More than 100 died here from ‘Spanish Flu’ |

More than 100 died here from ‘Spanish Flu’

Gage McKinney
Special to The Union

One hundred years ago death rode its pale horse through Nevada County, fraying nerves in every household.

The mass killer of the autumn and winter of 1918-19 was later identified as the H1N1 virus, the pathogen behind the influenza pandemic. It took more than 100 lives in Nevada County, and according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 50 million around the world.

The virus may have originated near an U. S. Army base in Kansas, among troops in France or with Chinese laborers in Europe. In any event, the massing and movement of troops during World War I spread the disease across oceans and to the remotest corners of the world.

The earliest cases were mild, and soldiers called the disease “three-day fever.” But the war had created ideal conditions for the viral mutations that would produce a deadlier strain. With governments preoccupied with the war, and medical personnel and supplies already stretched thin, civilian populations were uncommonly vulnerable.

During the war, newspapers in belligerent countries censored reports of sickness among soldiers, fearing it could aid the enemy. The newspapers that openly reported the pandemic were in neutral Spain. After people mistakenly assumed the flu began there, it became “Spanish influenza.”

The first wave of flu petered out in summer 1918, but a second wave rose in September. The common flu which circulates most every year kills one patient in 1,000. This new strain killed 25 in 1,000.

In October 1918 people in Nevada County read of civilian outbreaks in eastern states and then in San Francisco. The first local case was reported at Gold Flat (near Nevada City) on Oct. 19. On Oct. 22, The Union reported a few cases in Grass Valley and five deaths in Truckee.

The Truckee deaths prompted the Nevada County Board of Health, led by Dr. Frank X. Baxter, to suspend indoor public gatherings and close schools, theaters, churches and lodges. Citizens were required to wear gauze masks in public. Masks were handed to passengers arriving on the narrow-gauge railroad.

The flu often began with a dull headache and burning eyes. The patient would feel head and muscle ache, start to shiver and take to bed, still chilled under a pile of blankets. Many patients fell into delirium.

The Union’s editor, Edmund Kinyon, said a well person one day might be in the hospital the next and dead on the third day. On the other hand, victims reported dying one day might be convalescing the next.

Most people remained at home, but serious cases were taken to the Grass Valley’s Jones Hospital. “There,” Kinyon wrote, “the nurses were over-worked and terribly fatigued, and at least two contracted the disease.”

To relieve the strain on the hospital, the Board of Health, Red Cross and Ladies Relief Society opened an emergency hospital in a house provided by St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. Patients were admitted “regardless of color or creed” or ability to pay.

By the end of October Grass Valley had nearly 100 cases. An infant died and then the first adult, Norman Skewes, a conductor on the electric streetcar linking Grass Valley and Nevada City.

In November Grass Valley had as many as four deaths a day. Flu killed, for example, Lillian Pine and her two sons. Her husband and three daughters recovered. The epidemic left hundreds of orphans scattered across the county.

The Rev. Foster at Grass Valley’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church personally conducted at least 14 funerals. While presiding at one open-air service, he was arrested for removing his mask and led away, as he said, “like any old drunk.”

The epidemic subsided in late November and early in December schools reopened and lodges met for the first time in six weeks. Theaters remained dark, but churches assembled again with good attendance.

Before the year ended, however, the third wave arrived. By Dec. 28 Grass Valley had closed its schools again and reported 100 new cases of flu. With the third wave the virus had mutated back to a less virulent form. As evidence, all but two of the 71 children at St. Patrick’s orphanage came down with the disease and all recovered.

The epidemic subsided at last and schools reopened in February 1919 in Grass Valley and Nevada City. By then flu had infected about a quarter of the county’s population. In Grass Valley it infected more than 300 families.

The dead included the very young and very old, with weak immune systems, and young adults with robust health. About a third of county fatalities were between the ages of 20 and 40. In reacting to such a virulent invader, a healthy system could kill the body it tried to defend.

The heroes of the pandemic were the nurses and women who stepped forward to help them. At the local hospitals, Kinyon reported, volunteers under the director of a registered nurse “grappled with the situation like veteran nurses on the war front.”

Another well-remembered volunteer was Ah Louie, keeper of a Chinese temple in Grass Valley. As the Red Cross messenger, he carried instructions into infected homes without concern for himself.

The Union’s reporters did their best to lighten the darkness. They reported playfully on men sporting newly-grown beards, mustaches and Van Dykes behind their masks. A news story described boys putting a gauze mask on Old Bill, the Wells Fargo delivery horse.

But nothing masked the disillusionment. The pandemic called into question popular notions of progress. Editor Kinyon remembered the pandemic as “a kind of taunt” that said the sum of scientific inquiry and medical knowledge was little more than “a rag.”

Gage McKinney is an occasional contributor to The Union. Brita B. Rozinsky and Sally Knutson helped to research this article.

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