Tales from the Tread: 1918 flu epidemic
“After the burial, I felt as if I was crawling back to the ranch, maimed and hurt. I returned home to a cold house. I tried not to look at the medicine bottles crowded onto the little night stand table or the couch drawn next to the stove where Dick had fought his last battle and lost. The room looked indeed as though a battle had been fought in it. A man’s life had been lost. He had been the other half of my life.”
— Margaret Duncan Brown, Clark, CO rancher, 1918, Shepherdess of the Elk River Valley
We usually think of the flu as a fairly mild illness. It strikes every winter, and while it’s certainly not fun to catch, most people recover in a week or so. The average death rate of seasonal flu is one tenth of one percent of those who catch it.
This year, the circulating flu strain has been more serious, even triggering complications in otherwise healthy patients.
In 1918, the same thing happened on a massive scale. A particularly deadly strain of flu circled the world and killed about 2.5 percent of its victims.
More than a quarter of the U.S. population became ill, and 7,783 Coloradans died of influenza in 10 months.
The 1918 flu, sometimes called the Spanish Flu, reached Colorado on or about Sept. 20, 1918, when soldiers arrived in Boulder and Colorado Springs for training. Thirteen of the soldiers in Boulder and 25 in Colorado Springs came to the state already sick. From these two areas, the flu spread rapidly across Colorado.
Measures taken to halt the epidemic included increasingly strict bans on public gatherings — including funerals — and encouragement to wear gauze face masks, not spit in public and to see the doctor at the first sign of illness.
Hayden enacted a town-wide quarantine, turning away travelers. Special officers enforced strict regulations on both business and recreation within its borders. Other Routt County towns closed schools, theaters and churches.
Many small, isolated towns had few or no flu cases through September and October while the illness ravaged other parts of the state, country and world.
Newspapers in Routt County reported on the flu throughout 1918, publishing health advice and optimistic reports of the low numbers of flu cases in the area.
By late October, local papers suggested that the worst of the epidemic had passed. Unfortunately, it was only delayed.
Craig reported 125 new cases in one week on Nov. 1. The same day, the Routt County Sentinel wondered if there had ever been as long a list of deaths in a single week in the history of Routt County.
Steamboat Springs, which had banned public gatherings and closed local schools a month before as a precaution, was struck just before Thanksgiving.
On Nov. 22, the Steamboat Pilot made no attempt to list those who were sick, “there being cases in every part of town and in a great many different families.”
Even Carl Howelsen, the man who brought Nordic skiing to Steamboat, was struck by the flu. He was hospitalized in early December.
Margaret Duncan Brown, who lived with her husband on a ranch on the Elk River north of Steamboat, recorded her experience with the deadly flu in her diary.
Her husband contracted the flu on a business trip to Colorado Springs. He returned home sick Thanksgiving Day and died five days later.
When Brown took his body into town, she found the death toll had been so high that there were no coffins available in Steamboat, and the undertaker had to use orange crates.
Brown’s writings were later compiled into the book “The Shepherdess of Elk River Valley.”
Brown wrote of the unexpected epidemic, “To this day I am appalled by the stark tragedy of life in not knowing what the next moment may have in store for us, at the suddenness with which the inevitable strikes at our complete unpreparedness.”
By early 1919, the epidemic had begun to wane. On Feb. 5, the Steamboat Pilot reported the number of patients in county hospitals had finally returned to normal for the first time since the epidemic began.
For the family members who survived and lost loved ones, the flu epidemic’s impacts would last lifetimes.
The following were sources for this column.
• “The 1918 influenza outbreak: An unforgettable legacy,” by Special to the Denver Post, The Denver Post online, April 30, 2009/updated June 13, 2016.
•“Local Happenings,” The Steamboat Pilot, Dec. 4, 1918.
•“The flu can kill tens of millions of people. In 1918, that’s exactly what it did.” by Ashley Halsey III, The Washington Post online, Jan. 27, 2018.
• “The Shepherdess of Elk River Valley,” by Margaret Duncan Brown
•“‘Flu’ Situation Becomes Serious,” and “Roll of Death is Long,” The Routt County Sentinel, Nov. 1, 1918.
•“Steamboat Starts Late With Flu, In Mild Form,” The Routt County Sentinel, Nov. 22, 1918.
•“Influenza Encyclopedia” digital archive, influenzaarchive.org
•“Section Visited by Dread Plague and Five Victims,” The Steamboat Pilot, Nov. 27, 1918.
•“Colorado News Notes,” The Steamboat Pilot, Feb. 5, 1919.
Emily Eldridge is an intern at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
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