When the cholera epidemic hit the Niagara frontier in 1832, the tourism industry was only a decade old. Still, similar to today, quarantine affected travel to the region, and tourists as well as business owners struggled with when to reopen safely. Then, as now, public health had social, economic and political dimensions. The class and racial inequities of the 1832 cholera epidemic highlight that the most affected were those with the least choice about how to travel and where to live. For the leisured, cholera mostly frustrated travelers’ plans, including notable writers who wished to tour the Falls.
After seventeen years in Europe, Washington Irving, writer of well-known stories such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip van Winkle,” was eager to return home in May 1832 to see how the American landscape had changed. Behind him, cholera continued its yearlong ravage in England and France, from where he sailed. Shortly after Irving’s arrival in New York other ships crossing the Atlantic bound for Quebec and Montreal carried the bacteria. The epidemic had a global impact, traveling from Southeast Asia to the Americas.
Irving set out on his American tour on July 9, 1832. Throughout that summer and fall more ships unknowingly carried cholera, docking in the New York Harbor. The disease, a severe diarrheal infection that, according to the World Health Organization, “can kill within hours if left untreated,” soon traveled the waterways of Lower Canada and New York State. The first case recorded in North America was reported in Quebec on June 8. Outbreaks occurred along the St. Lawrence by mid-June, reportedly reaching Niagara Falls, New York as early as June 22. A day earlier, the New York legislature passed a “Public Health Act.”
Quarantines were imposed in the New York Harbor and along the Erie Canal. Wealthy families evacuated cities, particularly New York City, wishing to remove themselves from the “miasmas,” or “bad air,” they mistakenly associated with the city’s poor, immigrant classes. Prejudice prevented understanding that access to clean water was vital. Cholera claimed over 3,500 lives in New York City alone that summer. It was “the most feared disease of the nineteenth century,” Frank M. Snowden writes in Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2019), with its “gruesome symptoms” and high death rate.
Washington Irving was seemingly unconcerned about “the malady,” however. He is “quite grieved that the cholera and other ‘various causes’” prevent him from meeting a friend “on the banks of the Hudson.” He notes in his journal: “Albany half deserted on a/c of the cholera.” Those who could afford to leave did. Irving determines by mid-August to bypass Utica, “though hitherto I have never avoided the malady, nor shall I do so in the course of my tour.” Irving avoided the Erie Canal altogether, traveling instead by stagecoach, a notably less comfortable mode of travel. He likely heard of deaths aboard canal boats in early August.
As Irving crossed New York state, cholera was infecting the Niagara frontier. The Rochester Gem called it an “appalling scourge.” By late June, a ship from Kingston, “loaded with emigrants,” stopped at Lewiston but was denied permission to dock in Niagara, Upper Canada, after a passenger had died. A month later, on July 23, The New York Spectator reported that a regiment departing Fort Niagara en route to Detroit, “lost 10 or 12 men by death and has as many sick.” Days later, Dr. Lewis Beck, medical advisor to New York’s governor Enos Throop during the epidemic, surveyed the greater Niagara region, mapping the outbreak by town. Near Buffalo, where the epidemic would result in 120 deaths, Beck reported that, “the disease has prevailed to a considerable extent among the Indians on the Reservation. They now, however, adopt a mode of treatment which is said to be effectual in most instances.” No cures existed, and experimental medical treatments were often painful. Harsh “remedies” were inflicted on both free and enslaved Blacks, who, with immigrants, saw higher fatality rates than whites.
The epidemic had not neared its end, but at Youngstown and Lewiston, Beck noted that “quarantine had been abandoned” due to its economic effects. Today some epidemiologists note that Beck, who concluded that the illness was spread not by contagion but by “corrupted atmosphere,” wanted to limit state intervention in trade and commerce as quarantine would do.
When Irving arrived at Niagara Falls by sunset on August 23, 1832, the destination was less crowded than what it had grown accustomed to in the preceding decade. Several newspapers reported that week what was likely an effect of the cholera epidemic on tourism: “It is stated that there is a total absence of all visitors and strangers at Niagara Falls. Although no sickness has reached that place, one gentleman with two companions, was the sole occupants of the saloon where, at the same season, it is usual to meet 300 persons, of different nations and languages.” While cases and death tolls were reported for larger regional cities such as Rochester and Buffalo, Niagara’s “cholera record,” reported mid-September in the New England Christian Herald, states only that, “Several cases are said to have occurred.”
Irving managed to avoid cholera during his three-night stay. Within a month, a young Nathaniel Hawthorne would similarly set out on a Northern Tour. Not yet the famous author of such work as The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne found some early success in travel writing, including narratives on the Erie Canal and on Niagara Falls. His trip to the Falls had been postponed since June, however, “when this accursed Cholera broke out,” as he put it in a letter.
Perhaps like Irving’s bias, Hawthorne felt he would not be among those affected by the illness. Perhaps the sense of personal risk had lessened by September with New York’s declining cases, even as infection rates increased in the U.S. South and West. Perhaps the endurance of the Falls provided comfort in time of uncertainty.
And, perhaps, in reading stories of the past, we can find value in others who had to find their way forward through a changing landscape.
Dr. Jamie Carr, professor of English Chair, Niagara University Department of English. Her book Niagaras of Ink: Famous Writers at the Falls is forthcoming this fall from SUNY Press.