Then and now: A pandemic disrupts life in Routt County
A look at the effects of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic on Routt County — similarities to today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — To keep from getting sick, Routt County residents were advised to avoid people with colds, cover their mouths and noses when coughing and sneezing, and stay home if sick, according to Christine McKelvie’s book, “Is There a Hospital in This Place? A Century of Hospital Care in Steamboat Springs.”
Those directives might sound familiar having become a sort of mantra in the current COVID-19 pandemic. But the orders referenced by McKelvie’s book were given in October 1918, just as the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic began to hit the Yampa Valley.
“Keep your living rooms well ventilated,” was suggested on a list published Oct. 9, 1918, in the Steamboat Pilot. “Keep the room where you work full of fresh air. Keep the children who have bad colds away from school. Spend all the time you can out of doors. Keep your body in a healthy condition. Do not neglect what you may call a bad cold.”
Schools, pool halls, picture shows, theaters and churches were shuttered. Orders were issued forbidding public gatherings.
“Crowds will not be permitted to assemble in public or private places,” according to an Oct. 11, 1918, article in The Oak Creek Times. “You can do your shopping, transact your business, call on your best girl provided you don’t tarry too long.”
In 10 months, 7,783 Coloradans died of the Spanish flu, which was the H1N1 virus.
“The parallels, to me, have seemed pretty striking,” Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington said of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic raging full force into 2021. “We keep re-learning the lessons of history. We knew back then we needed to act early.”
During the 1918 pandemic, surgeries were suspended at the hospital. Mass quarantine orders were given, and then rescinded, before having to be put back into place. Some people abided by the ban on gatherings, while others did not. School reopenings were postponed.
“It’s worth looking back,” McKelvie told Steamboat Pilot & Today on Friday. “I don’t see how we can interpret the present without knowing about the past. To me, history is alive and extremely important.”
In April, Steamboat Springs Chamber Economic Development Director John Bristol spent several weekends researching the 1918 pandemic.
“You really have to be a student of history and understand the past to try and understand what is happening now, and to even have a glimpse of what is over the horizon,” he said.
Bristol said in his professional role, he wanted to be able to frame what was happening in the context of history.
“First and foremost I saw the county had gone through this before.” But the research also indicated to Bristol it was going to be a long road ahead. “I felt uncomfortable in that — I felt like an outlier,” he said. “At my core I am a glass half full optimist. At the time, I felt like a pessimist. That’s not my nature.”
And he knew the impact to certain business sectors might be brutal — and they needed to prepare.
Bristol saw, then and now, the fear and the uncertainty. He knew there would be “multiple false summits.”
Still, Bristol found it helpful to view things in the larger context of history.
In her decades working for the hospital, McKelvie said she knew health care professionals were always expecting and preparing for a pandemic.
While the pandemic didn’t surprise her, she said, “I can’t say I predicted so many of the things that are happening and have happened. I didn’t know it would be this serious or long lasting. I didn’t realize people would resist science and facts as much as they are. And that of course can extend the contagion.”
For Routt County, local historian Jim Crawford compiled a list of 31 deaths attributed to the Spanish flu, though that is “far short of the true impact,” he wrote. “There are no exact figures for the effect of the pandemic on the county, since many residents only lived part of the year in Routt County, or were off to college, or in the army or fighting in the War, or went to Denver when they became sick.”
A pandemic emerges
Known best as the Spanish flu, the novel strain of influenza infected about 500 million people across the globe, killing an estimated 50 million people — including about 675,000 people in the U.S.
Spain was not the origin of the deadly virus, with scientists now thinking it either started in Britain, China, France or the U.S. Spain was neutral at the time during World War I, while other countries limited reporting on the public in an effort to boost morale. Thus, much more was known about the flu’s impact in Spain.
The first documented case of the virus was reported March 11, 1918, at a military base in Haskell County, Kansas.
“Almost before the appearance of the first case of influenza in Steamboat Springs, Mayor Archie Wither issued a proclamation last Saturday, ordering that all public gatherings be discontinued in this town until the abatement of all danger of the epidemic,” describes an Oct. 18, 1918, article in the Routt County Sentinel. “This was followed by a proclamation by Dr. William Kernaghan, county health officer, closing all towns and camps in the county, and then came an order from Gov. Gunter, on Wednesday, extending to the entire state.”
Oak Creek was hit first with the illness, according to the newspapers. On Oct. 11, in the Oak Creek Times, Dr. J.H. Cole stated: “Frank Lalick, a Pole, who worked for the Moffat Coal Company, was a probable victim of the Spanish Influenza.”
Lalick’s flu progressed to pneumonia, which was often how the flu was fatal.
“In 1918 people were dying like flies with the flu,” said Helen Morrow, in a quote from the Tracks & Trails Museum’s archives.
Morrow, a nurse, was the wife of Oak Creek physician, surgeon and mayor Dr. E.L. Morrow.
“We turned the hospital into a flu hospital. People were afraid to come in and help because the disease was so deadly. Dr. and I worked around the clock taking care of those sick people,” she said. “We were pretty successful because we gave such constant care. One night I said, ’Dr. I don’t feel so good.’ He said, ‘I don’t feel good either.’ We both thought that was the end, and we had it too. We each took some aspirin and a dose of whiskey and went to bed. The next morning we woke up feeling fine. Whiskey and aspirin was the standard treatment of flu. We lost very few patients.”
On Oct. 18, the first death of a Steamboat resident was reported — Indianola Shaw, who worked at the McNeil Coal Co. in MacGregor.
Prominent residents who contracted but did not succumb to the illness included Carl Howelsen and Dr. Frederick E. “Doc” Willett.
According to a Dec. 4, 1918, article in the Steamboat Pilot, Howelsen had been at the ranch alone, “with the care of his livestock on this hands.” It was not known he was ill until Mrs. William Ellis “chanced to call there in passing and discovered the sturdy Norwegian was badly in need of medical aid.”
By Dec. 6, 1918, Routt County Sentinel reported that he “was getting along nicely.”
When the virus returned to Routt County in April 1919, Willet suffered a severe attack, according to McKelvie. “For several days, his condition was reported as serious, but the town breathed a sigh of relief once he was known to be well on the road to recovery.”
The second wave was shorter, but deadlier. There are also records of a third and fourth wave across the country and globe.
Names of people who contracted the virus and those who died were frequently published in newspapers, a stark contrast from the privacy laws governing today. Articles also included the names of people who cared for animals and brought coal to sick neighbors.
Another major contrast between COVID-19 and the 1918 pandemic was in the demographics in terms of lives claimed by the virus.
In the U.S., about 20% of those who died as a result of the Spanish flu were ages 5 and younger. The flu was responsible for 50% of deaths among U.S. soldiers serving in World War I.
“The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20- to 40-year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After the first wave, things began to ease up at the end of 1918 for Routt County.
“The partial lifting of the ban has, however, been made with some reservations,” according to a Dec. 18 article in the Steamboat Pilot. “There is to be no unnecessary gathering of crowds; no dances; no loafing, and people are urged to transact their business with as little delay as possible until further notice.”
When Steamboat schools reopened Dec. 30, 1918, the Pilot reported, “This week is being taken up by review, to refreshen the minds of the students after their long vacation. From now on school will be held Saturdays, and no holidays will be observed.”
Hayden took, perhaps, the most stringent approach during the pandemic.
“A strict embargo had been maintained, people entering the town being compelled to go into quarantine until it was certain that they had not brought in the disease, and residents leaving were refused permission to return,” according to a Jan. 3, 1919, article in the Routt County Sentinel. “But in spite of these precautions, the town is having as general an attack as other communities, although it was considerably delayed by the embargo.”
Some of Bristol’s biggest takeaways from 1918 were the need for leadership and for clear communication. He also saw the benefit of adaptability.
In 1918, “it was such a fast-changing, fluid situation,” McKelvie said. “That’s the same today.”
Some of the biggest history lessons for her, she said, are to take the pandemic seriously, believe the medical experts, and work to protect ourselves as well as each other. She also considers every person in the health care world — and all who continue to keep society functioning — as heroic.
Bristol saw that despite taking about 2 1/2 years, Routt County overcame it.
“Those who came before us overcame it. They worked hard to do it, but they did it,” he said.
Then, and now, Bristol said, humans find themselves humbled and reminded “Mother Nature bats last.”
On Jan. 17, 1919, the Routt County Republican reported, “The flu quarantine has been raised and we are once more enjoying social life in this community. We are in hopes that after results will prove we were justified in raising the quarantine. We hardly realize how much our enjoyment depends on these social relations until they are cut off. When all of our lodges are closed and we have no church, no movies, and are not allowed to hold our usual dinner parties and other social gatherings and our schools are closed it seems as if much of that which is worth while in life has been removed.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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Twenty months after the South Routt School District announced it would close because of a burgeoning coronavirus, COVID-19 is more prevalent in South Routt than ever before.