The fatal flu: Spanish Influenza took toll on Eagle County in 1918 | VailDaily.com

The fatal flu: Spanish Influenza took toll on Eagle County in 1918

Kathy Heicher
Mountains, Men & Memories

Did you suffer from the flu this winter, slogging through days or weeks of misery and respiratory problems that just wouldn't go away?

You're lucky.

This isn't 1918, and you didn't have the Spanish Influenza.

One hundred years ago, during the Spanish Flu Pandemic, flu symptoms signaled a likely death sentence in Eagle County, as was happening worldwide. It was a time of devastation and justifiable fear. The flu came in waves: first the spring of 1918, then returning in the fall and stretching into the winter of 1919.

"Spanish Influenza Claims Six Victims," reported a headline in the Eagle Valley Enterprise on Oct. 25, 1918. Twenty cases of flu were reported in Red Cliff with even more cases in Gilman. The disease spread downvalley to Wolcott, State Bridge and the Piney country where over 20 people were infected. By early November, another 25 cases were reported in Eagle.

The sickness was virulent, behaving differently than previous epidemics, that targeted the very young, the very old or the very weak. This virus devastated young, healthy adults with the deadly double-punch of an immune system attack followed up by a bacterial pneumonia.

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Death in Local Headlines

The first reported Eagle County victim of the influenza was 27-year-old Will Stremme, of Gypsum, on October 24, 1918.

Trained as a wireless radio operator, the strong young man joined the Navy and plunged into the chaos of World War I. Serving on a transport ship, he made multiple crossings of the Atlantic Ocean and two forays into France, dodging the menace of German submarines. However, he could not escape the deadly virus. He died at a naval hospital in New Orleans. His body was shipped to his grief-stricken parents in Gypsum.

Historians now believe that the flu virus originated in France, and thrived in the massive troop movements among men packed into close quarters with already weakened bodies. In the weeks following Stremme's funeral, more influenza deaths dominated local newspaper headlines.

In early November, Eagle homemaker W.H. Heyer and rancher Charles Johnson died within hours of each other. An up-and-coming young Wolcott rancher, Roy Ridgeway, succumbed to the flu in December, leaving behind a wife and three young children.

The Wolcott community was so rife with sick people that a half-dozen prominent businessmen from Eagle were called in to perform last rites and lay the body to rest in the Edwards Cemetery.

In Eagle, a rancher's wife, Cornelius Brown, caught the flu the day after delivering a baby girl. A week later, both the mother and baby were dead.

Rancher Will Nimon, a 26-year-old Eagle man admired for his baseball-playing talent, fell victim. His sick wife was in the adjoining hospital ward when her husband died. She and their two young children survived.

Gypsum newlywed Marguerite Kano, 18, perished after an initially mild illness developed into fatal pneumonia.

Fighting the flu in 1918

The community rallied to fight the disease. Local doctors worked frantically, assisted by physicians and nurses brought in from out-of-county. Overwork was blamed for the complete physical and nervous breakdown of one local physician, Dr. Fred Montgomery.

Eagle community leaders set up a temporary Red Cross hospital in a one-time saloon in the Hughes building on Second Street (the former Eagle Town Hall). Nurses were recruited from the mining camps. Schools closed and public gatherings were banned.

The frightened public was desperate for a remedy. Newspapers advertisements promised questionable cures via elixirs and salves. The Eagle drug store promoted a healing "toner" made of sassafras tea, sulfur and cream of tartar.

Ultimately, the sickness ran its course. Historians estimate the Spanish Influenza claimed 50-100 million people worldwide. No convenient statistics verify the number of flu victims in Eagle County.

One hundred hears later, the irrefutable evidence of this terrible time can be found in the clusters of graves with 1918-1919 death dates in every cemetery in the county.

Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, can be reached at kheicher@gmail.com.

About the Eagle COunty Historical Society

The Eagle County Historical Society is dedicated to the recording and preservation of local history through educational programs, publishing and maintenance of a museum and archive. Native American culture, mining, ranching, agriculture and recreation have played important roles in our past and continue to impact Eagle County life. For more information, visit http://www.eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com.