Bloomington’s streets were eerily quiet for several weeks in late November and early December 1872. Missing from the normally bustling downtown and surrounding neighborhoods were horses, and in the age before the internal combustion engine and the automobile, it was difficult to get from here to there without flesh-and-blood horsepower.
The Great Epizootic, which had already ravaged the East Coast and major inland cities such as Chicago, had finally reached Bloomington. Nearly every horse, mule or donkey for miles around was sick or dying, relegated to barn or stable until the highly communicable strain of equine influenza burned through the area.
Until it was over, it was difficult to shuttle passengers and goods from railroad depot to factory, store or home, since dray and omnibus lines (respectively, delivery trucks and taxis of the day) had no healthy animals. Public transportation also came to a halt, given that horses in Bloomington-Normal and hundreds of other communities were needed to pull street railway cars. (This was before the electric era.)
The equine influenza was known as the horse flu or, more popularly, the horse epizootic (a word for a non-human epidemic). Symptoms included a fever, nasty cough and heavy mucus discharge from the nose and mouth. For several days or more, infected horses would be listless, with heads cast down and little interest in either food or water, unable to pull or carry loads.
The 1872 North America epizootic was the largest recorded outbreak of its kind in history.
The first case appeared outside of Toronto, Canada in late September. By Oct. 10 it had crossed the international border and reached Detroit. The epizootic then swept through the U.S., eventually reaching Cuba, Mexico and even into Central America. It was still sweeping through Arizona Territory settlements as late as March 1873.
The percentage of horses infected in the continental U.S. is placed at anywhere from 80 percent to the high 90s. Mortality rates were highest in urban environments, reaching 10 percent in some cities, though more often than not the 1872 outbreak killed between 1 percent and 2 percent of the horse population in any given community.
The epizootic reached Bloomington the third full week of November. The Daily Leader, a long-defunct Bloomington newspaper, reported Nov. 22 that nearly all the horses in the downtown Ashley House stable had a “suspicious cough.” There were other ominous signs as well. “One of General [Asahel] Gridley’s horses is down, and is pronounced a clear case [of the epizootic],” added the paper. “Dr. [Asa P.] Tenney, also, has a horse that is not expected to live.”
The Pantagraph agreed with its competitor that the epizootic was here. “It is now estimated that about 200 horses have been attacked in this city within three days,” announced the paper’s Nov. 23 edition.
Oxen, unaffected by the epizootic, were drafted into service, and for two long weeks human muscle often supplanted horsepower. “Many of the grocery merchants are delivering groceries with wheelbarrows and handcarts,” commented the Nov. 29 Leader, “and in some instances wagons are hauled through the streets by men.” Marion Chuse, chief engineer of the Bloomington Fire Department, announced that horses of engine company No. 1 were out of commission, and in the event of a fire, he called for volunteers to “man the ropes.”
Clover Lawn, the residence of David and Sarah Davis on the city’s east side (now the David Davis Mansion State Historic Site) was completed in the year of the Great Epizootic. On Nov. 29, Sarah Davis mentioned the outbreak in a letter to her husband David, then a U.S. Supreme Court justice. “The sickness of the horses makes it inconvenient to get coal hauled—and to save the coal we have on hand—we burn large logs in the furnace,” she wrote.
Yet within a week of that letter, the influenza’s grip on the local horse population began to loosen. Street railway service was up and running by Dec. 7, and once again the horse enjoyed dominion over Bloomington’s thoroughfares. Thankfully, local fatalities were few, probably numbering no more than a few dozen in the city.
During the early days of the outbreak, the Leader commented on the prospect of life — if only for a week or two — without horses. “The people of this city,” the paper stated, “will have an opportunity to learn the real value of the noble horse, and how much we are all dependent upon ‘man’s best friend’ among the brute creation for comfort and convenience.”