Heading into the summer of 1833, Lexington, Kentucky, was home to about 6,000 people. By fall, more than 500 of them had died from cholera. The fortunate died fast. Others hung on for days, their brains aware of their dehydrating bodies. Bodies piled up faster than they could be buried. Orphaned children wandered the streets begging for food.
Like many cities, Lexington grew up around a river. The Town Branch Creek gave the city life, providing a steady supply of water for drinking, growing crops, and running mills. When the Town Branch flooded, however, its water mixed with human excrement from outhouses and animal excrement from free-roaming pigs and cows. Because Lexington rests on porous limestone, the aboveground floodwater cesspool seeped into the underground water that supplied the city’s wells. Lexington’s decimation by cholera could have been prevented had the Town Branch Creek not flooded the city.
People set about controlling the Town Branch’s trip through Lexington. They carved and hardened channels to direct the water and contain surges. Bit by bit, they covered the Town Branch Creek with buildings, factories, and roads. In the few places the water remained exposed, it was indistinguishable from a drainage ditch.