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The Great Epizootic of 1872

The Catastrophe that Brought the US to a Standstill

Most people would agree that failure of or loss of electricity, gasoline,or the computer network that keeps America running would be catastrophic.  Something akin to that happened in 1872 - The Great Epizootic.  The Great What?

Before the automobile was invented and before electricity was commonly used, most people and businesses depended heavily on horsepower. 

Horses were not used just to pull a buggy or wagon.  Horses pulled trolleys, fire wagons, construction equipment, and pulled loaded barges along canals such as the Erie Canal in New York State.  Horses were essential for carrying loads away from ships docked in our harbors, carrying produce to market, carrying coal to the train yards, and delivering goods to merchants and homes.  Horses were used in just about every aspect of American life.  Without horses to move raw materials to manufacturers, goods were not being made or delivered to market.


The Great Epizootic, or equine influenza, entered the United States through Canada and spread in a matter of days to infect thousands of horses, causing cities and farms to come to a standstill.  Even the military cavalry came to a halt as their horses were severely affected by the disease.
By October, equine influenza had nearly a 100 percent infection rate and in two months had traveled all the way west to the Pacific Ocean and south to Mexico and Cuba.  One major factor was lack of modern municipal sanitation, which meant that germs spread much more quickly especially through contaminated feed and water).   Many horses were unable to stand in their stalls. Those that could stand coughed violently and were too weak to pull any loads or support riders.

One of the worst disasters occurred as a direct result of having no horse power.  A massive fire started November 9th in the center of Boston and could not be contained since firemen stood helplessly by watching a large part of the city go up in flames.  They had futilely tried to pull their equipment through the streets themselves, but the fire outstripped their valiant efforts.  Thirteen lives were lost and an estimated $3.5 billion (in today's dollars) in damages resulted from the fire.

Only about ten percent of the affected horses died as a result of the flu but the vast majority were weakened and not restored to full health until the following Spring.  Many businesses and railroad companies failed and were pushed into bankruptcy from being so damaged by the lack of horse power.  The United States economy was so devastated it is theorized that this one event resulted in the Panic of 1873 that lasted another six years until the economy recovered.

There is a lesson here from recent history that being so dependent on one mode of transportation and/or communication obviously could have a catastrophic effect on the United States economy if we are not vigilant and consider the possibilities of such a thing happening again.


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