How the ‘Great Scourge’ hit Eagle
Eagle, CO Colorado
EAGLE, Colorado –Death came swiftly to the Eagle Valley in the fall of 1918, and cut a swath that was just as heartbreaking in this small mountain community as it was worldwide.
The source was the Spanish Influenza, an extremely virulent virus that attacked the immune system, and was particularly devastating to young adults. The symptoms included hemorrhaging from the nose, stomach, and intestine. Sometimes victims bled from the ears. The virus was typically followed by a deadly follow-up punch of bacterial pneumonia.
There is no succinct record of how many people succumbed to the flu in Eagle County. However, for several months, the front pages of local newspapers were filled with the obituaries of the victims. Historians estimate that the 1918-1919 epidemic affected at least 500 million people worldwide. The sickness killed an estimated 20 to 50 million, including 6,000 Coloradoans.
The first reports of Spanish flu in the Eagle Valley began in late October 1918.
“Spanish Influenza Claims six victims
The Epidemic is Serious.”
“The epidemic of Spanish influenza broke out in Eagle County with a vengeance last week, and had taken a toll of six deaths … five at Gilman and one at Red Cliff, where the situation is serious. Twenty or more cases are reported from Red Cliff, while at Gilman there are many more. There are a few light cases in Eagle and Gypsum, though none of them have developed seriously so far.
… A physician and nurse from Denver arrived in Red Cliff the first of the week and are assisting Dr. Gilpin, and the crest of the epidemic is thought to have been passed.”
Eagle Valley Enterprise,
Oct. 25, 1918
One death in Red Cliff, Mrs. C.C. Newans, was particularly sad. She became sick while caring for her husband, who was also a flu victim. Mrs. Newans died very quickly; but her husband lingered in a “very low” condition.
The newspaper was wrong about the crest of the epidemic. It was just starting. The Enterprise reported that schools and “places of amusement” were closed, and the Colorado Department of Health issued orders prohibiting people from congregating on the streets and other public places. The frightened public was most willing to comply. At the county seat in Red Cliff, district court operations shut down for six months.
A 27-year-old soldier, Will Stremme of Gypsum, was the first officially reported victim of the Spanish Flu downvalley. Stremme, a wireless operator, had signed up for the Navy the previous year. His radio skills earned him a berth on the steamship “Jason,” on which he made two trips to France.
“He had made many trips across the Atlantic Ocean, escaping the U-boat menace, only to be stricken down by the influenza while in a home port,” reported the Enterprise.
Stremme became ill in New Orleans on Oct. 15. By Oct. 24 he was dead. The community mourned the young man who served his country well, but succumbed to the ravages of the “plague.”
Historians now speculate that World War I was a factor in the pandemic, because the virus spread quickly among troops living in close quarters and weakened by the stresses of war.
By Nov. 1, 1918, the Enterprise reported that at least 25 people were suffering from the flu in Eagle. Dr. Conway was called up to Eagle from Gypsum, where the flu had not yet made an appearance. Among the patients were Mrs. Willis Heyer, Miss Mable McGlochlin, Mr. and Mrs. Hans Larson, Thomas and Frank Gleason, Mr. and Mrs. Leo Buchholz, and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Randall. Charley Johnson was reported to be “near death’s door.”
Three days later, Johnson, 38, a prominent Eagle rancher and Mrs. Heyer, 30, died within three hours of one another. She left behind her husband and two small daughters. “Sorrow was expressed on every hand and a pall of grief hung over the community last Saturday morning,” declared the Enterprise, reporting on the victims of the “Great Scourge.”
On the same front page where those deaths were reported, the Enterprise, noting there had been no new cases of influenza in the past 36, hours, optimistically declared that the epidemic “seemed to be subsiding.” That proved wrong.
The situation was alarming enough that a group of local citizens got together and decided to fix up the Hughes building on West Second Street as an emergency hospital. The 1904 Hughes building, originally a saloon, is the brick structure that was formerly the Eagle Town Hall; and currently houses the Eagle Valley Enterprise and Bogart’s Gun Shop.
“Work was at once started on the project with the result that a first class hospital is now in readiness for use. The Red Cross stood the expense, and the women, assisted by a number of the men, worked hard all week to get this hospital ready, and deserve praise for what they have accomplished.”
Eagle Valley Enterprise
Nov. 8, 1918
Miss Gertrude Quinlan, a schoolteacher who had some training as a nurse, was placed in charge of the emergency hospital the first week.
“Miss Edith Pittshaw died at the John Clark home on the Cooley ranch, of influenza, last Wednesday morning and was buried in Gypsum that evening … Jas. Boni died at the home of his cousin, Louis Boni, on Sweetwater last Tuesday … Miss Emmett, of Bell’s Camp, arrived Sunday evening to assist with the nursing at the Red Cross Hospital.”
Eagle Valley Enterprise
Nov. 11, 1918
Regardless of the newspaper reports, the flu was not subsiding. A second, and even nastier wave of the illness, hit the valley in December.
“Influenza Situation Not So Good in County
A Big Outbreak at Red Cliff, and Wolcott in Grip of Epidemic. Situation not bad at Gypsum or Eagle.
” A second wave of the Spanish influenza has Eagle County in its grasp, and this second attack is more widespread than any time since its first appearance in October. The ranch country is now suffering from the plague, and nearly every community is effected more or less.”
– Eagle Valley Enterprise
Dec. 6, 1918
More than 20 cases were reported in a 10-day period in the country from Wolcott to State Bridge. Roy Ridgeway, a prominent young ranchman from Wolcott, died, leaving behind a wife and three children. The Wolcott neighborhood was so stricken by the sickness that the community could not find enough able people to bury the dead. A half dozen men, including a preacher, came from Eagle to perform the “last sad rights” and to help lay the body to rest in the Edwards cemetery.
There was a serious recurrence of the epidemic at Red Cliff, with 25 cases being reported in a single day. A number of cases were reported at Gilman. There was only active case in Gypsum; but nine cases in the surrounding country were all reported to be convalescent. The schools in Gypsum were closed.
Under the headline “Death Claims Yong Bride,” the Dec. 20 Enterprise reported the demise of Mrs. Marguerite Elizabeth Kano, who had grown up in Gypsum. Married to a Rio Grande Railroad brakeman the previous September, Mrs. Kano initially suffered a slight illness, which developed into a fatal pneumonia. The 18-year-old woman was buried in Eagle.
The deaths of Wolcott stage drive Albert J. Heither and 44-year-old John Diviney, a Gypsum rancher, were reported in the same issue of the Enterprise.
“The influenza seems to be in control, or at least quiescent in this part of the county at present. The cases at Wolcott are all either well or on the road to recovery, and there has not been a case in Eagle for 10 days. The emergency hospital has been without a patient for a week now, and we are in hopes that it will remain empty …”
Eagle Valley Enterprise
Dec. 20, 1918
The frightened public was desperate for a cure for the influenza. Ads began appearing in newspapers for “Spohn’s Distemper Compound,” a concoction that the makers claimed could cure not only influenza, but also pink eye and shipping fever.
The Eagle Pharmacy was peddling a “toner” consisting of sassafras tea, sulphur, and cream of tartar as “one of the surest combatants of Spanish Influenza.” The mixture was also supposed to be good for thick and sluggish blood, caused by winter.
An advertisement designed to look like a news story suggests that Vick’s Vaporub could effectively treat Spanish Influenza.
Snake oil aside, the flu epidemic did start waning after the start of the new year. Some historians suggest that doctors became more adept at preventing and treating the often-fatal pneumonia that followed the virus. Others point to the general tendency of such viruses to become less lethal as time goes by.
In February 1919, the Enterprise reported that Dr. F. Montgomery, who had tended to many of the flu patients, had been very sick for several weeks. The doctor suffered a “complete physical and nervous breakdown as a result of his over-work during the influenza epidemic last fall and early winter,” according to the newspaper. He had often worked for days without rest, and was credited with turning the tide of the first epidemic.
But the flu was not done raging just yet. On Feb. 18, 1919, the Enterprise reported the death of Will Nimon, 26, at the Red Cross Hospital. The community mourned the loss of this popular local athlete and rancher. His wife was also in the hospital with the flu; and the couple had two young children.
In early March, Mrs. Cornelius Brown died of the flu a week after giving birth to a daughter. The baby died shortly after birth. In May, Maria Louisa Juhlin, 30, one of a clan of Swedes who settled in Gypsum, died of complications related to the flu.
The Spanish influenza left the valley as stealthily as it came. The reports of death dwindled. Sometime in 1919, the emergency hospital was closed down, and the Hughes building was remodeled into an auto show room.
But there are clusters of graves in the local cemeteries throughout the county with tombstones that bear witness to that terrible time.
Kathy Heicher is a freelance writer and president of the Eagle County Historical Society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources for this story include the Eagle County Historical Society archives, and the Internet site Wikipedia.