March 26, 1914: Typhoid in Rockville, MD

March 26, 1914: Municipal Journal letter to the editor. Typhoid Epidemic at Rockville, MD. “Prof. Earle B. Phelps for the United States Government at Washington, Robert B. Morse, chief engineer Maryland State Board of Health, a number of others and the writer were recently called upon by the authorities at Rockville to inquire into and alleviate a typhoid epidemic in which two per cent. of the entire population were stricken with the disease. There have been more than 20 cases, but to date there have been no deaths.

Rockville, a small town of 1,100 inhabitants, lies about 18 miles distant from Washington, D. C. It is built on the backbone of a ridge draining into three watersheds. Since 1897 the town has operated its own waterworks, obtaining a supply from two driven wells about 40 feet apart and some 225 feet deep, located in the valley in the direct line of the storm water run off from the town which takes approximately one-half the runoff.

The district surrounding the pumping station is sparsely built up, the town is unsewered and has few storm water drains. Kitchen and bath wastes are permitted to pass into the street and down the gutter. Cesspools and open closets dot the hillside. A small stream passing near the pumping station serves as an outlet for floods, kitchen wastes, etc. The normal flow of the creek does not exceed 4 cubic feet per minute.

The soil formation is clay (disintegrated rock), which is in turn underlaid with rock in layers, the seams of the rock containing clay, broken stone, etc., and in some instances forming open crevices and pockets….

The wells have been in service for nearly 17 years and the people have, until now, suffered no ill therefrom. However, after the installation of the supply, it was noticed from time to time during large storms that inundated the valley, that No. 1 well occasionally supplied turbid water. It was noticed further, that by pumping No. 1 well continuously for several hours, the water level was lowered very materially in well No. 2. Also that when No. 2 well was pumped the water was never turbid. and that the water level in well No. 1 was very little affected. Well No. 1 always seemed to have a surplus of water, whereas well No. 2 dropped fully 70 feet, in fact to such depth that the deep well pump would just draw all the well flowed.

This information should have indicated at once both to the town authorities and the public that No. 1 well was drawing from a surface supply; that the well was not tight, and that it should have been fixed or abandoned.

The sketch enclosed shows the approximate location of pumping station, creek, topography of ground and position of nearest dwellings….About one hour after the water containing dye would flood the elderberry bush the dye would appear in well No. 1. When examined, this water showed gross pollution, whereas water in well No. 2 gave practically no indication of pollution. More than a week was consumed in locating the source of pollution. The first home in which the typhoid had occurred was the one nearest the wells and the one which was polluting the well.

The water is now being sterilized with hypochlorite and use of well No. 1 discontinued, and it has been recommended to extend a 6-inch casing down well No. 2 to the 6-inch well barrel, using a piece of jute to make a temporary joint between pipe and well and to fill the well barrel between the new casing and the rock with cement, to pump and test well as originally tried when the contamination was established, and if it still shows contamination from an analysis after sterilizing and pumping, to drive a new well.”

Reference: Hatton, Herbert W. 1914. Letter to the Editor. Municipal Journal. 36:13(March 26, 1914): 428-9.

Commentary: Well No. 1 would certainly qualify today as a Ground Water Under the Direct Influence of Surface Water. If anyone wonders why state health departments make such a big deal out of GWUDISW, they should read this article. Earle B. Phelps was one of the expert witnesses in the second Jersey City trial that evaluated the use of chlorine for drinking water disinfection. He opposed the use of chlorine in 1909, but he seems to have come around five years later.

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