Echoes from Our Past: How the 1918 pandemic impacted Nevada County
Special to The Union
When the insidious coronavirus finally arrived in Nevada County, I was reminded of what happened during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic.
Because many 1918 deaths worldwide were attributed to pneumonia and other causes, and not confirmed cases of Spanish flu, an accurate accounting of victims is not possible. It’s believed, however, that as many as 500 million people (about 28% of the world’s population at that time) became infected. And of those infected, more than 50 million died, including an estimated 675,000 in the United States — 3,500 in San Francisco alone.
Although the Spanish flu surfaced here in the spring of 1918, Nevada County was relatively unaffected and no deaths were reported. That fall, however, a second wave arrived and it was a virulent strain.
The first local cause for alarm occurred Oct. 14, when a Colfax man died from the disease. Then, a former Grass Valley woman died in Alameda and doctors warned it would likely spread here very quickly. The Morning Union immediately began a campaign of public awareness with a slogan as serious today as it was in 1918: “Cover up each cough and sneeze. If you don’t, you’ll spread disease.”
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By late October, dozens of local cases had been reported, prompting officials in Nevada City and Grass Valley to take action. All movie theaters were closed, as were libraries, schools, churches and lodges.
In addition, citizens were required to wear gauze masks when they stepped outside their homes, and merchants were ordered to wear masks at all times. Stores, bars and restaurants were instructed to close by 6 p.m. and not a minute later. The Morning Union of Oct. 23 reported, “(Nevada City) saloons turned out their joy lights and locked their doors so that there was really no place to go except home, and nothing to do except go to bed.”
Despite the safeguards, six more cases were reported in Nevada City the following day, and a dozen in Grass Valley, so Red Cross volunteers began handing out gauze masks at street corners. The Morning Union observed that most people wore them, “except for a few irresponsibles who will probably be first to succumb to the plague.”
Nevada City imposed a $100 fine or 10 days in jail, or both, for anyone spotted on the street without a gauze mask, and Grass Valley soon adopted a similar emergency ordinance. Most citizens complied, but not all, prompting The Morning Union to editorially note that exceptions, “for the most part being those too drunk to know whether they were masked or not, or too mean for anyone to care to go to the trouble of saving.”
But that kind of breezy reporting soon ended.
On Nov. 1, Nevada City miner Antonio Bertoni became the first person to die here. Bertoni, 35, was a native of Italy and had lived locally for five years. Three days later, 58-year-old Gold Flat resident Bill White died, and by Nov. 5, county deaths stood at seven. Two days later, 15 new cases were reported in Grass Valley along with two more deaths.
The local epidemic was in full force.
On Nov. 11, 1918, when the Armistice was signed inside a railroad car in France, Nevada County deaths exceeded two dozen, with hundreds more infected. But the end of The Great War was cause for a public celebration, no matter the risks.
Reporting on an impromptu Nevada City victory parade participated in by hundreds of Grass Valley residents — including Mayor Charles Clinch in the lead automobile — The Morning Union reported, “The celebration was the first affair in history when both the marchers and onlookers wore masks.”
By the end of 1918, there had been more than 300 confirmed cases and 22 deaths in Grass Valley, with Nevada City reporting more than 160 cases and six deaths. Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the county, the Truckee area had experienced more than 50 cases and mounting deaths — including Father Michael O’Reilly, the town’s beloved Catholic priest.
A sense of optimism returned that fall when the Nov. 13, 1918, Morning Union was able to report, “No New Cases of Influenza Here; First ‘Clear Day.’” It seemed that the end was in sight, but it wasn’t — at least not yet. Sadly, just when local residents thought the crisis was over, a third wave of the deadly influenza arrived and many more people were affected.
Fortunately, there was no fourth wave, but when the epidemic finally ended here in 1919, nearly 20% of Nevada County residents had contracted the Spanish flu and about 100 had died.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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