How equine flu brought the US to a standstill

A Boston fire wagon without its horses.
A Boston fire wagon without its horses.

Australia’s equine flu outbreak of 2007 may have crippled the racing industry, but an 1872 outbreak in North America brought the entire US economy to a virtual standstill.

Horses powered the economy and the outbreak, which became known as the Great Epizootic, swept across the nation like wildfire.

Official estimates put the number of affected horses at between 80% and 99%. Ports and transportation came to a standstill. Firemen were reduced to pulling their own fire tenders.

Locomotives also came to a halt as coal could not be delivered to power them.

Even the US Cavalry was reduced to fighting the Apaches on foot, who likewise found their mounts too sick to do battle.

The Great Epizootic was first noticed near Toronto, Canada, and in 90 days had spread across the continent. It spread down the Atlantic seaboard to Havana, Cuba, leaving everything in its path in ruins in weeks, while another branch raced west to the Pacific.

A later report suggested a mortality rate of 1% to 2%, although in some areas up to 10% of horses were said to have died from the disease. Philadelphia reported the loss of 2500 horses.

The outbreak forced men to pull wagons by hand, while trains and ships full of cargo sat unloaded, tram cars stood idle and deliveries of basic community essentials were no longer being made. Reporting in the New York Times gives an insight into the extent of the outbreak. “There is hardly a public stable in the city which is not affected, while the majority of the valuable horses owned by individuals are for the time being useless to their owners,” the paper reported on October 24, 1872. “It is not uncommon along the streets of the city to see horses dragging along with drooping heads and at intervals coughing violently.”

Five days later it reported that 95% of all the horses in Rochester, New York, were affected. “Large quantities of freight are accumulating along the Erie Railway in Paterson, New Jersey. The disease is spreading rapidly in Bangor, Maine. All fire department horses in Providence, Rhode Island, are sick.”

The news was no better the next day: “Alarming Effect upon the People, Total Suspension of Travel, Disappearance of Wagons,” the newspaper headlined its coverage.

“During the early part of yesterday, a large number of persons, mostly females, gathered at the corner of Broadway and Park Row waiting for the tram. For some time, they could not be made to believe that the cars had stopped running, but as the hour advanced and not one of the cars came in sight, each began to ask the other what to do.”

By November 1, the Times was discussing the likely cost of the epidemic.

“What will be the effect of even a temporary withdrawal of the horsepower from the nation, is a serious question to contemplate,” its correspondent wrote. “Coal cannot be hauled from the mines to run locomotives, farmers cannot market their produce, boats cannot reach their destination on the canals …”

A four-storey horse hotel.
A four-storey horse hotel.

The writer continued: “There seems to be no longer any doubt that the horse disease has reached Chicago and that several hundred animals are already affected. The fatality arising from the epidemic is on the increase in Boston, with deaths averaging 25 to 30 daily.”

Much of the information available today about the outbreak is due to a three-year research project undertaken by The Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation.

Guild founder CuChullaine O’Reilly said the Great Epizootic was the worst equestrian catastrophe in the history of the United States – and perhaps the world.

“Imagine,” he said, “a transportation disaster that within 90 days affected every aspect of American transportation, everything Americans took granted, everything that ensured their safety, every city, town and village where they lived and left everything in its path under siege.”

One of the major casualties of the Great Epizootic was the city of Boston itself. A great fire swept through the industrial section on November 9, ultimately destroying 26 hectares of the city, comprising 776 buildings.

The area of the city had many wooden-roofed buildings storing flammable materials, and its water supply was notoriously bad.

The original six-inch water-pipe reticulation had been adequate for hand-operated pumps, but could not keep up an adequate supply to the powerful steam-driven pumps operated by the Boston Fire Department at the time. Furthermore, the pipe had rusted down to just five inches in diameter.

However, in the days before the outbreak, the powerful horses used to pull the steam-driven pumps had been stricken by the flu. Many animals were unable to stand in their stalls – a common symptom among many of the horses affected across the country.

The citizens of Boston had to be called upon to haul the pumps through the streets by hand, losing crucial time as the fire took hold in a warehouse holding cotton goods.

“This was a job they did not relish,” the guild noted of the men who pulled the wagons, “not only because of its great tax on their physical strength, but because the long columns of men with the hose lines clattering at their heels were greeted with jeers, jibes, and laughter whenever they appeared on the crowded streets.

“But there were no jeers or laughter on the night of November 9.”

A flu-striken horse is treated by blistering.
A flu-striken horse is treated by blistering.

Delays getting pumps to the scene were crucial, but the feeble water pressure greeting firefighters compounded the disaster.

The official American government report on the Equine Influenza Epidemic was prepared by Dr James Law, a Scotsman by birth and a graduate of Edinburgh’s Royal Veterinarian College.

Dr Law detailed the remarkable spread of the disease, apparently from horses at pasture near Toronto.

Professor A. Smith, a Toronto veterinary surgeon, reported that the first cases occurred in the townships of York, Scarboro, and Markham.

Cases were seen in Toronto by October 1, and in three days it had attacked nearly all the horses at livery stables and those that pulled the street cars. On October 18 it was reported as widespread in Montreal and Quebec and throughout Canada.

Several Canadian horses arrived at Detroit on October 10 or 11, reportedly suffering flu-like symptoms. From there, it spread across the US.

“The majority of the reports testify that animals at grass in mild weather were later in being attacked, and suffered less than those in regular work and stabled,” Dr Law wrote.

“Yet some report that those at pasture and away from all other horses suffered as early and as severely as those indoors.”

The percentage of horses attacked has been variously stated at from 80% to 99%, Dr Law said. “As the reports are mostly written before the disease has quite passed away, it is probable that the latter number is nearest the general average.”

He put the fatality rate 1% to 2% on a general average, “though it has been considerably higher than this in some of the larger cities”.

“The highest reported was at Farmingdale, New York, where it was claimed that 10 percent of the heavy horses had died.”

Noted veterinarian historian, Brigadier General Dr Thomas Murnane, told the guild that the spread of equine influenza from Canada, through the majority of the United States and into the Caribbean, was remarkable.

In the absence of the real thing, men resorted to shanks's pony to pull a wagon.
In the absence of the real thing, men resorted to shanks’ pony to pull a wagon.

“The disease moved from animal to animal and through some residual contact such as public water troughs. Horses were moved by railcars in that era but otherwise the perpetuation of the disease was dependent on movement of horses.

“Today, current transport of horses by automobile trailers or vans and aircraft enables rapid dissemination of diseases.

“How else would a disease move from Japan, quickly, without suspicion of illness, other than through air transport?” he said in response to the apparent source of the current Australian outbreak being an infected Japanese stallion.

“Today we are dealing with international and regional movement of animal athletes who deserve the best in rapid and comfortable accommodations, but simultaneously the arrangements enable swift and widespread movement of infectious animals.”

The population of horses 135 years ago was very distinct from today, he said. “Then, there were urban horses engaged in the transport of humans and goods.

“Now animals are not congregated in urban areas for transport of humans or materials. Rather they are congregated for racing and other sporting events like rodeos and horse shows.

“Although we are dealing with different populations and transport means, the current epizootic of equine influenza potentially may spread with increasing rapidity if not curbed by immediate and drastic curtailment of movement [of horses].”



• Receive a notification when a new article is posted:

Latest research and information from the horse world.

3 thoughts on “How equine flu brought the US to a standstill

  • March 9, 2014 at 5:38 am

    Thanks for a very interesting historical feature. Would love to read more like this.

  • December 31, 2017 at 4:38 am

    No doubt this spurred the early development of bicycles and automobiles.

  • May 10, 2020 at 9:01 pm

    Very interesting, thanks. Interested to know if the research touches on the effects that the 1872 epidemic had on the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent Long Depression.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *