1918 Colorado Flu Pandemic


1918 Colorado Flu Pandemic

Masks were worn in come places during the pandemic, but Denver residents refused. Courtesy photo U.S. Dept. Health and Human Services..

By Caitlin Switzer

REGIONAL—(March 16) From the viewpoint of history, all’s well that ends well—and indeed, those who did not die eventually got well. For those who lived through it, however, there was only darkness and fear.

When people around the world began falling ill in 1918 with what became known as “Spanish Flu,” nobody knew when or how it would end. Even in remote regions like the Western Slope, the flu hit, and hit hard.

“Montrose has been closed up tighter than a drum by the authorities to prevent the spread of influenza,” wrote the Montrose Press at the time. “Allen Fender is the latest victim of influenza. Mr. Fender, his wife and mother have been doing everything possible to stamp out the disease. And in caring for the sufferers he too became a victim.”

The newspaper, quoted in Dona Freeman’s 100 Years Montrose Colorado-1882 to 1982 (Freeman, 1982) goes on to note that by year’s end, “In the city and environs there have been 920 cases. The total deaths  in the city – 62…There were 52 deaths in ten days in Silverton, with 500 cases of the dread disease, influenza.”

Here in Colorado, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services web site, the disease surfaced first at the University of Colorado, among military recruits.

“By late October, the disease had spread throughout the state and health officials were noting with concern that the disease was widespread and especially severe in the more mountainous regions of the state. Death rates among miners were also very high,” the web site states, going on to note that Denver bucked a nationwide trend of asking citizens to wear preventive masks (later proved to be ineffective), and quoting then-Mayor of Denver as saying it would  ‘take half the population of our city to make the other half wear masks.’”

It was a young Denver journalist turned novelist, Katherine Anne Porter, who best captured the sense of helplessness brought about by the flu in her fictional account, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Although Porter—a Rocky Mountain News reporter at the time– lived to tell the tale, her story of growing suddenly ill and coming close to death, only to watch her caregiver succumb, conveys the mood of that terrible year in a powerful and very personal way.

Other personal experiences are recorded in Davine Pera’s excellent work, Conversations at 9,000 Feet (Western Reflections, 2000, 2008), a compilation of oral histories from Telluride’s early days.

“Everyone in the family had the flu except my mother, and she was up night and day taking care of the rest of us,” recalled Alta Cassietto, who was 11 in 1918. “And I got the flu real bad. I missed a whole year of school then. A whole year.”

Telluride native Ed Ress, born in 1909, also remembered missing school—because the schools eventually closed their doors.

“The flu epidemic, when that hit, they closed the school down,” Ress said. “We finally had to go to school on Saturday to make up for it. There was half a million people died of the flu in the United States. That was about 1918. When the flu hit they didn’t save ‘em. They couldn’t. And the Roma Hotel, they had sixty beds in there, that’s where they had the miners. They wouldn’t let you near the door.”

Perhaps the most poignant recollection in the book is that of Nina Price, a Telluride native who was just five at the time. Price lost a baby brother—“a fat baby, healthy…”–who was just nine months old, to the flu, and was among the only members of her family well enough to attend the funeral.

“I was real young,” Price recalled. “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 and then slam the curtain down?’ And he said, ‘They think that somebody in their family will be next.’”

The pandemic caused more than just heartbreak, however—it ripped society apart at the seams.

“All of these deaths caused a severe disruption in the economy,” states the USHHS web site. “Claims against life insurance policies skyrocketed, with one insurance company reporting a 745 percent rise in the number of claims made. Small businesses, many of which had been unable to operate during the pandemic, went bankrupt.”

According to the Wikipedia flu pandemic site, at least one global industry did benefit; “Many businesses in the entertainment and service industries suffered losses in revenue, but the health care industry reported profit gains.”[

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services notes that at the time of the flu pandemic, Colorado’s residents were nearly equally divided among rural and urban areas.  And a remote location offered no protection at all.

“…Silverton lost nearly ten percent of its population,” the web site notes. “Morticians, who died along with their fellow citizens, were in short supply, as were coffins. While Coloradans died in large numbers across the state, miners, whose lungs had already been weakened, died in greater numbers than their fellow citizens. Those living at higher altitudes also died in greater numbers than those living in lower regions.”

The USHHS site also notes that while nobody has an exact figure as to how many people lost their lives in the 1918 flu pandemic, recent estimates have suggested a global mortality rate of between 30 and 50 million. Wikipedia