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Throughout the Ages
A Visual Document Resource

Questions: 1830s

Image. Erie Canal. One page from the  diary of Rachel Wilmer.

Diary of Rachel Wilmer
Cholera (1834)

This is a short section of a diary written by a woman named Rachel Wilmer, who traveled the Canal in 1834.

Rachel thought seeing the Canal would be interesting and exciting. Many people traveled the Canal for the fun of it, but sometimes danger lurked.

Sometimes people caught disease or had accidents while traveling and working on the Canal.

What did Rachel say? | Information about cholera.

Here is what Rachel Wilmer said:

"One passenger was taken with the Cholera and left on the road. I was taken very sick on the way but afraid they would think it the Cholera. I did not complain but with the assistance of some opium I got better"

Cholera was a terrible disease that often killed its victims. Cholera spread up and down the Canal in 1832 and again in 1834, the year Rachel Wilmer was touring with her friends. Now we know that people get cholera from flies and other insects that transmit the disease from contact with infected human waste. What did canallers do when they needed to use the bathroom? They used a bucket or pot, and dumped it over the side of the boat into the Canal. This helped to spread the sickness up and down the Canal.

However, most people thought that cholera was spread through the air, although they weren't sure how. If you walked through a canal town like Buffalo in 1834, you might see large pieces of meat rotting on poles and barrels of burning tar. People believed that these things helped clear the air of cholera.

People were very afraid of getting cholera. Sometimes they would not let canal boats stop at their city for fear of getting the disease. Tolls couldn't be collected, good couldn't be delivered, and food became scarce in many cities.

People were right to be afraid. Cholera epidemics sometimes spread to towns and cities along the Canal, particularly in 1849.

More from Rachel's diary