Every day we learn more about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy of America and countries worldwide. But this is not our first rodeo. In 1872, an equine flu epidemic brought North America to a halt. That was before 1886, the birth year of modern cars. Automobiles only became accessible to all in 19o8 when the Ford Motor Company’s Model T Ford came onto the market.
U.S. growing economy paralyzed
The young nation’s industrialization was booming and expanding in 1872. Horses played an essential role in every aspect of the nation’s growth. What happened then is comparable to a fossil fuel shortage today, or maybe a Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, a deadly equine flu virus spread at an incredible rate among mules and horses in Canada at first. Alarmingly, it wasted no time in spreading to Central America.
The importance of horses to the economy
Horses were the essential source of energy in the building and operations of cities. The deadly equine flu that paralyzed the economy underscored the vital partnership between humans and horses. Without the horses, everything came to a halt.
Equine influenza first affected the economy of Canada
In September 1872, horses in pastures around Toronto were first infected. It took only a few days for the virus to spread through the city’s crowded horse stables. The U.S. government attempted to prevent horses from Canada to enter the U.S. However, they could not stop what they called the “Canadian horse disease.” By December, the North American epidemic affected horses in the U.S. Gulf Coast and cities on the West Coast also experienced an outbreak early in 1873.
Symptoms of equine flu
The symptoms of the infection were evident and unmistakable. The rasping cough, ears drooping and fever had the horses staggering around until they dropped from exhaustion. Estimates at the time indicated that approximately 2% of the eight million North American horses died from equine influenza. The horses that survived took weeks to recover enough to walk any distance.
Steps horse owners took to treat infected animals
At that time, it was still 20 years before scientists identified viruses. Owners used new blankets to cover the horses, improved their feed and disinfected the stables. Furthermore, with the primitive veterinary care of the time, many of the promoted remedies proved dubious. For example, they used arsenic tinctures, mixes of gin and ginger, not to mention faith healing efforts.
The effect on the economy and social lives of Americans
The fear of many that the virus would transfer to humans never happened. However, the sudden loss of horses by the millions cut off food supplies to cities. Most importantly, with the coming winter, fuel supplies also halted. The epidemic stopped coal transport from the mines, hauling crops to markets and raw materials to industries. The short supply of coal caused soaring fuel prices. Furthermore, produce at the docks rotted, and depots overflowed with produce because train operators were selective in their choices of where to stop.
Producers hired people to replace horses and drag loaded wagons to markets, and postmen carried mail on wheelbarrows. Many people stopped attending funerals and weddings because they had to walk there. Not to mention the calamity of the saloons running dry because beer deliveries stopped.
Fires burned out of control
With no horses to pull the heavy water pump wagons, firefighting became inefficient. A massive fire gutted Boston’s downtown area early in November 1872 because it took firemen so long to travel to the fire on foot. The social lives of citizens dried up because of the lack of transport.
An advocate for animal cruelty stepped up
Callous and often desperate horse owners forced the animals to work despite their illness, often until they dropped dead. Henry Bergh began his crusade against animal abusers in 1866. He established the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh took it upon himself to get anti-cruelty statutes passed by New York’s legislature. The law granted him police powers. Along with New York City’s other law officers, he patrolled the streets to protect horses from their cruel owners.