1918 flu

By early 1919, the schools were kept open, including the kindergarten class pictured above from the year 1918-19, though any child showing symptoms was immediately dismissed. (Photo courtesy Telluride Historical Museum/“Telluride: Images of America” by Elizabeth Barbour)

“My folks had a son born, too. Then the flu epidemic happened during the First World War, and he was only nine months old. He was such a fat baby, healthy, but fat. And Mother got the flu and gave it to him, and he died. He was buried in Telluride (Lone Tree Cemetery.) My mother’s health was pretty bad, so she didn’t get to go to the funeral and neither did Bertha (sister), because she was very ill. But Hilda and I went to the cemetery. I was real young. It was a horse-drawn hearse, and I can remember when we went down the streets of Telluride to the cemetery, nobody walked. People would be peeking out the windows from their curtain or shades when they saw the hearse go by. I said to Daddy, ‘Why do they peek then slam the curtain down?’ And he said, ‘They think that somebody in their family will be next.’ I can remember that, ‘cause he had tears in his eyes. It was his only son at the time. It was so sad.” 

Those were the words of Nina Price, as she recollected her early memories of the 1918-19 flu epidemic in “Conversations at 9,000 Feet,” a collection of oral histories compiled by Davine Pera. The daughter of Swedish immigrants who met and married in Telluride, Price was born in Telluride in 1913, which was then a buzzing mining town with a flourishing social scene of saloons, dance halls and theaters.

Outbreaks of disease were certainly nothing new to the town’s hardy population, having weathered bouts of smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria and whooping cough throughout the decade. However, by the fall of 1918, a novel virus that would come to be known as the Spanish flu was sweeping the nation, though its initial outbreak is suspected to have occurred not in Spain but in a nearby army camp in Kansas. Though perhaps it’s common to envision a contagion would spread slower in times before affordable air travel, in fact, the early 20th century was a time of booming transportation, with trains criss-crossing the country, connecting cities near and far on a daily basis. By October, the illness had reached Colorado in full force, and cities and towns across the state were struggling to contain its spread.

They say history repeats itself, and it’s easy to feel déjà vu when poring through records of the time. In the Telluride Town Council minutes from October 1918, attorney E.B. Adams recommended the closure of schools, churches and picture shows, and gatherings be limited to outdoor spaces to curtail the flu’s spread throughout the population. Residents and officials alike recognized that the illness spread easily through person-to-person contact, especially through coughing and sneezing. Advertisements ran in the Norwood Post imploring people to cover their noses and mouths, as “coughs and sneezes spread diseases.” 

The town council minutes from the following month noted that the meeting should be kept short due to flu concerns. Then, as now, the town’s finances were severely impacted by the epidemic, with the December minutes recording a Red Cross representative estimating the total cost of the epidemic at around $2,000 and entreating the town to contribute, along with the county and the mining companies. 

Between October and the end of the year, it’s estimated that hundreds in Telluride died of the disease, according to records from the time, overrunning the hospital and spurring both bars and private residences to be converted into makeshift wards for the sick. The Roma, a popular bar of the time, was filled with 60 beds to care for sick miners whose lungs were compromised from mining conditions, which often made them more susceptible to succumbing to the disease. The county health officer, Dr. Anna Brown, issued a legally enforceable quarantine, banning dances, card parties and public entertainment, as well as funerals. While much of the town followed the mandate, often posting “Keep out” signs on doors, there were also reports of citations issued for those flaunting the orders by having private card parties or gatherings. In Montrose, one city commissioner was fined $6.75 for violating quarantine, and Telluride eccentric businessman and owner of the Bridal Veil Falls power plant Bulkeley Wells was rumored to have ignored the ban by hosting parties. By the end of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, approximately one in 10 Telluride residents had succumbed to the disease.

Whole families were often struck by the insidious virus, such as the family of Alta Cassietto, who was 11 years old during the epidemic. Many years later during her interview for “Conversations at 9,000 Feet,” she recalled, “Everyone in the family had the flu except my mother, and she was up day and night taking care of the rest of us. And I got the flu real bad. I missed a whole year of school then. A whole year.”

While there are striking similarities in actions taken by officials as well as the reactions of the general population ranging from fear to blatant skepticism, history is not condemned to repeat itself verbatim. Fortunately, 100 years later — thanks to advances in modern medicine, technology and treatment, along with the 24-hour news cycle around the world — today’s communities have a much greater arsenal with which to fight off the current pandemic and mitigate its effects. The lessons of history provide instructive insights. As Telluride’s populace wades through the swamp of anxiety and uncertainty created by the current COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps a glance at the past can act as a steadying rudder for what’s to come.

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series. See next Sunday’s Daily Planet for part two. A special thanks to the Telluride Historical Museum for research assistance.