmony created a spirit of friendliness and good will. Through the courage and perseverance of its early pioneers the town has overcome many, if not all, its handicaps, and has played a major part in the peopling and development of the many towns and communities which have sprung up around — Timmins, Noranda, Kapuskasing, Kirkland Lake, Rouyn, Hearst, Iroquois Falls, Moosonee, Smooth Rock Falls, and almost every point between. Its people have both watched and helped in the development of the great Northland in things ma-terial, governmental, educational and spiritual.

Today the town of Cochrane well deserves the descriptive titles which have been given it — the Gem of the North, the Hub of the North, the Key of the North, the Mother of the North. 

I had never heard of the typhoid epidemic in Cochrane before; I found this story in the Porcupine Advance for April 4, 1923:

Fever Epidemic Now on Decline in Cochrane

Total cases, 476… Eight Deaths, Water Supply Replaced. Board of Health Re-Organized. 

The typhoid fever epidemic in Cochrane is now on the decline, according to an announcement last week by Dr. W. E. George, District Officer of Health, who spent two weeks in Cochrane in charge of the Provincial forces fighting the disease. The number of cases now total 476, there have been eight deaths, and the epidemic has resulted in a general rep!acement of the town’s present water supply. The local Board of Health which previously was in an unorganised state has been completed and consists of the Mayor, Dr. R. Iron, and J. Beeman, A chloration plant has been installed and arrangements made to secure the town’s water from a pure source of supply. The cost of fighting the epidemic, which included the installation of about 80 typhoid beds as well as the services of almost a dozen nurses, will amount to several thousand dollars and means an added burden to the already stringent condition of the municipal finances.

The fight against the epidemic during the recent severe weather was serious work. For many days the temperature was far below zero and on Tuesday last week was 25 below, below, with a bitter gale blowing 50 miles an hour. The work of visiting the various homes with information and supplies for treating contamination preventing further spread of the epidemic was done by four Provincial Health Nurses. Misses Halley, Heeley, MeEwan and Bowman. This is practically the first instance since the introduction of health nurses in the Province that their services have been organized with such effect. Besides these were done nurses recruited from New Liskeard, North Bay and Toronto.

Two weeks have not passed since the installation of the chlorine plant at Spring Lake, the source of the contamination, as as two weeks is the incubation period for germs, the physicians believe that further outbreaks of the disease will only result from infection of existing cases or the cases of exceptionally long incubation. The usual mortality rate in such epidemics is 15 per cent, and even though the death rate may be doubled, the mortal seriousness of the epidemic will have been low in comparison to the number of cases. A notable feature has been that in families of doctors and others where early precautions were taken and vaccine used there is no trace of typhoid. 

Typhoid is “is a bacterial infection due to a specific type of Salmonella.”

While Spring Lake is no longer the source of the town’s drinking water–it’s served by groundwater from three wells–the water plant and the wells are on the shore of Spring Lake, so the geography of the town’s water supply remains much the same as it was a century ago.