A century ago, Spanish flu ravaged southwest Colorado

  • Robert Stoufer
    Robert Stoufer
  • St. Joseph’s Miners’ Hospital, pictured here in the early 1900s, was filled with patients during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The hospital, located at 420 Sixth Ave., is now the home of the Ouray County Historical Society Museum. Courtesy Ouray County Historical Society photo archive collection
    St. Joseph’s Miners’ Hospital, pictured here in the early 1900s, was filled with patients during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The hospital, located at 420 Sixth Ave., is now the home of the Ouray County Historical Society Museum. Courtesy Ouray County Historical Society photo archive collection
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By Robert Stoufer

Editor's Note: This column was printed in this week's edition of the Plaindealer as part of a special section from the Ouray County Historical Society. Please pick up a copy to read all about the historical society's upcoming programs and how you can be involved in the organization.

The major means of transportation in the early 1900s was by railroad, so it’s not surprising that the first cases of Spanish Influenza in Colorado were from 250 Montana soldiers who got off the train at Boulder for special training at Colorado University on September 20, 1918. On arrival, 13 of the soldiers were already seriously ill; by the end of the first week, 91 cases had developed. In do, trains came from Denver by way of Salida, Gunnison, Crested Butte, Lake City, Montrose, Ridgway, Ouray, Telluride, Dolores, Cortez, Durango, and Silverton, and continued on to Salt Lake City.

Gunnison was among one the few areas in the nation with almost no deaths. There was a strict curfew with no one allowed to enter the town by road or railroad without waiting out of town for two days of quarantine. This was strictly enforced from the first, and those trying to sneak into town were jailed. All gatherings were prohibited. The one fatality happened when a woman met her sick sister from Denver at the train before the quarantine, and she became ill, too. The sisters went to their isolated ranch and one of the sisters died and the other recovered. The next year, in March of 1919, after the Gunnison curfew was lifted, another wave of influenza did reach Gunnison and 100 people became ill, with 5 deaths.

Regional newspapers published headlines like these, beginning in September 1918:

The Flu is After Us; The Toll is Terrific; Grim Hand of Death Clutches Our Community; Montrose Quarantine on Tight, Town Closed Down. Denver’s newspaper headlines were especially grim due to late and lax reaction to the flu. The State Health Department sent out inaccurate bulletins and failed to enforce a quarantine. Rules made for street cars, and rules banning public meetings, were widely ignored after protest fights broke out in the city.

In Montrose, 2,119 people were given the new Mayo vaccine, without success. Meanwhile, the Montrose Daily Press published the names and home addresses of new flu patients!

Ouray tried to keep the sick miners out of town, while people continued to go and come on the railroad. Under a headline of 150 Cases of Flu Reported in Ouray (12-13-1918), the Durango Evening Herald said: “The town of Ouray, the Gem of the Rockies, that has maintained a shotgun quarantine against influenza, is today reported to be terribly stricken by that dread disease. Last night there were reported to have been 150 cases in the town and 60 cases are reported to be at the Camp Bird mine. There are two hospitals in Ouray filled with patients. The Sisters hospital is used for those cases that have developed pneumonia, the last and dangerous state of the disease, while those becoming ill are taken to an emergency hospital. The disease is reported to be spreading and many deaths are occurring. Sister Mary Gerard, of the local (Durango) nursing sisters of Mercy, who left for there (Ouray) Wednesday for special expert duty, arrived yesterday at 1 o’clock and she telephoned the local (Durango) hospital of the conditions (at Ouray)”.

The Ouray Herald did not use sensational headlines. It continued throughout 1918 to insert small influenza articles among other items in their newspaper. For instance, under the column “Personals, Socials, Small Locals,” the newspaper listed alongside each other, week after week: the return home of WWI soldiers, train excursions of townspeople visiting out of town, deaths from pneumonia at the local hospital, health conditions at the local mines, and quack remedies for a myriad of conditions.

Here are examples from the Personals column of the Ouray Herald, Thursday, December 12, 1918:

1. Mr. John foreman returned to the Mountain Top mine Tuesday after five days of quarantine at home.

2. The Camp Bird people are receiving more than their share of influenza. The mine is closed and every effort has been made to stamp out the disease. To date some 35 or so cases are reported, but all are getting along nicely.

3. Miss Eleanor Kramer returned home Monday after a week’s visit at Piedmont with Miss Lena Hoskins. Miss Kramer came home and went into quarantine at her home in order to help take care of her two little sisters who have the flu.

4. There being no cases on the criminal court docket of the district court, the December term of that court was on Monday adjourned to meet (next) June. This was done on account of the existing flu quarantine regulations. Civil cases requiring attention will be heard in chambers at Montrose, where a jury is not required.

5. (Separate article on same page--an advertisement) “How to Fight Spanish flu by Dr. D. L. Bowers” recommends: Avoid crowds, coughs and cowards, but fear neither germs nor Germans!.. Take a vegetable pill every day...Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets. If there is a sudden onset of what appears like a hard cold, one should go to bed, wrap warm, take a hot mustard foot bath, and drink copiously of hot lemonade...In recovering from a bad attack of influenza of pneumonia, the system should be built up with a good herbaltonic, such as Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discover, made without alcohol from the roots and bark of American forest trees.

From the same Personals, Socials, Small Locals column of the Ouray Herald, November 14, 1918 (next to the headline WORLD WAR ENDS, THE KAISER ABDICATES), and on the same page as the headline INFLUENZA SITUATION SERIOUS BUT NOT ALARMING, are these items:

1. Local election results

2. Sugar Portion (ration) Increased— three pounds of sugar available every month per person,,,i ounce per each restaurant patron per meal.

3. Mr. Edgar N. Orser was an incoming passenger Monday evening from Camp MacArthur, Tx. On a short furlough. He has to spend his five days in quarantine before going to his home.

4. News is scarce and naturally will remain so while the local quarantine is on.

5. Miss Alma Brockway is the latest volunteer to nurse influenza cases. She is at present having charge at the Byron Jones home, where there are several cases.

6. Word has been received in Ouray of the death of Miss Emma Krafft, in California. Miss Emma is the daughter of Mrs. Krafft, residing at Portland, and made here home here. She was a trained nurse, and no doubt in performing her duty she contracted influenza, and death resulted. Her body will be brought home for interment.

Just as there was one Colorado town, Gunnison, which escaped the flu through swift and enforced quarantine, one SW Colorado mine continued its normal production during the 1918-1919 influenza crisis. That was the Caledonia mine in Minnie Gulch located near Silverton. From the beginning of the epidemic, anyone who left the Caledonia mine could not return, and no new employees or visitors were allowed. The Caledonia shipped ore on its regular schedule throughout 1918. Most mines found their shipments drastically reduced or even halted during that time. For example, at Sunnyside mine in Eureka only six cars of ore shipped in November 1918, down from their usual 50 cars.

Excerpted from Rocky Mountain News October 22, 1918:

100 Miners Flee From Influenza Battle is Threatened at Ouray Where Town Has Not Been Affected

Reports from Ouray state that 100 miners from Telluride and Silverton are stampeding toward Ouray, which is free of Spanish influenza, and that a battle between armed guards from Ouray and the panic-stricken miners is imminent, together with reports received at the office of the state board of health of 413 new cases in the state and seven deaths, with many cities unaccounted for, the Spanish epidemic situation in the state showed no signs of improvement last night. The climax may not be reached for several days.

Miners Quit Mines

The situation in Telluride and Silverton is the nearest approach to panic that has yet been reported. Here the miners are fleeing from the Sunnyside mine in unreasoned terror, and are headed to Ouray where a strict quarantine has kept the town free from the scourge. Guards were sent out to intercept the miners at Red Mountain divide, and late last night a pitched battle between the guards and the miners seemed imminent on the pass. The Highline trail leading from Telluride and all the roads leading into Ouray are under guard, and all auto traffic is suspended. The report from the other mining camps surrounding Ouray are said to be alarming.

In the minutes of the Ouray City Council meeting of May 6, 1918, page 285, Dr. Rowan, city physician, asked permission to begin fumigating the city at once. Permission was granted. In the November 6, 1918, City Council minutes, a letter of resignation from Dr. Rowan was entered into the minutes:

Hon. O. Davis

Chairman of the Board of Health

Sir: The action of the City Council in refusing to allow my bill for services rendered to the People of Ouray and Board of Health warrants my tendering to you my resignation as your Health Officer. I cannot live on wind. The same to take effect at once. Trusting that you may find a more capable and efficient officer, I have honor to remain,

Yours respectfully, W. R Rowan, M.D.

On November 7, 1918, City Council accepted Dr. Rowan’s resignation and appointed Dr. L. C. Stadler at $2.50 per day during the prevalence of the present Influenza Epidemic.

In the December 19, 1918, City Council minutes, page 308, the City Council of Ouray gave official expression of gratitude to every citizen for the cooperation and sympathy given to every effort in the Influenza Epidemic.

(Several OCHS members have been working on a revised and expanded book about the Ouray Hospital building. The new book uses as its core the 20-page booklet written by Doris Gregory, which is now out of print. The new book will have several added sections including ones on biographies of the doctors who ran the hospital, babies born in the hospital, duties of nurses, and a section on the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919. We hope to release the book early in 2021, the 50th Anniversary of the Ouray County Historic Society.)