Yukon and the flu epidemic of 1918 Part 1

By 1914, the population of post-gold-rush Yukon had dwindled to a few thousand. News of the war overseas siphoned off hundreds of healthy Yukon men who volunteered for service.

By 1914, the population of post-gold-rush Yukon had dwindled to a few thousand. News of the war overseas siphoned off hundreds of healthy Yukon men who volunteered for service. As the war progressed, the federal government tightened the purse strings and slashed the civil service.

In October 1918, as the war was winding down, the Princess Sophia, a coastal passenger ship, sank not far from Skagway, taking hundreds of Yukon citizens down with her. How could things be any worse for this northern outpost of civilization?

Word filtered into the Yukon of a terrible plague spreading around the world like wildfire. It was called “Spanish Influenza,” because Spain, being a neutral country not cloaked by wartime censorship, openly reported on a spreading epidemic. Combatants on both sides of the trenches censored news about the terrible plague that was sweeping the battlefields, laying low reserve troops and crippling the civilian population. It first appeared in early September; by November, reports of the epidemic were coming in from all over the world.

Symptoms resembled the common flu, but varied in intensity. They included headaches, loss of energy, coughing, chills and extreme fever. The deadly illness took its victims in two different ways. The first occurred within the first two days, when patients would literally drown in their own blood. This cause of death was the prevalent source of mortality among the military. The second, which afflicted the civilian population, occurred after a week, when patients, apparently recovering from the influenza, developed a secondary infection and died of pneumonia.

In normal seasonal influenza, those under five years of age and those over 65 are the hardest hit. In this epidemic, the worst hit were the young and healthy – those between 20 years and 50 years of age. In the worst cases the afflicted might feel healthy in the morning and be dead by day’s end. Lungs would become congested, as victims haemorrhaged. Many turned dark blue of asphyxia before dying. For that reason, some observers likened it to or even confused it with the Black Death of the Middle Ages.

Healthy-looking people could be infected – and contagious – so avoiding the sick was no guarantee of avoiding infection. It might start with one or two cases, but in the crowded military bases, where soldiers were being trained, or prepared to ship out, it spread like wildfire. Two deaths became 20, followed by 100, followed by hundreds, then thousands.

City after city became overburdened with the sick and dying as the plague spread. Within six months as many as 50 million succumbed to the disease worldwide. In America, newspapers reported that influenza took twice as many lives as the war did.

People were becoming sick and dying faster than the system could handle. Overworked doctors and nurses also became sick and many died from the dreaded virus. The bodies piled high as the death toll mounted. Undertakers were swamped. Coffin-makers couldn’t keep up. Gravediggers were becoming too sick to bury the dead.

In New York City, a steam shovel was used to excavate trenches into which to pile the thousands of bodies that were piling up. Some cities were close to social collapse because of influenza.

Authorities feared that the truth of the epidemic would only foster panic during the state of war. Officials lied to the public about the severity of the outbreak, but the growing piles of corpses told the story and made the public distrust official assurances. Panic widened as the “Spanish Influenza” spread its deadly tentacles around the world.

Calls for volunteers fell upon deaf ears because people feared contagion. Those who did offer to help often fled from the awful sight (and smell) of the dead and dying. No one knew what caused it. No one could prevent it. No one knew how to treat it.

“The epidemic began in Europe,” stated the British Columbia Board of Health, “…and has crossed the Atlantic. It is very prevalent in Eastern cities and we may expect it in the West.” To prevent the spread, they advised isolation, covering coughs, the three C’s (clean mouth, clean skin and clean clothes), good ventilation, washing of hands, and using only eating utensils that had been washed.

Those who were still healthy, and those who attended to the sick, covered their mouths and noses with gauze or cloth masks, but they were of no value in preventing the spread of the disease.

Some authorities spread misinformation. In Philadelphia, for example, where a corrupt administration got much of its financial backing from the saloon-keepers, bars and saloons remained open throughout the epidemic, and officials recommended alcohol as a cure or preventative for the dreaded flu.

With growing apprehension Yukon citizens read letters telling of the sick and dying Outside, and perused the newspapers with dread the autumn of 1918. Were they, too, to be stricken by the deadly virus? Seattle fell to the flu in October. Mid month, 75 residents had died; by the end of the month, 350 had succumbed.

Alaska was not spared either. Juneau reported three cases at the end of October. There were eight cases on December 14 and over 100 a week later.

The remote city of Nome was hit by the scourge, despite quarantine of all passengers arriving by boat. There were no cases October 22, but by November 8, there were more than 300. The December 23 issue of The Dawson Daily News reported that there had been 1,000 deaths in the Nome area. Even if this number was exaggerated, it must have terrified Yukon.

Fairbanks placed sentries on all the trails into town and imposed a five-day quarantine, but the dreaded flu still appeared. Influenza knew no class boundaries; anyone could be stricken regardless of race, gender or social class, although some groups were hit more deeply than others.

Native communities throughout Alaska were decimated. In one settlement, only a half dozen survived. In another community, 22 of 24 adults had perished, leaving 16 orphans. Of 10 villages visited by one doctor, three were wiped out entirely, while the other settlements suffered 85 per cent mortality. Children whose parents had died then starved or froze to death.

The Dawson Daily News and Whitehorse Star reported the mounting death toll from around the world. Yukon citizens waited with uneasiness. They could feel the circle of death closing in from all directions.

Next week, I will tell you how they dealt with the deadly plague.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net