The global flu outbreak of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, ranking as one of the deadliest epidemics in history. The so-called “Spanish flu” claimed more lives than World War I, which ended the same year the pandemic struck. In fact, more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war.
The Spanish flu reached its height in autumn 1918 and continued until 1920. Why the name “Spanish” flu? Because news of the flu came mostly from Spain, a neutral country in the war and, therefore, not subject to wartime censorship rules that other countries were bound by.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide — about one-third of the planet’s population at the time — and killed up to 50 million victims. American casualties numbered 675,000.
The 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world. The flu’s spread was in large part due to troop movement around the world as a result of the war.
At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Citizens were ordered to wear masks; schools, theatres, and businesses were shuttered; and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus ended its deadly global reign of terror.
In America, victims ranged from residents of major cities to those of the most remote Alaskan communities. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly contracted the flu in early 1919 while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.
There were tight restrictions on U.S. citizens. People in San Francisco were fined $5 (about $85 in today’s dollars) if they were caught in public without masks.
Here is a roundup of local newspaper articles, accompanying commentary, and added contextual tidbits regarding the flu’s effect on Thee Rivers by Laile Di Silvestro, local archaeologist, researcher, and descendant of John Crowley of Mineral King road and hospitality renown.
Three Rivers: Winter 1918-1919
It was the holiday season, and people in Three Rivers had been visiting friends and family despite the risk of spreading or catching the pandemic H1N1 influenza of 1918. In the towns and cities elsewhere around Tulare and Fresno counties, schools had closed and there was a “cessation of public activities and gatherings.” Three Rivers opted to handle the epidemic its own way.
29 October 1918, The Visalia Daily Times p. 1 (below)
The front page of this edition focused on both the final stand of the Germans in Word War 1 and the flu. Visalia schools are already closed, and there is a quarantine in effect. Most importantly, Jason Barton declares Three Rivers much too quiet.
21 November 1918, The Fresno Morning Republican p. 5 (article, below left)
The flu gripped Three Rivers. About 40 cases had been reported over the course of a week with two cases of pneumonia (including one at the Swansons). Despite the claim that Three Rivers took “all care and precaution” to avoid the epidemic, residents were clearly traveling, holding gatherings, and passing around food and drink.
21 December 1918, The Visalia Morning Delta p. 1 (article, above right)
Joseph Oliver “Sandy” Carter died. He was a well-known Three Rivers lad with strong Mineral King connections. He was 35.
30 November 1918, The Visalia Daily Times p. 1
The Visalia public schools were planning to reopen December 9 after what would have been seven weeks of closure. The Visalia schools were closed as part of the “cessation of public activities and gatherings” put into effect to mitigate “the possible danger of contagion from the influenza epidemic.”
Given the reports of new flu cases in other articles on the same page of the newspaper, one might wonder if reopening the schools wasn’t premature. Take Three Rivers, for example. The amazing Archibald “Arch” J. Robertson (1879-1932) of the Mt. Whitney Power Company reported seven employees at the three power houses were ill with the flu and stated that the majority of Three Rivers residents are afflicted.
In other news, the 18th Amendment prohibition hadn’t yet gone into effect, but breweries are closed down as a result of the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 1.28%. And my relative Jim Crowley came home.
2 December 1918, The Fresno Morning Republican p. 6
Woodlake opted to keep its schools closed until the new year, at the earliest, deeming it wise to “wait until a total eradication of the illness is evident.”
30 December 1918, The Fresno Morning Republican p. 5
Three women in Three Rivers were quite ill with the flu, and, as we learned earlier, the 35-year-old Joseph Oliver “Sandy” Carter had died. Arch Robertson of the Mt. Whitney Power Company is now ill after his “untiring” efforts to tend to his sick employees. (He survived.)
Barbara Lee Tomlinson (1887-1977) and the other women also survive, for least for a couple of years more.
Despite the flu, the Three Rivers Woman’s Club decides to meet at the Swansons’ home, and “a large attendance is desired.”
8 January 1919, The Fresno Morning Republican p. 11
It was reported that Mrs. Madge Ford and Bert Wills were ill with the flu. Mrs. V. Hammond had a bad case of tonsillitis (perhaps a secondary infection?). Sulphur Springs School students took a hike to Wineridge for a picnic.
13 January 1919, The Fresno Morning Republican p. 3
As 1919 rang in, newspapers were still full of death and illness notices. Miss Eugenia “Minnie” Irwin (1868-), a Three Rivers teacher was “quite ill with influenza.” Rather than closing the school, Three Rivers hired Charlotte “Lottie” H. Goad (1885-1976) to take her place. Minnie lived for at least six more years.
Miss Ida Berg and Mr. Henry Canfield of Three Rivers were married on January 5, 1919. But newlywed Ida isn’t as fortunate as Minnie.
20 January 1919, The Fresno Morning Republican p. 3
After just a few days of marriage, Ida Canfield died January 13, 1919, of influenza.