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Ephraimitis!

by CODY SCHRECK, Ephraim Historical Foundation director

It’s a summer weekend in 1954. “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes plays on a distant radio as you swim off of the Eagle Inn dock on the shores of Ephraim. Sailboats clip past on their way back into the harbor as Chris-Craft boats make their way out for a sunset cruise. 

The setting is emblematic of Ephraim’s golden age of tourism, but below the water’s surface, something sinister lurks.

As the summer tourist season began in 1954, the excitement of relaxing on the water was overshadowed by a mysterious illness plaguing locals and visitors alike. 

Complaints of intense gastrointestinal discomfort, nausea and fevers swept through the village. So prevalent was the mystery illness that the employees of the Eagle Inn were required to provide stool samples every morning to send Door County Sanitation for investigation.

It wasn’t long before this local mystery illness was dubbed “Ephraimitis.” Cases of the illness had popped up in previous years as well, mostly in early summer. It soon became clear that contaminated water was the likely cause of Ephraimitis.

Ephraimites were no strangers to the microscopic dangers in the harbor; the village had previously experienced cholera outbreaks that generally plagued larger cities in the mid-19th century. The Asiatic strain of the waterborne illness had killed at least seven people temporarily living on Horseshoe Island from 1853 to 1854. Their bodies were laid to rest under stones on the island, while their surviving family members went on to establish themselves in Ephraim.

A historical marker on Horseshoe Island remembers early settlers who died during a cholera outbreak. Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

By 1954, this cholera outbreak was just a historical footnote. Ephraim had changed significantly since it was founded 100 years earlier; it was now home to 11 hotels, resorts and inns that could accommodate roughly 700 guests all together. The largest of these, the Eagle Inn, could house upwards of 150 guests a day.

Despite the illnesses of the summer of 1954, Eagle Harbor saw no shortage of swimmers and bathers. One local even recalled swimming with her friends in the harbor around this time, and walking on a submerged metal pipe that went from the shoreline out into the deeper water. 

Later, that local realized the pipe was a sewage drain from one of the hotels, pumping directly into the harbor. Once the tourist season started, the sewage systems were used more, and more people were there to stir up the water in the harbor, causing increased rates of illness.

Improved wells and wastewater treatment facilities would develop over the coming decades. 

“Ephraimitis” faded away in the coming decades, thanks to improved wells and water-treatment practices. Today, beach water in Ephraim and elsewhere across Door County is tested regularly for E.coli, which is an indicator that the water is contaminated with a fecal pathogen that can make humans ill.

Ongoing studies by the Wisconsin DNR have shown the bay of Green Bay is increasingly at-risk from multiple human factors. In 2023, Ephraim Beach alone had five advisories and two closures due to dangerous levels of E. coli

People still flock to Ephraim to swim off its docks and beaches during the summer. But with the number of ecological concerns facing the bay of Green Bay, one wonders if Ephraimitis might strike again.

REFERENCES

Ephraim Stories by Paul and Frances Burton, 1999.

Horseshoe Island: The Folda Years by Stanford H. Sholem, 1998.

• Beach reports by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, accessible at apps.dnr.wi.gov/beachhealth.

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