Troop movements during World War I are blamed for making the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic the deadliest natural disaster in human history. Some scientists have traced the origin of the disease to Haskell County, Kansas, but it was reported early on at 14 military camps across the United States.
The flu is a very contagious disease that can prove fatal if proper medical treatment by today’s standards is not available. In 1917, as U.S. soldiers were mustered at training camps and sent to Europe on cramped ships, the disease rapidly spread among the millions of troops sent abroad.
Scientists who have investigated the 1918 flu have pinpointed the major troop staging and hospital center at Etaples, France, as a key location in spreading the disease among the soldiers in the first global war.
The flu soon made its way to the general population. Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, the pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people and killed from 50 million to 100 million people — which at the time was 3-5 percent of the global population.
More people died of the Spanish flu in a single year than in the four years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague, which took place from 1347 to 1351. But its timing was ironic — the 1918 flu became headline news just as World War I was winding down to a general armistice, and the mutated virus in the second wave was more deadly than the first.
Grant County residents were probably not surprised to see the headline “Spanish influenza invades Grant County” in the Oct. 18 Blue Mountain Eagle. Schools across the county were immediately closed, public meetings were canceled and the order for men called to register for the war draft was rescinded.
Several cases were reported near Austin and one in Prairie City, but the public was urged to remain calm.
“There is no reason at all for any alarm, and it is not likely that the epidemic will get any foothold in the county, and the steps that have been taken are merely a wise precaution,” the Eagle said.
The next week’s headline announced Grant County’s first fatality. Five hundred illnesses were reported in Baker County, a number of cases were known in Prairie City and Canyon City, and the hotel had been closed in John Day. The Eagle described the symptoms and continued to urge calm.
“Just take good care of yourself and do not take exposures unnecessarily,” the paper said.
Oddly, a “mass meeting” scheduled for nominating candidates for the upcoming Canyon City election was promoted on the front page. One week later, the Eagle reported that John A. Muldrick, 29, Canyon City, had died after being sick for one week.
It didn’t get any better. On Nov. 8, the Eagle reported that seven people had died over the past week and the flu “now holds Grant County in its death grip.”
Local doctors estimated 500 county residents were ill, but no solid figures existed. The flu had spread to every city and even the far corners of the county — entire families were afflicted at Suplee. But doctors also reported seeing fewer new cases.
“The next week will greatly clear up the situation, and probably normal conditions reached rapidly after that,” the Eagle reported.
But three deaths were reported over the following week — two in Canyon City and one at Pleasant Hill. Twenty-five people were ill in Prairie City.
“Is it Black Plague?” an Eagle headline asked one week later. Experts claimed major pandemics followed wars, but the scope of this illness was enormous. Five times as many people died in six weeks in the U.S. than died in the war. Out of 135 reported cases in Canyon City, 12 had contracted pneumonia and six had died.
As the year wound down, the U.S. Health Service warned that the Spanish influenza was “expected to lurk for months.” The Surgeon General compared the situation to how firemen dealt with a fire — they didn’t walk away when it appeared to be out, they kept pouring water on the charred remains to prevent a flareup.
By Dec. 20, officials estimated the county experienced 1,000 flu cases. Three percent of them succumbed to the illness. The Eagle ran the names of the 32 who had died since Oct. 24.