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Nevada County Volunteers battled 1918 pandemic

Gage McKinney
Special to The Union

In 1918-19 the Spanish influenza, passing in waves, infected about 20% of the population, killed about 100 people and left dozens of orphans in Nevada County. If not for volunteers, it would have been worse.

Medical resources were already stretched when local cases were reported in October 1918. Many doctors had enlisted for World War I. Grass Valley’s Dr. Carl Jones, for example, was directing a naval hospital in South Carolina. As a consequence, Nevada County relied on nurses from the county hospital near Nevada City and the Jones hospital in Grass Valley. Red Cross nurses and medical students came from outside the county to help. They were soon overwhelmed.

Facing an alarming situation, Grass Valley Mayor William J. Mitchell, a butcher, asked the County Board of Health to open a temporary facility to relieve the hospitals. The county opened an emergency hospital on Pleasant Street in a retreat center at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. The Grass Valley Ladies Relief Society funded it and Red Cross nurses and volunteers staffed it.

As medical science knew nothing of viruses in 1918, a vaccine was inconceivable. The people who helped patients most were professional nurses, and on Pleasant Street a registered nurse supervised volunteers who brought relief to dozens of patients.

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Many chose not to cower but to fight, and in volunteering they found courage.

When the towns and county required everyone to wear a mask, 60 women and girls took up their needles to sew them and then handed them out on street corners and at the railroad depot in Grass Valley. Another corps of women sewed masks in Nevada City.

Volunteers came from every quarter. Women from the most prominent families in Nevada City soothed patients. In Grass Valley, Dorothy Starr, daughter of the Empire Mine’s managing director, drove a Red Cross ambulance. When funeral homes were overwhelmed, volunteers drove hearses. For many people sheltered in their homes the U.S. Mail was a vital connection. When postal workers succumbed to flu, volunteers stepped into the ranks, including Nevada County teenager Mattie Luther, who served her rural route in storms and ice.

One of the best remembered volunteers was the man the Morning Union called “the sage of Chinatown,” Yuen Yen Sing. He preferred his nickname, “Ah Louie.” Born in China, he came to California when young and lived in Grass Valley for more than 50 years. The racial exclusion laws of the time left him ineligible for U. S. citizenship, but the newspaper called him “a foster son of Uncle Sam.” “Ah Louie would do anything humanly possible to help the community.”

Ah Louie kept one of Grass Valley’s Chinese temples, sold fruit and vegetables from baskets on a pole, and cared for Memorial Park. He volunteered with the fire department, was often the first man on the scene and was adept at connecting hoses to hydrants.

After flu broke out, Ah Louie volunteered as the Red Cross messenger. He knew every corner of Grass Valley and walked miles every day delivering instructions, medicine and supplies as directed by a nurse. He walked into infected houses showing no fear, delivered supplies and brought back reports in his broken English. Ah Louie lived to become the oldest member of the fire department and to wear his helmet and silver GVFD badge in Fourth of July parades. But he spoke with greatest pride of his role in the pandemic.

During the flu pandemic of 1918-19 some American communities, especially in the east where the flu struck first, became immobilized by fear. In some places people turned inward and neglected their neighbors. This was especially true where local newspapers under reported the situation. In Nevada County the newspaper reported the pandemic fully and factually, enabling citizens to make informed choices. Many chose not to cower but to fight, and in volunteering they found courage.

Across our county today one hears people calling from a distance, “Hang in there” or “Stay well.” In 1918-19 people here hung in and came through due to the resolve of professionals and the spirit of volunteers.

Author and historian Gage McKinney volunteers with the Grass Valley Downtown Association. For information on his books, visit http://www.gagemckinney.com.


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