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July 16, 1898: Typhoid strikes at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds

In 1898, 400 members of the Fifteenth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry were hospitalized with typhoid after camping at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Temporary dwellings of the Fifteenth Regiment after
abandoning the Fairgrounds, c.1898

In 1898, 400 members of the Fifteenth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry were hospitalized with typhoid after camping at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. U.S. Army Surgeons decided the epidemic’s source was the public water of Minneapolis.

In 1898 the Spanish-American War began and the Fifteenth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry was assembled. The state expected so many volunteers that it created a temporary camp at the state fairgrounds. Prospective soldiers began arriving at the fairgrounds on July 5, and by July 18, 1,326 men had enlisted. The regiment was one of the largest groups ever assembled in Minnesota. The camp became a center of public activity as citizens came to see the regiment train.

At the fairgrounds soldiers participated in training, parades and drills. Temperatures were abnormally hot and camp hospitals were filled. On July 16th alone doctors recorded seventy-five soldiers in the hospitals. Doctors dismissed most conditions as minor and the result of drinking too much water.

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However, by July 25 doctors began to report men whose conditions failed to improve. Because the soldiers had been drinking so much water, doctors suspected the fairgrounds water supply was the source of the illness. By early August water tests found typhoid bacteria in fairgrounds water tanks. During the course of the month, typhoid became an epidemic in the camp. Soldiers were succumbing at an average rate of twenty per day. On August 23, Colonel H.A. Leonhauser moved the regiment to Fort Snelling, hoping to escape the epidemic. Fort Snelling was unique because it had its own well for fresh water.

In Minnesota that summer, 360 men were hospitalized with typhoid. As the Fifteenth Regiment prepared to transfer to Camp Meade in Pennsylvania to complete their basic training, new cases continued to appear. An additional forty men were hospitalized before the epidemic finally began to decline in mid-September, after the men had reached Camp Meade.

Camp Meade was created specifically by the U.S. Army to remove soldiers from older camps where typhoid had flourished. Typhoid plagued the Fifteenth and other regiments throughout the Spanish-American War. Because of this, the U.S. Army commissioned Dr. Walter Reed and army surgeons to investigate how typhoid spread through the army.

From hospital records Dr. Reed determined that the Minnesota Fifteenth suffered the first large typhoid epidemic of the war. The Army was concerned that the Fifteenth Regiment had spread the typhoid epidemic. They ordered Dr. Reed to find its source. At the time little was known about typhoid other than how to identify its bacteria and that it could be spread by human contact.

Dr. Reed concluded that the origin of the epidemic was contaminated public water in Minneapolis. This was based on the city reporting 300 cases of typhoid in 1897. City public water was pumped from the Mississippi River and was contaminated with waste and sewage upstream. Bacteria could thrive in this polluted water. While the fairgrounds were located in St. Paul, Reed believed that a soldier could carry the bacteria from Minneapolis. Since most of the soldiers had never been exposed to typhoid, they could easily contract the bacteria. Once the disease was present it could be spread to other soldiers and water supplies. While Dr. Reed informed officials of his findings, he had no suggestions for how to eliminate typhoid from city water.

The losses of the Fifteenth Regiment were tragic. Typhoid was the only major source of casualties for the regiment during the Spanish-American War. The U.S. and Spain began negotiating a cease-fire on July 30 and the Fifteenth never saw active service. Ultimately, the epidemic lasted for three months and hospitalized 400 men. Victims were sick for about seventy days. Eighteen members of the regiment died from typhoid. The epidemic raised concerns about public health in Minnesota and nationwide. As a result, because of new attention paid to typhoid and its causes, health services were able to eliminate the typhoid bacteria from public water by 1910.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.