World War I, what was known at the time as the Great War, began in Europe in 1914. In spring of 1917 the United States entered that conflict, and in November 1918 it concluded. As soldiers returned to their homelands they were accompanied by a new deadly flu, the “Spanish” influenza, which soon spread to the rest of the world.

Wartime censorship, lack of expert medical knowledge and other factors meant the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 was far less reported by the news media of that era than is true of covid-19 today.

In hindsight, the pandemic a century ago was one of the worst calamities in human memory. “The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says. “It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919. In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918.

“It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.”

This death toll far exceeded that of World War I. Multiple waves of infection swept the nation and the world, eventually reaching into every secluded backwater. It is partly with this lesson in mind that such efforts are being taken to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Although influenza and coronavirus are entirely different at a genetic level, both are respiratory diseases. And as was the case with H1N1 flu in 1918, covid-19 is a virus newly adapted to infecting humans, meaning that we lack any immunity to it.

Flu touchs Lower Columbia

While influenza’s many impacts were rarely reported with big headlines on page 1, news of the healthcare disaster was conveyed in more subtle ways. Here is a summary of what appeared in local newspapers — primarily the Chinook Observer:

“On the Sandridge road last Sunday automobiles crowded with soldiers from Ft. Stevens and Ft. Canby kept the road dusty with autos speeding to Ilwaco with gunnysacks loaded with sphagnum moss gathered on the Dr. Paul cranberry marsh and other places, to be shipped to Seattle and packed in hospital bandages, and later to be forwarded by the Red Cross organization to the western front in France.”

— April 26, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“Fort Canby [now part of Cape Disappointment State Park] quarantined. Spanish Influenza, the disease that is causing no end of trouble and apprehension throughout the country, is making itself known to this region and Fort Canby has been quarantined with iron bound edicts that will not permit soldiers to leave the post, nor civilians to enter it. The lid was clapped on tightly yesterday afternoon.”

— Oct. 11, 1918, Ilwaco Tribune

“Astoria, Oct. 12 — All public places in Astoria have been closed by order of Acting Mayor Johnson, as a preventative of Spanish influenza. Under the order all theaters, dance halls, pool halls and similar places where people can congregate are temporarily put out of business.

“The order, however, includes neither the schools nor churches, though if it is found necessary these will be closed.

“As yet there is no epidemic here. The action has been taken purely as a precaution. The city physician this evening reported that there were only a total of six cases in town. The administration has experienced no trouble with the proprietors of public places. All have been found willing to assist in preventing the spread of the disease.”

—Oct. 12, 1918, The Oregon Daily Journal

“J. Chester of Astoria, returning from a business trip that took him to Chicago and Detroit … tells of terrible conditions caused by influenza in the middle west. …”

—Oct. 16, 1918, The Oregon Daily Journal

“Chicago, Oct. 15 — (I.N.S.) — Theatres, movies, night schools, lodge halls and all places of public amusement will be closed indefinitely today under order of the state health department, to fight the influenza-pneumonia epidemic. The order is state wide and also affects day schools which have not adequate medical supervision. In the past 48 hours the toll taken from Chicago by the double epidemic is 418 lives. It is because these figures indicate a slight increase in the ravages of the diseases that drastic orders have been put into effect.”

“New York, Oct. 16 — (U.P.) — The Spanish influenza cases in New York today showed an increase. The cases totaled 5113, against 4925 Tuesday. There were 317 deaths, as against 322 Tuesday. The Spanish influenza victims reported since September 18 number 48,024, with 2296 deaths. There were 535 new pneumonia cases reported today. Tuesday 479 were reported.”

“Des Moines, Ia., Oct. 16.—(U.P.)—Fourteen thousand Iowans are known to be suffering from Spanish influenza, according to an official report by the state board of health today. New cases reported during the last 24 hours totaled 6244.”

“St. Louis, Mo., Oct. 16 — (I.N.S.) — Five hundred and seventy-five new cases of influenza were reported today. This brings the city total to 3170. Thirteen deaths were reported.”

—Oct. 16, 1918, The Oregon Daily Journal

“One case of Spanish influenza showed up in Chinook last week, with other near symptoms in the family of I. B. Gerow. About a half-dozen cases were reported at Fort Columbia.

“The post physician was in town Saturday and advised the town people to close their schools, churches and all public gathering whiles the disease was here, so as to prevent further spread of the contagion. The churches, Sunday schools and public school were closed in pursuance of the above warning.”

—Oct. 18, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“Astoria, Oct. 23 — Influenza is rapidly assuming proportions of a serious epidemic in Astoria. Over 550 cases were reported Tuesday. Of this number 4 per cent are developing into pneumonia. This shows an increase of 25 per cent over yesterday and an increase of 1 per cent in the number of serious cases. There were 12 deaths in Astoria and vicinity today and yesterday four deaths were reported. The order closing all public places, including the schools and churches, is being rigidly enforced. The isolation hospital is being prepared to accommodate 25 more cases at once.”

—Oct. 23, 1918, The Oregon Daily Journal

“Astoria, Ore., Oct. 23 — Two more deaths from bronchial pneumonia, resulting from Spanish influenza, occurred last night at the post hospital in Fort Stevens, the victims being Lt. W. H. Nelson and an enlisted man whose name was not made public.”

—Oct. 24, 1918, Morning Register (Eugene, Oregon)

Social distancing

“Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases. You get Influenza from one that has it. Keep such person away from you and you keep away from such person and you don’t get Influenza. …

“You must not travel off the Peninsula. You must tell your relatives, your personal and business friends they must not come to this peninsula while Influenza is epidemic around us. …

“Smother each cough and sneeze and thereby prevent the spread of disease.

“County Health Officer,

“By Lee W. Paul, M. D., Deputy.”

—Oct. 25, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“From The Ilwaco Tribune: ‘Acting upon orders from the state board of health, Health Officer Lee W. Paul has caused schools, churches, dance halls, pool halls, the theatre, and other places in Ilwaco where people congregate, to be closed up until the order is given to lift the quarantine. As a consequence, the town presents a deserted appearance at night.’ “

—Oct. 25, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“The Spanish influenza has not yet reached its peak throughout the state, according to State Health Officer A. C. Seely, who said this morning that the situation was far from encouraging.

“ ‘The outlook is not so pleasant as it seemed yesterday,’ said Dr. Seely, ‘and while new regulations probably are not needed, those that have been adopted to prevent the spread of the disease should be more closely observed.’

“The situation at Astoria was said to be especially bad, and Acting Assistant Dr. Fitzgerald, who returned from Westport this morning, will leave for Astoria tonight.”

—Nov. 1, 1918, The Oregon Daily Journal

“Stop Travel, Is The Advice. Dr. Paul Gets Advice on The Flu — Peninsula Comparatively Free from This Disease. …

“Dr. Paul has a small amount of influenza vaccine on hand, and received instructions to use it judiciously, as it was difficult to obtain much of it. …

“There are five cases of the influenza at Megler, two in Chinook, six in Stringtown, two in Ilwaco and one in Ocean Park.

“There are a number of cases of smallpox in Chinook, but they are very light. Vaccination, says Dr. Paul, if efficacious, is a preventative of smallpox. Both of the Ilwaco influenza cases came from Astoria and are under control.”

—Nov. 1, 1918, Ilwaco Tribune

“The final diagnoses of the eruptive disease prevalent in Chinook for the past two months by Drs. Hempstead and Paul determined it to be a mild form of smallpox, which was heretofore commonly termed influenza and la grippe.

“There have been about 15 to 20 cases, none of which have resulted fatally, and about all the persons affected are now well and around. …

“Just how this disease came here no one knows. Dr. Paul called the matter to the attention of the State Health officer and Dr. Hempstead, and they agreed that it is smallpox, and will come under the sanitary laws of the State in guarding against its spread.

“Under these laws all persons are to be quarantined for two weeks after the last exposure. All having the disease are to be quarantined until all breaking-out is gone, or any exposed person may be vaccinated and quarantined until five days after vaccination takes. Vaccination is considered good for seven years … Vaccination can be done by Dr. Paul or at the Fort.

“The disease has not appeared on any person found to be vaccinated. Fort Columbia has been quarantined against civilians during the prevalence of the disease here.”

—Nov. 1, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“Don’t go to Seattle unless you wear a ‘flu’ mask, says State Health Officer Tuttle, or you cannot ride a street car or enter a business house.”

—Nov. 8, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“The newspapers arrive here by mail every day except Sunday with reports of the ‘flu’ epidemic and thousands of deaths every week. We thought we had two cases in Chinook, but after consultation among the doctors it was considered small pox.”

—Nov. 8, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“Acting in harmony with instructions from the State Board of Health, Dr. Lee W. Paul, local health officer, has lifted the influenza quarantine that has been resting like a pall over this community, and church services, the schools, all theaters, billiard rooms, and other places under the ban will be thrown open to patrons as in days of sweet remembrance of not many weeks ago.”

—Nov. 15, 1918, Ilwaco Tribune

“Mrs. Dorothy Catharine Olney, aged 23 years, passed away at the home of her mother, Mrs. Anna H. Hood of Ocean Park, Sunday, Nov. 9 …

“Mrs. Olney went to Megler a couple of weeks ago to nurse her brother and his wife, and three others who were suffering from influenza. She contracted the disease which developed into pneumonia, and was taken to the home of her mother at Ocean Park.

“For a while it seemed as if she were going to be the victor in the grim struggle against death, but the end came just before noon on Sunday. … [Her husband, Lloyd D. Olney,] enlisted in the 219th engineers. He is now in France, having been in active service about one year.”

—Nov. 15, 1918, Ilwaco Tribune

The cranberry cure?

“No section of the United States has been as free from the influenza epidemic which has ravaged this country as the lower end of Pacific county, Washington. Various theories have been advanced to explain the absence of the epidemic here, the most credited being the liberal use of cranberries by the inhabitants of the Peninsula. …

“While cranberry growers have known for many years that the liberal use of cranberries is beneficial for warding off colds and other attacks, the present freedom from Spanish Influenza seems to demonstrate the beneficial effects as regard this dreaded disease.”

—Nov. 15, 1918, Ilwaco Tribune

“Few soldiers from Ft. Columbia have been seen in Chinook for the past month. Most of them have gone to the front. The picture shows at the fort and in Chinook have vanished. The town is a lively as the flu and war news can make it. Education, the churches, Ladies’ Aid dances, are taking a recess. The Red Cross, the stores, the cannery, and the Observer are the only live factors in town.”

—Nov. 15, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“Miss Jeannette Barrows, formerly a resident of Chinook, left Seattle last month for France to take up reconstruction work. … She is a daughter of Will A. Barrows, the [Observer’s] well known cartoonist …”

—Nov. 15, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“The quarantine ban on influenza and smallpox was lifted in Chinook on Saturday. On Sunday services were held in the M. E. [Methodist Episcopal] Church morning and evening. Monday morning the public school was opened.”

—Nov. 22, 1918, The Chinook Observer

“The ‘flu’ in Portland is declared by Dr. Parrish, city health officer, to have passed into a milder type. … There are still severe cases of the deadlier type, but the percentage is much smaller. Such cases will appear in all probability, throughout the winter. It is still important for the individual to exercise care.

“On appearance of a cold, go to bed where there is plenty of fresh air, and apply the usual treatments. Those who sneeze and cough are especially to be avoided. The orders from the health authorities are for all such to be removed from theatres and other public places. …”

—Nov. 23, 1918, The Oregon Daily Journal

“There are fewer deaths from ‘flu.’ The falling off is noticeable in the shortened lists in the newspapers. City Health Officer Parrish, who has been zealous in the fight against it in Portland, insists that the quarantine regulations have proven effective. These regulations should be supported. Let us be intelligent in handling the epidemic so we may the sooner be rid of it.”

—Dec. 28, 1918, The Oregon Daily Journal

“Death of Stener Siverson — The Only Fatality Among Chinook’s Enlisted Men — The following brief telegram from Callao, Peru, was received on Sunday by Adolph Siverson: ‘Your son died last night of fever. Letter follows. (signed) Parker.’ … Stener Siverson … enlisted in the U. S. Merchant Marine in July, 1918. …”

—Jan. 3, 1919, The Chinook Observer

Crowds bring second wave

“New cases of Spanish influenza reported to the [Portland] city health office today numbered 276. This is the largest total of new cases that has been reported in a single day since the epidemic was at its height more than a month ago.

“Up till the past two days the number of new cases of the disease reported averaged less than 100, following the issuance of orders by the [Portland] city council for a drastic quarantine. …

“Dr. Abele, acting health officer, attributes the sudden increase to crowds that congregated to celebrate New Year.”

—Jan. 4, 1919, The Oregon Daily Journal

“Word was received by the principal of the Chinook school on Friday from the Superintendent of county schools directing her to close the school until further notice, in pursuance of an order from the State Health officer.

“This order was made on account of the large number of flu cases in other towns in Pacific county and all along the peninsula, …”

—Jan. 24, 1919, The Chinook Observer

“What with the extreme bad weather, the quarantine and the interruption of mails and transportation there has been less social and business activity in Chinook than at any time in the memory of the oldest inhabitant.

“We never had so much water in our streets, yards and fields as has fallen since last Tuesday night. The tidelands have been flooded. Every ditch in the town has been choked and overflowed. Main street in uppertown is almost one continuous string of detached pools.

“The rain kept everybody, except those having urgent business in the stores and at the post office, off the streets. The automobiles have been fenced in with rain tops. Cattle have kept in the timber and chickens stood in groups under cover.

“It has been the dullest week ever experienced in Chinook.”

—Jan. 24, 1919, The Chinook Observer

“The quarantine ban was removed on Chinook last Thursday by the county health officer …“

—Feb. 7, 1919, The Chinook Observer

“A wave of deep sorrow and sincere sympathy … was visible in Chinook on Tuesday when word was received from Will A. Barrow that his amiable and accomplished daughter Jeanette had died at Fort Snelling, Minn., at 4 a.m. on March 15th of pneumonia. …

“[S]he successfully completed all the grades that Chinook schools had to offer. Later she graduated from the State Normal School at Bellingham and was presented with a teacher’s life diploma. After Bellingham she entered the University of Washington in Seattle and graduated last June as a B. E., and with a University teacher’s life diploma. Immediately after graduation from the ‘U’ she took up reconstruction aid work at Reed’s College, Portland, and completed the course in physiotherapy.

“In October she was called to New York for overseas duty. The cessation of hostilities changed the government’s plan, and … [she] was sent to Ft. Snelling, Minn.

“If there are any kind hearts that would willingly and tenderly perform the last sad rites and show their affectionate esteem for a worthy young woman and friend, there are in Chinook those who would undertake this for Jeanette Virginia Barrows.”

—March 21, 1919, The Chinook Observer

[Transcribed from “Observing Our Peninsula’s Past, Vol. 1.”]

“Due to the appearance of an acute form of influenza in the town of Chinook, absolute quarantine is placed on that town.

“No person living on this [military] reservation will be permitted to go to Chinook for any purpose whatever, except the doctor.

“No person living in Chinook will be allowed on the reservation.

“This also applies to the entire area between this reservation and the Chinook River bridge on the Ilwaco road.

“When necessary to pass through this area on business, on road or train, no stop will be made.

“Any violation of the above will be reported as soon as seen.

“Lieut. Col. William S. Dowd.”

—July 4, 1919, The Chinook Observer

“The sudden death of Carrie Victoria Ford [age 26 years], wife of John E. Ford, and daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Erick Lindstrom of McGowan, Wash., aroused the sincere regret and sympathy of all who knew her…

“She was taken ill on Tuesday, the 17th, with symptoms of the dread disease influenza, which soon developed into a case of pneumonia, to which she succumbed on Saturday morning, the 21st inst. after being a short time unconscious. …”

—Oct. 31, 1919, The Chinook Observer

On Nov. 7, 1919, the community of Chinook celebrated Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of the Great War.

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