Museum Blog

The 1918 Flu Pandemic

This blog was originally posted May 15, 2018.

World War I claimed the lives of an estimated 16 million people but an even deadlier killer snuck in on the coattails of the war. An estimated 50 million worldwide were killed in the flu pandemic of 1918 and at least one fifth of the population was infected.

Katherine Anne Porter, born May 15, 1890, was one of those afflicted by the flu. She survived, unlike many others, and used the experience to bring to life her character Miranda in the short novel “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”. Porter was an American journalist and writer and was living in Denver at the time of the pandemic, working for the Rocky Mountain News. Like Porter, Miranda, also a newspaper woman, is struck down by the flu but survives. The story follows Miranda and Adam, the soldier with whom she falls in love with. During the course of the story, Miranda becomes ill with the flu but is cared for by Adam. When she finally recovers, she learns Adam died of the flu he likely caught while nursing her. The depiction of the flu pandemic and the suffering the afflicted went through is considered highly accurate because Porter pulled from her own experiences of being ill.

The flu pandemic is also known as the Spanish Flu because the first true reporting of the disease occurred in Spain. Due to its neutral status during the war, Spain did not have wartime censorship so coverage on the spread of the disease was widely reported. The influenza occurred in two phases during the spring and fall of 1918. A mild strain that lasted only around three days and caused few deaths appeared in early spring. Soldiers reporting for training brought the disease into the camps and overseas where the disease mutated into a more severe strain. Although the flu itself did strike down many people, secondary infections such as pneumonia were actually responsible many of the deaths.     

Within Colorado, nearly 8,000 died from the flu or its complications. Denver had a high mortality rate and in Silverton, ten percent of the population was dead within six weeks. It’s thought Colorado had high mortality rates because many residents already had weak lungs from tuberculosis and work in the mines, a disadvantage when fighting the flu and its complications such as pneumonia. To prevent the spread of disease, people were cautioned to wear masks and many public gatherings were banned. Face masks offered no guarantee of protection for the healthy as they are were more useful preventing those who were sick from spreading germs. Regardless, they were promoted to many as the best way to prevent the spread of the disease. Today, we understand far better how things are spread and aware of the importance of sanitization, hand washing, and covering our mouth when coughing.   

While it was a smaller town allowing for greater isolation, Cañon City still had a very low death rate compared to the rest of the state. This was helped by the precautions that were taken. Public gatherings were not permitted very early on and schools were closed. Homework assignments were mailed to the students. The only students who returned to school were the seniors so they could graduate on time. The 1919 yearbook has an image of the senior class all wearing flu masks on the steps of the high school.

The public gathering ban was kept in place even when it seemed the flu was on the decline. The Red Cross opened an emergency hospital in the YMCA building on 5th and Macon to cope with the higher rate of illness. By the end of 1918 and the decline of the pandemic, Cañon City and the surrounding areas escaped with fewer than 50 deaths attributed to the flu.

Today, we understand far better how things are spread and aware of the importance of sanitization, hand washing, and covering our mouth when coughing.

Cañon City High School seniors; Source: CCHS 1919 Yearbook at Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center

The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.

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