A cholera epidemic hit North America in the mid-1800s and it reached Sandusky, a town located in Northwest Ohio, in 1849, lasting into the early 1850s. Thousands of people fled the city in fear of the disease and half the population either left town or died. 357 people were buried over just 68 days from July to September of 1849, 60 of which are buried in a mass grave.
Cholera, an intestinal infection that usually comes from a tainted water supply, came to Ohio via unsanitary conditions on ships traveling the Erie Canal. During the 1849 epidemic, doctors and nurses traveled from all over Ohio—and some from as far as Philadelphia—to help out, sometimes working in makeshift hospitals. As the townspeople fled, the bodies piled up and according to local folklore, the town drunk (less susceptible to the disease because of his alcohol consumption, allegedly) volunteered to help bury the victims.
The Harrison Street Cemetery, now known officially as the Cholera Cemetery, was closed in 1850 when the much larger Oakland Cemetery opened three miles away. Over the years, the Harrison Street lot was neglected and most of the tombstones were lost. The only tombstones currently standing are three markers for Revolutionary War veterans who survived the war, but not the epidemic.
Today the site is designated as a memorial park with a central monument “erected in memory of the pioneers of Sandusky, Ohio who gave their lives during the cholera epidemic of 1849 to 1854 AD. During this great tragedy, half of the 4,000 population either fled or were called by death. Those remaining rendered worthy service—to their unselfish faithfulness we owe this tribute of reverence and love.”
The grounds were restored in 1924 and given a spruce last year to coincide with Sandusky’s bicentennial. There isn’t much to see in the small cemetery but it’s worth a stop just for the gate alone. I had seen photos before I visited, but the arching letters that spell out “Cholera Cemetery” look like something straight from a Tim Burton movie set.
445-487 Harrison Street