The Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 broke out on the eastern American seaboard in early September. The deadly virus spread rapidly and within weeks, reports from various cities and military camps confirmed the news that this epidemic was highly contagious and killing people in large numbers.
The residents of the Yukon learned about this lethal scourge from reports in newspapers, and letters sent from friends and loved ones Outside. By November, the Dawson Daily News issued reports of influenza cutting a swath around the world. Dr. Alfred Thompson, Yukon’s member of Parliament, confirmed the dire situation in a letter he wrote to one of his colleagues in Dawson City. Members of his family had also been stricken.
The Yukon took action November 9, when R. B. Knight, acting gold commissioner, issued a notice to the assistant medical health officer for Whitehorse, Dr. W.B. Clarke, to take all necessary steps to prevent the spread of influenza. Dr. Clarke was in close communication with Dr. Gable, the medical health officer in Skagway, where all incoming passengers were placed in quarantine for five days. No cases had been reported so far.
Fearing the worst, the government started making preparations. Thinking that contagion could be spread by handling incoming mail, Dr. Gable at Skagway had all mail from Juneau and Haines fumigated. Outside mail, which took more than five days in transit, was not considered to be a health risk.
If the epidemic reached the Yukon, would the territory be prepared for the onslaught? In Dawson, Territorial Secretary J. Maltby asked Mother Superior Mary Mark what the capacity of St. Mary’s Hospital was if they had to deal with an outbreak in the gold rush capital. Ninety beds, and eight staff, was her reply.
Maltby also contacted local businesses and determined that 15 additional beds, 15 mattresses and 25 sets of blankets were available if needed. With an estimated 10 per cent of the population likely to be stricken with the flu, would these be enough?
Dawson City continued to function normally. Christmas was enjoyed without the spectre of death, and the arrival of the New Year was celebrated with the annual masque ball at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall on New Year’s Eve.
Early in the New Year, 1919, word was received that the “Copper River Indians” were suffering from influenza. Instructions were sent out to discourage any contact with them that winter. When a report reached authorities that a party of Chilkat Tlingit from Haines had set out to visit Champagne, the Mounted Police were sent to intercept them. A temporary quarantine station was set up in the village until January 17. Travelers were also intercepted at the town of Forty Mile, where only the mail carrier was allowed to proceed into the Yukon.
Advice from Ottawa was confusing regarding a serum treatment for influenza. While stating that there was no serum to treat the illness, an unproven serum developed in Kingston was sent to the Yukon as a precautionary measure. At the end of January, the annual winter patrol to Fort McPherson carried 100 doses of the serum, wrapped in buffalo robes with a small charcoal foot warmer to prevent the serum from freezing.
Pressure mounted to remove the quarantine in Skagway, which occurred February 22, but a month later, with an outbreak of 50 cases in the coastal Alaskan port, the incoming train was intercepted by the local Mounted Police, and a temporary quarantine was established in Carcross for the thirty incoming passengers. The line of defence was drawing closer and closer to Whitehorse.
This temporary Carcross quarantine station proved inadequate and inconvenient; requests were put forward to move the quarantine station to Whitehorse. Meanwhile, Alaska Governor Riggs imposed a five-day quarantine on all outgoing and incoming traffic at Skagway. Despite large alarmist headlines on the front page of the Dawson Daily News March 21, there was not one actual case of influenza in the territory. Dr. Clarke, who was reported to have been stricken, had only suffered from a minor cold. Three people in Skagway, however, died from the deadly virus.
Finally, inbound passengers were allowed into Whitehorse for their quarantine period. On April 18, the quarantine was lifted in Skagway, and Whitehorse followed on May 2. During the critical period, from November 1918 to May 1919, not one case of influenza was reported anywhere in the Yukon. By the spring of 1919, the virulent virus that had swept the globe had mutated and lost its potency. The Yukon seemed to be spared.
Before freeze-up each autumn, when river transportation came to an end, Dawson City stockpiled essential supplies in large warehouses in sufficient quantities to last through the winter. During the height of the epidemic, the gold rush town was secure in its isolation. With only one means of access, via rail to Whitehorse, and then five days by sleigh over the snow-covered winter trail to Dawson, it was possible to control the spread of infection in the territory.
That, combined with the coordinated efforts of the administration during this period, meant that the Yukon was one of the few jurisdictions on the planet, during the critical six months, that was not ravaged by the pandemic.
Once the quarantine was lifted, however, influenza made a quick arrival in the territory. There were cases reported at Carmacks on the Whitehorse-Dawson Trail, and Mr. and Mrs Alguire, the proprietors of the Nordenskjold Roadhouse, came to the hospital in Whitehorse for treatment. Local resident Mrs. Jack Oliver was so ill that she too had to be moved to the hospital, and Charley Baxter, the big game outfitter and the hunting party he was guiding had to remain at Bear Creek, en route to Kluane Lake, for several days until they recovered from a bout of the flu.
The hardest hit, however, was the First Nation population. Dr. Clarke rushed to Champagne on May 25 to deal with an outbreak; 37 natives were afflicted. He sent for a nurse and a cook to tend to the sick. By the time they arrived, there were 48 stricken, and the first death. Fifteen cases were reported at nearby Mendenhall, and another three at Canyon Creek. According to the Anglican Church newsletter Northern Lights, there were eventually11 victims at Champagne.
Almost a year later, influenza struck again. Residents from the native community at Carcross fell sick while working in Skagway. They were sent home before they had recovered, and the entire village was infected, save one individual, and four died, including Kate Carmack. The nearby residential school was also afflicted and one student succumbed to pneumonia caused by influenza.
After the post gold rush depopulation, the wartime exodus of men, federal government spending cuts and reduction of the civil service and the tragic loss of so many citizens with the sinking of the Princess Sophia, the Yukon was spared, almost, a final indignity – the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org