Last week I wrote about the Cochrane, Ontario typhoid epidemic of 1923, after reading my great-grandfather Edgar Caswell’s reflections on it. Today, that’s to Dick Bourgeois-Doyle’s biography of Edgar, I learned that typhoid affected our family directly.
First-affected was Edgar’s brother Bob:
Dad they begun the annual transport of stones in December 1905 and been away from home at a distant quarry, Bob Caswell might have tried to shrug off his sore throat and fever and kept working. But it was the slow time before Christmas, and the family insisted he rest while they sent word for a doctor to come up on the train from Ottawa to check his tonsils. Bob was only thirty-seven years old. His death would be formally attributed to typhoid fever presumably due to drinking “dirty water.” But for over a century, a persistent story flowed through the family that tied Bob’s death to the infections resulting from a sloppy, candlelight, kitchen-table surgery performed by the Ottawa doctor, who had stopped at the pub on the way to the farm. Either way, Bob’s death from infection was miserable. It was the days long before antibiotics and sober doctors or not, there was little that could be done in such circumstances but to hope, pray, and wait. the family felt powerless.
Eight years later Edgar was stricken himself:
At this time in 1913, Ed Caswell was back in Cochrane recovering from typhoid, the disease that had reputedly killed his brother just eight years earlier. Ed picked up the disease trying to make some extra cash working out of town with construction crews on the transcontinental. The diarrhea and fevers of typhoid infection are not helped by the lack of first aid and the rugged ambiance of bugs, heat, tents, and cots out on the rail lines.
Bourgeois-Doyle writes, later, about the affect of typhoid on Edgar:
Of course, ed Caswell had special reasons to be sensitive to the threat aside from his official duties as a municipal manager. The typhoid-linked death of his best friend, partner, and brother Bob in 1905 left an enduring mark on Caswell’s soul, and Ed’s personal brush with typhoid led him into his job with the town and ultimately into his role as fire chief. events flowing from typhoid defined almost everything about Ed’s life now. He was, therefore, among the most vigorous voices warning residents of Cochrane against taking drinking water from the small lake north of town, the one deceitfully and enticingly named “Spring Lake”: the one just next to the town’s lake-like sewer pond. People usually drew their water from a chain of springs near the lake. but when the springs ran low or were clogged by ice, it was just too easy to dip a bucket into the open water of Spring Lake. In the early months of 1923, the sewer lake backed up and overflowed, possibly due to blockages of ice or unexpected runoff. Its toxic waters flowed along the ground and dripped into water that too many people were drawing for their homes. The town had been booming and growing, and this meant greater and greater water consumption.
Today the Town of Cochrane has a robust and, by all appearances, well-monitored and regulated water and sewer utility.
If you’re interested in learning more of the story of Edgar Caswell, track down Stubborn: Big Ed Caswell and the Line from the Valley to the Northland.