At the end of the First World War, there was a scourge set upon the world far more deadly than all the bullets, gas and shells of the previous four years. It claimed at least 50 million lives; it was a virus known as Spanish Influenza. It spread rapidly to every corner of the world and no one seemed able to stop it, except in the Yukon. We can blame that on geography.
Before the gold rush, the Yukon had been a remote and inaccessible wilderness twice the size of Great Britain. The mighty Yukon River was the main artery of travel, and when winter descended, the territory was shut off from the outside world for seven months.
Then the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway was built between the port of Skagway, Alaska, and the Yukon River at Whitehorse. Travel from Vancouver or Seattle to Dawson City became a pleasant excursion in the summer, by ocean steamer, train and finally, riverboat. In the winter, it was a different story. The trip from Whitehorse to Dawson was a frigid ride of five days duration in an open-air, horse-drawn sled.
Local newspapers reported that 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 Dec. 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 Oct. 22, but by Nov. 8, there were more than 300. The Dec. 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 Dawson readers.
Fairbanks placed sentries on all the trails into town and imposed a five-day quarantine, but the dreaded flu still arrived. Influenza knew no class boundaries; anyone could be stricken regardless of race, gender or social class, although some groups were hit more severely 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 ten villages visited by one doctor, three were wiped out entirely, while the other settlements suffered 85 per cent mortality.
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.
The Yukon government took action Nov. 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 into quarantine for five days before proceeding to the Yukon.
Fearing the worst, the government started making preparations. Thinking that contagion could be spread by handling incoming mail, Dr. Gable had all mail from Juneau and Haines fumigated. Outside letters and packages, which took more than five days in transit, were not considered to be a health risk.
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 1919 was celebrated with the annual masque ball at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall on New Year’s Eve.
Early in the New Year, 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 Tlingit from Haines had set out to visit Champagne, the Mounted Police were sent to intercept them. Travelers were also turned back at the town of Forty Mile, where the only traveler allowed into the Yukon from Alaska was the mail carrier.
Pressure mounted to remove the quarantine in Skagway, which occurred Feb. 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.
The 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 out-going and incoming traffic at Skagway. Three people there, however, died from the deadly virus. Despite alarming headlines on the front page of the Dawson Daily News March 21, there was not yet a single case of influenza in the territory.
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, 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 lost its potency. The Yukon had lost many men who went to war and never returned after. The sinking of the Princess Sophia in late October 1918 took its toll when more than 350 passengers, many of them key Yukon business figures, perished. Yet, as influenza spread around the world, the Yukon was 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. Mother Nature imposed the perfect quarantine to isolate the Yukon from the deadly disease.
Today, as Yukoners brace themselves for the arrival of COVID-19, we do not enjoy the same protection. Regular air service means that Whitehorse can be reached in hours rather than days. The Alaska Highway provides easy access to the north from Alaska, Alberta, and British Columbia. Without the isolation we enjoyed 100 years ago, the question is not whether the virus will reach the North this time, but when.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org