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The Threat of Typhoid

Part III: The Threat of Typhoid

When the City of Moorhead built its Electric Light and Water Plant in 1895, it took over the water pumping station. Because the water supply of the city came directly from the Red River of the North, residents were cautioned to boil water used for drinking and cooking. But water-borne diseases plagued city residents throughout the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century.



In March 1897, The Moorhead Daily News reported that "a great many cases of typhoid fever are reported in Fargo and a few in Moorhead. The cause of this sickness is attributed to the use of river water for drinking purposes. The repeated warnings through the press and physicians do not seem to be effective enough to prevent the carelessness on the part of many."


Typhoid was the great scourge of Minnesota communities at the turn of the century. The typhoid bacillus showed no respect for age or class or gender.


Although Moorhead’s experience with typhoid, cholera and other waterborne diseases was typical of other Minnesota communities at the time, and average of five deaths a year in the city were attributed to typhoid, cholera and dysentery between 1900 and 1910. Nearly 8 percent of the city’s deaths during the first decade of the twentieth century were due to typhoid and other waterborne diseases.


Early on, Moorhead city fathers determined that sinking deep artesian wells would help prevent the spread of typhoid. In 1882, the first artesian well in the city was sunk at Pillsbury’s and Hulbert’s Elevator. In the late 1880s, the city secured the services of a St. Paul well-driller, who sank a well more than 2,000 feet deep on the right-of-way of the Northern Pacific Railway through the city. The well was abandoned after the city spent $10,000 in a fruitless search for water.


By the turn of the century, it was understood that the city was underlaid by an artesian aquifer 300 feet beneath the surface of the Red River Valley. In that aquifer, a river of water more than 100 feet deep posed the solution to Moorhead’s water problems. At the urging of Electric Light and Water Commissioner W.J. Bodkin, crews sunk a well off First Avenue North between 11th and 12th Streets on the city’s north side.



Moorhead's tree artesian wells off First Avenue North between 11th and 12th Streets
which solve the problem of typhoid at the turn of the century. Photo circa 1922.

When cold, clear water with a temperature of 42 degrees Fahrenheit bubbled up through the well casing, Moorhead was on its way to solving the problem of typhoid. Chemical analysis revealed that the water from the Moorhead artesian wells was as high in chemical purity as any water in the United States; the purity approached that of water in the high mountain streams of Maine.


Once the first well was proved satisfactory, a main was built to connect the well with the pumping station and a wooden storage tower was erected at the well site. Fargo, which built a filtration station, was still using river water, and Fargoans would flock to the Moorhead well site with bottles and cans to take back the cold, clear water for drinking purposes. Farmers from outlying areas of Clay County would drive into the well site with tank wagons. The City established a rate of 25 cents a tank, with no size limits, and by 1910, as many as 50 tanks of water a week were filled during the hot summer months.


The popularity of Morhead's pure water from artesian wells is shown in the photo above
of farmer Henry Stevenson who bought 500 gallons of water for 25 cents in August 1936
so that his "14 cows and two horses may drink" according to a newspaper account.
Photo by The Forum.

In later years, two more wells were sunk at the First Avenue North well field site. From 1905 to 1915, the well water supplemented river water; from 1915 to 1960, well fields provided Moorhead’s entire water supply.


In 1920, artesian water was drawn from three 10-inch wells drilled more than 200 feet deep. There were nearly 825 water customers. Rates ranged from 40 cents per 100 cubic feet for the first 1,200 cubic feet of consumption to 5 cents per hundred cubic feet for any consumption in excess of 20,000 cubic feet.


Beginning in 1925, other wells were drilled in a well field at Second Avenue North and 22nd Street, and by 1936, Moorhead had a total of six wells in use, with a daily capacity of three million gallons. A one-million-gallon steel water tank was also erected in 1940, essentially completing Moorhead’s prewar water system infrastructure.


With its water system securely in place, the renamed Moorhead Water and Light Department spent much of the 1920s and 1930s upgrading its electrical system to keep pace with the city’s growth.



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Next: Part IV - The Middle Years