If we were 2020 people living in 1918, we’d probably call the “Spanish flu” something like “novel H1N1 influenza A.”
It’s not genetically related to the current COVID-19 “novel coronavirus.” But it triggered the world’s worst “pandemic” with its sudden appearance, lightning-quick spread and overwhelming assault on humans.
No one was immune. It was “novel,” brand-new, just as COVID-19 has been.
Its ultimate basis of comparison with 1918 — the death toll — can’t yet be made but began to be written locally last week with North Platte’s first COVID-19 death.
When the Spanish flu hit, North Platte leaders all but shut down their town for six weeks, taking steps even more drastic than the “directed health measure” issued Wednesday by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Businesses suffered deep financial losses. Two more flu waves followed before spring. Not until the end of 1920 did it fully subside worldwide.
By the end of 1918, the Spanish flu had killed 200 to 250 people in Lincoln County, this newspaper reported in May 1919.
It infected nearly 30 million Americans and killed 675,000, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It infected 500 million people worldwide — about one-fourth of Earth’s population — and killed at least 50 million, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The following recaps the course of the influenza pandemic in North Platte, as recorded in The Telegraph and the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune.
» July 2, 1918: A Tribune story notes “an epidemic of influenza in the German army” slowing plans for its last World War I offensive. Spanish flu had first been identified that spring in stateside U.S. Army camps.
» Sept. 27, 1918: A Telegraph story reports 29,002 flu cases in Army camps, with pneumonia “frequently a complication of Spanish influenza.” Twenty-six states and 20% of Europe’s population were affected.
» Oct. 1, 1918: A draft call for 90 Lincoln County men was canceled, “no doubt due to the prevalence of the Spanish influenza” (Tribune).
» Oct. 4, 1918: The North Platte Board of Health denies “that there were several cases of Spanish influenza in the city” and says board members “have already taken precaution to combat the disease should it appear in the city” (Telegraph).
The first week
» Oct. 7, 1918: “The ‘Flu” has hit North Platte ... brought to the city from both east and west.” The first case had been reported “last Friday,” Oct. 4, the same day the Board of Health denied its presence (Telegraph).
Between 35 and 50 flu cases had developed since then, said City Physician Dr. Josiah Redfield. After a joint meeting of the City Council and the Board of Health, the latter forbids public gatherings and closes schools, churches, theaters “and all other places where people congregate in numbers” for at least two weeks.
» Oct. 8, 1918: Anna Hansen, 48, mother of five and wife of Union Pacific yard section foreman Peter Hansen, becomes North Platte’s first flu fatality. “Mrs. Hansen had been sick only two days and passed away about midnight” (Telegraph).
“Very few cases” had developed since the closing order, Dr. Redfield said, warning that people who hadn’t reported flu cases to city health officials “are laying themselves liable to the law.”
» Oct. 9, 1918: Dr. Redfield says “all physicians and civilians are cooperating with the city health board and (he) believes the disease is under control and the closing order is bringing results” (Telegraph).
» Oct. 10, 1918: Thirty-six North Platte homes had been quarantined due to flu (Telegraph).
» Oct. 11, 1918: Frank Herriman, a janitor at the new U.P. Depot, dies of the flu after five days (Telegraph, Oct. 12).
» Oct. 12, 1918: “The new city firemen hall which has just been erected will be turned into an emergency hospital for Spanish influenza victims,” mainly those then in rooming houses (Telegraph).
At that time, North Platte had only one public hospital of significant size, the 19-bed North Platte General Hospital in the Morsch-Klenk Building at 506-08 N. Locust (Jeffers) St. Dr. J.S. Twinem also had a small private hospital with his office.
Police Chief John Jones closes pool halls after complaints that “there was no reason why pool halls, which are much frequented, and especially during the evenings, should be allowed to remain open” (Tribune, Oct. 15).
Though “North Platte has an anti-spitting ordinance which forbids spitting on the sidewalks,” a city councilman had complained “about a flagrant violation of the spitting ordinance right in front of (a) place of business” (Telegraph).
Irma (Cody) Garlow, daughter of the late William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, telegraphs that husband and former Scout’s Rest Ranch manager Fred Garlow died of the flu Oct. 12 in Cody, Wyoming (Telegraph).
By now, several Lincoln County service members had died of the flu in Army camps.
The second week
» Oct. 15, 1918: Dr. Redfield says the fire station’s second floor would house the emergency hospital. New quarantine regulations would follow, possibly allowing the closing order to be lifted (Tribune).
» Oct. 16, 1918: The Telegraph reports the death of Irma (Cody) Garlow Oct. 15, three days after husband Fred.
» Oct. 18, 1918: The Tribune says the number of flu cases “is growing less, for which we are all thankful.” Three new cases were reported Oct. 16 and fewer Oct. 17.
People needing gauze masks for nurses and others in close contact with flu patients could get them at the Red Cross Canteen, precursor of the World War II Canteen.
Preparations to open the emergency hospital continued despite “protests from the decimated fire department” (Tribune).
The third week
» Oct. 22, 1918: A draft call of 93 Lincoln County men is canceled due to the pandemic. Dr. Redfield reports only 13 flu cases, none serious (Telegraph).
» Oct. 24, 1918: The Red Cross Canteen “will furnish soup and other food for influenza patients” under doctor’s orders for people too sick to cook (Telegraph).
Mrs. A.H. Liles of rural Hershey and Mrs. John Todd, a Montana visitor to sister-in-law Mrs. Frank Buchanan, died of the flu Oct. 23.
» Oct. 24, 1918: An obituary for preacher’s widow Sarah C. Moore (apparently not a flu victim) says: “Even though our city is under the pall of a dreaded epidemic, many of her friends attended the funeral, most of them on chairs arranged in rows on the lawn” (Telegraph).
» Oct. 25, 1918: The State Board of Health bans public gatherings until Nov. 3. The local ban wouldn’t be lifted before then “unless conditions materially change for the better. ... Here in North Platte conditions seem to improve for a day or two, and then a fresh outbreak occurs” (Tribune).
Fifteen new flu cases were reported Oct. 23 and “a half dozen or more” Oct. 24, though some were late in being reported.
The emergency hospital wouldn’t be ready for another week because “the time necessary for the plumbing work was underestimated” (Tribune).
The worst week
» Oct. 29, 1918: The number of city cases grows to 35, with eight new cases reported Oct. 27 and several more Oct. 28.
Dr. Redfield “telegraphed for a supply of flu vaccine from the Mayo Bros. clinic” in Rochester, Minnesota, though “it is understood that the demand for the vaccine is very heavy.”
U.P. fireman Edwin Swedeberg died of the flu Oct. 28 in a rooming house on North Locust (Jeffers) Street (Tribune).
» Oct. 30, 1918: The emergency hospital opens “with four patients removed from the various rooming houses” (Telegraph, Oct. 31).
» Oct. 31, 1918: The State Board of Health says the statewide ban on public gatherings would be lifted Nov. 1, but local boards could continue their bans.
William Melstrey of Lewellen, a brick mason working in North Platte, died of the flu early that morning (Telegraph).
» Nov. 1, 1918: Dr. Redfield says the ban would be lifted Nov. 4, with “a strict quarantine” continuing on flu-ridden homes. If cases spread, “the lid will again be put on even tighter than it has been” (Tribune).
But the Board of Health closes the Red Cross Canteen to public visitors this day “as the disease seems to be increasing instead of decreasing” (Telegraph).
Though North Platte then had about 30 flu cases, Redfield “did not think that at any time there had been more than that number.”
But five to eight new cases were being reported daily, in part because of a shortage of nurses at the emergency hospital and private homes (Tribune).
“Influenza is pretty bad” in the Wallace area, where two people died Oct. 30. Henrietta Simon, 4-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Simon, died the same day.
Bert Hall, who had been taken to the emergency hospital from a rooming house, died Oct. 31, six days after wife Ruth (Tribune).
» Nov. 2, 1918: In an official notice, Dr. Redfield says the ban would not yet be lifted “owing to the increase of influenza. ... The city will remain closed until the situation is improved” (Telegraph).
The fifth week
» Nov. 4, 1918: Dr. Redfield is honored at a U.P. Depot banquet before leaving for Army Medical Corps training camp at Fort Riley, Kansas (Telegraph). His absence would be brief due to the war’s end a few days later.
» Nov. 5, 1918: Gov. Keith Neville of North Platte is defeated for a second two-year term by Republican Samuel McKelvie.
The city closing order is extended another week after a joint meeting of the Board of Health and school board (Tribune).
Mrs. Luther Owens, wife of a U.P. engineer, died of the flu Nov. 4, as did the 18-month-old child of Mr. and Mrs. J.L. Koontz. Three people had died in the Wallace area (Tribune).
Charley Bell, infant child of flu victims Bert and Ruth Bell, died Nov. 4 (Telegraph).
» Nov. 6, 1918: City physicians say North Platte has 40 flu cases. The emergency hospital was full with 12 patients, and though no new deaths were reported Nov. 5, “unless the epidemic improves in the next few days, other quarters will have to be prepared for patients” (Telegraph).
» Nov. 8, 1918: Clyde Luce, 21, died Nov. 6 of the flu west of North Platte. Police Chief Jones says he had not received a report of new flu cases for three days (Tribune).
The last week
» Nov. 11, 1918: Celebrations break out, despite the local ban, at news of the armistice ending World War I.
» Nov. 12, 1918, Dr. George Dent, Dr. Redfield’s temporary successor as city physician, sees “material improvement in the number of cases” but “the conditions had grown somewhat worse” elsewhere in Lincoln County (Tribune).
» Nov. 14, 1918: Dr. Dent reports no flu deaths and fewer cases over the past week (Telegraph).
» Nov. 15, 1918: The Tribune says the ban would be removed Nov. 18. “The schools will reopen and business conditions will get down to normal.”
Businesses had suffered, “some business houses suffering a 50% decrease in trade as compared with a like period before the lid was put on, and also compared with a similar period a year ago.”
Hans D. Jergensen and Mrs. Vernon Yanken died of the flu in the Maxwell area (Tribune).
» Nov. 18, 1918: The Board of Health lifts the ban after 42 days. Schools reopen, but movie theaters decide to stay closed until Nov. 22 “for the health of the community.”
The second wave
» Nov. 23, 1918: Only five days after the ban was lifted, Dr. Dent reimposes it “by directions of (the) State Board of Health. This includes dances” (Telegraph).
» Nov. 25, 1918: School Superintendent Wilson Tout says the flu had begun to flare up again early that week. Though schools remained open, students from homes with the flu were not allowed to come (Tribune).
» Nov. 29, 1918: “It is reported that there are now no patients in the influenza hospital, and from all indications the ban will soon be raised again” (Telegraph). But Superintendent Tout says all students in the schools had received permission to wear “flu masks” (Tribune).
» Dec. 3, 1918: The fire station emergency hospital reopens (Telegraph).
» Dec. 6, 1918: A national story reported 300,000 to 350,000 U.S. deaths from Spanish flu or pneumonia since Sept. 15 (Telegraph).
» Dec. 12, 1918: The state Board of Health reports 2,465 new flu cases statewide, with 16 new deaths (Telegraph).
» Dec. 27, 1918: The city Board of Health says “all flu cases will be strictly quarantined,” following a State Board of Health order. Dances were banned, though “churches, picture shows and schools will remain open” (Tribune).
» Jan. 7, 1919: The dancing ban is lifted, but all who attend dances must register and “the dances will again be prohibited” if any of them were to get the flu (Tribune).
The second wave continued through mid-February, with as many as 20 homes quarantined at one time (Tribune, Jan. 10). Flu-related deaths in that period included Jesse Way of North Platte on Jan. 18 (Telegraph, Jan. 20); Austin Traub, who died at the fire station detention hospital, and Dorothy Davis on Jan. 26 and Charles Groves Jan. 27 (Tribune, Jan. 28); two sets of brothers, Harry (Jan. 24) and Raymond Klinge (Jan. 28) of rural Maxwell and Forrest Greeley and an unnamed brother of rural North Platte on Jan. 29 (Tribune, Jan. 31).
The third wave
» March 3, 1919: The pandemic returns “after a lapse of several weeks,” with 20 cases reported and homes quarantined (Telegraph). No new closing order was issued.
» March 7, 1919: As of the previous day, more than 100 cases of Spanish flu were reported in North Platte and 35 houses were under quarantine (Tribune).
» March 11, 1919: Betty Beckman died March 7 of Bright’s disease aggravated by influenza (Telegraph).
» March 25, 1919: Mr. and Mrs. Herman Thoelecke both succumbed to the flu, with Mrs. Thoelecke dying March 12 and her husband March 19. Five children were orphaned (Tribune).
» March 27, 1919: The Telegraph reports that Gothenburg had imposed a strict quarantine citywide, again closing schools, churches, "picture shows and all public gatherings."
» April 8, 1919: The third and final wave finally is subsiding, with the Tribune reporting: "There are yet a few cases of the flu in town, but physicians no longer report them and no attempt is made to quarantine them. The disease caused a greater toll in North Platte than any disease we have ever had."
» May 24, 1919: The Telegraph says 201 people died of influenza and 52 from pneumonia in 1918 in Lincoln County, putting the pandemic’s likely 1918 death toll at 200 to 250.
The 1920 U.S. census would list Lincoln County’s population at 25,627, indicating the pandemic killed nearly 1% of the population in 1918.