The Crestone Eagle • June, 2020

Spanish Influenza in the San Luis Valley

by Mary Lowers

Many historians these days trying to understand the current coronavirus pandemic are harkening back to the Spanish Flu epidemic, which was a worldwide flu pandemic with a history spanning the period of 1917 to 1920. It has been called the first modern pandemic.

The flu was first noticed in midwestern pig farms and jumped from swine to humans at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918. The USA had entered World War I in 1917, and the flu infected US troops on their way from Kansas to the trenches of Europe. In those tight, damp, unsanitary conditions that the flu virus loved, cases began to grow and spread quickly in Europe.

The erroneous moniker of “Spanish Flu” came about because, unlike many other European nations, Spain was neutral in WWI. The majority of countries in Europe were backing one side or another in the war and did not want word of the flu getting out because it would have been difficult to rationalize sending young men into combat with the flu flying through the trenches killing soldiers quicker then the enemy could. The Spanish press reported extensively on the epidemic so it got called the Spanish Flu” because the first time many people heard of it was from Spanish news stories.

The Spanish Influenza, unlike other flu viruses at the time, could kill a person all by itself rather than just weaken them. This virus actually turned the immune system against the body. It was noted, “You could feel fine upon waking and drop dead by nightfall.” It is estimated twenty million people worldwide perished from the disease. In many places, if you go to the oldest cemetery, the tombstones will tell the story of this dreadful flu.

Colorado

The state of Colorado from 1918 to 1919 experienced an estimated 7,783 deaths due to the Spanish Influenza; 1500 of these reported deaths were in Denver.

In  October of 1918, Colorado Governor Julius Caldeen Gunter announced in a public directive: “The Governor of Colorado urges residents not to gather in crowds.” All over the state, schools closed, movie theatres were shut and public transit could only allow a limited number of riders. Colorado mayors banned meetings, church attendance and parties. In early October 40,000 people gathered in Denver’s Cheesman Park to view a new war plane. A week after this, Denver had 1200 cases of Spanish Influenza, including 78 deaths. Illness and death from the virulent sickness increased from there statewide.

The statewide newspaper the Weekly Observer reported “Spanish Influenza was being seen in small rural towns in the state by December of 1918.” Small Colorado towns without doctors or medical resources were hit hard by the epidemic. The Leadville Herald Democrat in December of 1918 reported a Spanish Influenza death, “The casket of the late young who was but eighteen years old was covered deeply with flowers yesterday when Reverend John Judtree of Saint Joseph’s Church read the burial service in the presence of the few friends and relatives for funerals who can gather under the Board of Health ruling.”

A  Weekly Observer obituary wrote about “. . . the late Mrs. Russell Waite who died at Minturn Tuesday after her husband died there of pneumonia.” In November 1919 pneumonia was often the last stage of the Spanish Flu virus’s cycle of death. The story of Mrs. Waite’s death continues: “Joseph Lindquist, of Nederland, an uncle of Mrs. Waite’s, was the only relative able to be here on account of the epidemic throughout the state. Mrs. Waite, who was twenty-two years old, formerly lived in Fort Collins. Her late husband was a former Leadville young man, well known throughout the district. Their infant is sick in Minturn of influenza, but is reported as recovering now.”  Throughout the state families like the Waites were being killed indiscriminately by this flu.

Worst for the young

The Spanish Influenza most often killed young adults and children. The folks most vulnerable were between 21 and 29 years of age. I watched a video of Michael Worobey, a Ecological Biologist, on how flu viruses spread and who in the population is most at risk of infection. Flu has been with us for a long time. In regular flu years 5% to 30% of the population is infected with that year’s flu virus. Annually about 30,000 people die from the flu in the US.

Some doctors and scientists who have studied the 1917-1920 pandemic believe that the flu viruses which cycle through the population annually work in this way: if you have a flu virus as a child and survive, you will be immune to getting that same strain of flu. These scientists postulate that we are immune (many of us are, anyway) to the flu virus strain we were first exposed to as children. The Spanish Influenza, if you follow this hypothesis, must have been a more virulent strain of the flu that people who were over 40 at the time had as children. After the epidemic ended there was a twelve-year decrease in lifespans  nationally. People who had the flu and survived were weakened for life and often died before their time.

There was confusion, as there is today, about the efficacy of certain measures designed to combat the Spanish Flu. The Weekly Observer in late November 1918 reported, “The public is not complying with influenza mask orders. The problem is due to confusion due to orders and counter orders.” Other measures at the time designed to help prevent it included closing businesses, restaurants, theaters, fumigating the mail, wearing masks and gloves and isolating those contagious with the disease from the larger community. A Weekly Observer story reported, “. . . mask to be the law in Teller County. No new cases of the Spanish Influenza in Cripple Creek for two weeks and no new deaths in three weeks.”

Alamosa & Gunnision

In attempts to stop or greatly cut  the spread of the Spanish Influenza, the Alamosa Courier reported a special City Council meeting held Saturday, November 25, 1918 to deal with the epidemic locally. “Be it resolved by the Alamosa City Council acting as the Board of Health: that until further notice, all physicians and osteopaths be and hereby are required to file a written report with the City Physician immediately after diagnosis of each and every case of Influenza, Pneumonia or Grippe. Be it further resolved that all persons known to be afflicted . . . be quarantined and required to remain in their respective dwelling or place of abode until the removal of quarantine by the City Physician; that a placard stating the name of the disease shall be attached to the front of the building.” A fine of $100 was instituted in Alamosa for non-compliance with the quarantine and other preventive and protective measures. pneumonia and grippe (which is a diarrhea that quickly dehydrates a person which, if not stopped, can lead to death) were  life-threatening ailments which often followed the flu.

By 1919 the Spanish Influenza  began to fade. Towns began to open up businesses and schools trying to get back to “normal” The town in Colorado that had the most effective Spanish Influenza protocol was our neighbor to the west, Gunnison. This mountain town followed the advice of physician AP Hanson. He devised and implemented a very strict quarantine on the county. Measures included barriers and armed guards on all highways into the area. If residents left they were quarantined upon their return. In February 1919 the county reopened and Spanish Influenza arrived. Due to the early quarantine measures only a dozen people were infected and the area experienced only a handful of deaths.

Crestone isolation

Crestone dodged a bullet in the Spanish Flu epidemic mostly due to isolation. I examined cemetery records for Crestone with the help of our museum director Jim McCalpin. There were four deaths recorded in the correct period but none was directly attributed to the Spanish Influenza. In 1918 Emma Walrath Segar, who was born in 1844, passed at the age of seventy-four. Two toddlers, William O. Chapman 1917-1918 and Betty Virginia Hall 1916-1918 died in the epidemic cycle. We do not think these deaths were from the flu. Emma Walrath Segar was old and the elderly were not as likely to be victims of this virus. The two toddlers deaths could have been flu-related but infants and young children died with great frequency in those days.

The only other deaths in Crestone Cemetery records are a toddler, Sarah Marie Lamm, who was born in 1919 and died in 1920. Two older people who passed over during the end of the epidemic were Frank L. Thebo, born 1863 and died in 1920 at the age of fifty-seven and Margaret Mayer, born 1891 and died in 1920. While there’s no indication any of these deaths were flu-related, the most likely virus victim would be Margaret Mayer, who was only twenty-nine when she passed. Margaret was married in La Veta in the summer of 1918 and could have contracted the dreaded flu there.

I went up to the picturesque Teton Cemetery off the road going up to the South Crestone trailhead to Willow Lake. None of the grave markers that could be read indicated anyone dying during  the Spanish Influenza years. Crestone, while not by any mandated order, was quarantined by circumstance. The railroad to Crestone had stopped running in 1910, making it more difficult to get here. In the period around WWI the price of gold took a dive and mining was not profitable. Crestone was in a quiet period which helped protect the little town at the end of the road from the Spanish Influenza.

Even in these times of the Corona/COVID19 pandemic, the Spanish Influenza has proved itself more deadly, killing more people than all wars worldwide. In the US when it was said and done, 675,000 people perished and worldwide fifty to 100 million perished. The disease weakened the population. My grandmother, Audra Minnie King Lowers, got the Spanish Influenza in San Francisco. She recovered but was never again healthy. She died in 1927 from lung problems that could have been attributed to the flu.

Viruses are here forever and it seems, looking at the Spanish Influenza and our current corona/COVID pandemic, the strategy that saves the most lives is compliance to protocols. Look at Gunnison County in 1918 and South Korea today; in both these cases a deadly plague on humanity was made less deadly by people determined to make it less deadly. Hopefully we can learn from the lessons of the Spanish Influenza and stay safe and well.