Odd, Old News: The Third Wave of the 1918 Pandemic in Humboldt County

Red Cross nurses posing next to Eureka hospital in 1919.

Red Cross nurses posing next to Eureka hospital in 1919. [Image from the Palmquist Collection in the Humboldt Room of HSU]

Nuggets of old news served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic continued on into 1919 as the “third wave” of the pandemic washed over America with a new surge in the number of flu cases and deaths. [After acknowledging the limitations of viewing the history of the outbreak in Humboldt County primarily through just one newspaper, Odd Old News will once again use the Blue Lake Advocate. Regrettably, library closures prevent a more in-depth, and accurate account of Humboldt County’s experience with the 1918 Pandemic and contributions in the comment section are even more welcome than usual.]

As the County’s preventative anti-flu measures relaxed during the month of December of 1918, normal activities resumed on a timeline that varied from community to community. At the end of December, the Blue Lake Presbyterian Church announced:

Since the public schools open next Monday, we will have Sunday school this Sunday, hoping that those who have any symptoms of the “flu” or have been lately exposed, will stay away, but likewise hoping that all the rest interested will come… Our first church service for two months will be held this Sunday evening at seven o’clock. We will celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years all in one and expect to have a joyous meeting. There will be special music and prayer…(Blue Lake Advocate, 12/28/18).

In some parts of Humboldt County, the “flu” was almost unknown, but it was not gone. A “third wave” of the pandemic appeared, and once again compulsory mask wearing ordinances, and school and public meeting closures were invoked to lessen the viral spread. As was the case across America, Red Cross nurses played an important role in the fight against the pandemic. The Eureka Red Cross Hospital pictured above was located at the corner of F Street and Trinity, and was later acquired by the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1920.

During the second wave of the flu, the Ferndale area had experienced few cases and had largely been spared. This was attributed to an aggressive local mask wearing campaign with such slogans as “The mask is not a sign of fear-it is a badge of honor that you are helping your city and country stamp out an epidemic. So wear one today”(Ferndale Enterprise, 11/1/1918). But in 1919 Ferndale suffered more than most communities as the few local Doctors got sick, and there was no hospital in town.

The flu situation is rather difficult to handle in this Ferndale valley at present, owing to a shortage of physicians. Dr. A. P. Griffin has been confined to his home the past week by an attack of the epidemic, and yesterday (Thursday) Dr. Ring was also reported on the sick list, suffering with a bad cold, but it was not thought influenza would develop. Dr. Griffin is improving nicely and will probably be able to be at work shortly, and Dr. Ring hopes to be out within a couple of days, when conditions will be greatly improved for furnishing medical attention to the sufferers from the prevailing epidemic. Dr. Marshall of Eureka was expected to be here yesterday and visit as many patients as his time would allow. There are but few serious cases reported and all these will receive attention if possible. Dr. Myers is working early and late, as have been all the other physicians until they were taken ill themselves. The flu situation has been worse during the past week than at any previous time here, but it is hoped the peak is now passed and that a rapid decline will be noted. A decrease is reported within the town, but around the valley there have been a great many new cases, in many instances entire families being down with the disease. The Red Cross workers have been untiring, and every nurse possible has been secured to care for the sufferers.(Blue Lake Advocate, 1/15/1919).

A lack of immunity from having previously avoided being exposed to the flu was also thought to have been a factor in the size of the 1919 outbreak in Ferndale.

In the middle of January it was reported that “The flu is steadily on the increase in this county right now, but not so much of a severe form as when it made its first appearance several months ago”(BLA 1/18/1919). Never-the-less, this led the City Trustees of Blue Lake to order the wearing of anti-flu masks in mid-January, and yellow posters were placed on houses needing to be quarantined.

The City Board of Trustees at their regular meeting last Wednesday evening acted upon the last anti-flu ordinance again, since the prevalence of the epidemic returned into our midst. The wearing of anti-flu masks has been reordered and everybody is requested to do so and try to avoid the spreading of the disease. The Clerk reports that Dr. E. W. Hill will place in every house known to have the flu, a yellow poster, telling of the epidemic in that particular house, which means the quarantining of the place. (BLA, 1/18/1919).

Just one week later it was reported that the flu epidemic was on the decline in the vicinity of Blue Lake, but that the seventeenth victim of influenza had died in Eureka in this most recent wave of the outbreak.

In San Francisco, the number of new cases grew again in early January and when a January 11 report from the Board of Health cited 458 new cases and 28 deaths, the Board of Supervisors imposed mandatory mask wearing again. Citizens who had grown weary of having to wear a mask in public formed an Anti-Mask League to repeal the law. Public resentment grew, and, against the wishes of the city’s chief health official, but in agreement with the Health Board, the SF Flu Mask Ordinance was lifted on February 1.

Back in Humboldt, despite a brief surge of flu cases in Eureka in early February that proved to be un-alarming, the third wave was on the wane in most parts of the county. Blue Lake had reopened their schools on the 3rd of February. “The flu in Loleta and vicinity is just about over, as most everybody has had the disease. The picture show started last week and it is hoped that school will soon open. Many of the cases here have been in light form. (BLA, 2/8/1919).

And in Fieldbrook: “The gentleman reports that everything is running fine in his neighborhood since the flu epidemic. The public school is again running and the people in general feel greatly relieved to know that this great scare, which in many cases was not a scare, is over. (BLA,2/15/19).

Only one new case in Blue Lake by mid-February led the newspaper to state that influenza was losing its grip on the area, but such was not the case in Fortuna and Hydesville where the board of health closed schools and public meeting places:

While the “flu” is prevalent in Fortuna and the surrounding communities it is pronounced by the two physicians of this city, Drs. Jorgensen and Rockwell, as being in a very light form, and thus far no cases of pneumonia have developed among the flu patients. However, every precaution is being taken by the local board of health to prevent the spread of the disease and all public meeting places have been closed for the present, which includes the churches, theatre, schools, club room, pool hall and lodge rooms. (BLA, 2/21/20).

Without a news article to confirm it, it is likely that life and activities returned to those communities within a few weeks as the third wave of the 1918 Influenza pandemic had largely come and gone in Humboldt County by the spring of 1919. Occasional deaths attributed to the flu occurred throughout the year, and the next winter did see a heavy flu season, but compared to many cities in the country, Humboldt County’s experience with the flu was not horrific.

How people of that era went through the pandemic was similar to how they went through outbreaks of other diseases that were more prevalent back then, they just got through it. There were numerous mentions of entire families being afflicted, Sunset magazine advertised their magazine as “full of interest for the whole flu family”. Cases were reported in the press as “the flu came to visit”, “a siege of the flu”, or people were on “flu vacation”. Fortunately this last wave of the outbreak showed itself to be a milder version of the first and second outbreaks of the pandemic, yet it still stretched the county’s medical resources beyond their capacity. Looking back we can see that the virus had mutated into something less potent. Tracking and studying the many mutations of Covid-19 is, and will continue to be an important part of how future anti-flu policies and treatments are determined.

When the 1918-9 Flu Pandemic subsided, Medical professionals tried to console the nation and give shared credit where it was due:

MEDICOS ON THE FLU–CHICAGO, Feb. 23. — That America will never experience another influenza epidemic that will take a toll as heavy as 1918 epidemic, was the opinion of many physicians gathered today for the meeting of the American Congress of Internal Medicine. The fight against the disease was not won alone by medical science, it was said, but through cooperation of the public. (BLA, 2/28/1919).

Earlier Odd and Old News:

There are many more, but here are the most recent:

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28 comments

  • A third wave? We haven’t even got to our second wave. Fourth wave? Oh well, flu season is only 6 months away…… extend the orders till than, seems the only logical thing to do. Why let up in a month from now? People could die!

  • One big difference a hundred years ago was that people were more used to thinking in terms of unavoidable illness. From chicken pox to the flu, illness happened and coping was the only option. Mothers (women in general) were the backbone of the “health system” for each family, having a repertoire of home remedies and experience in taking care of the sick.

    With vaccines, antibiotics, intensive care, etc, current Americans are shocked that “something”, usually done at someone else’s inconvenience, can’t be done to fix the problem. Even those old enough, or having lived in different situations than most Americans, have been lulled into complaicency by our stretch of good luck in avoiding epidemics.

    So here we are again. Reality is in your face again. And looks to be able to reassert itself for at least a year. That is disheartening but to offset that is the knowledge that each of us has ancestors who did cope. So we will too. It is not magic. It is in our genes. Thanks for the history of that.

  • The nurses in that picture are neither wearing masks nor social distancing.

  • The early 1900’s were an age of horrible sexual discrimination. Men were not accepted as Nurses, Airline Stewardesses, Waitresses or any other female dominated professions!

    Nowadays men are even allowed to wear pregnancy costumes. “We have come a long way baby”.

    On a serious note: We should all thank Redhead Blackbelt and David Heller for publishing what happened with the 1918 flu epidemic. We could all learn from their mistakes. (if we will)

    It also points out that no matter how much we criticize our forefathers, and their mistakes, how very much that we are exactly like them. Scary, isn’t it?

    • Thanks for the laugh Ernie. You are so right. As late as 1913 there were zero male stewardesses.

      • Ernie Branscomb

        1930
        “On this day, May 15, in 1930, Ellen Church and seven others began their first day of work as the country’s first flight attendants.”

        Opps…

  • The day the music Died

    Oh to reminisce of the days when Humboldt County had a REAL pandemic

    Now it’s just a communist Stay-cation kill ALL the local businesses and what little value was left in our weak ass.benjamins

    • Please help yourself and the country by switching off that FAKE fox news channel and turn on PBS or NPR for some unbiased news and views.

    • “Opening” the country now is sheer madness, given that the scientists say we need at least another month of staying at home. To defeat that necessity by re-opening too soon is not only selfish, it’s lazy and bloody stupid. tRump supporters with their irresponsible behavior are symbolically spitting in the faces of all those courageous medical people who have and continue to put their own lives at risk.

    • Were the percentage of flu deaths per capita, 200 out of 37,000 in 1919 (one out of 185 people), carried forward to our current population we would have about 800 deaths in the county. This doesn’t factor in modern medicine preventing some of these deaths. The things that jump out at me in the articles are the SF Chronicle’s claims that once the city took action, mandatory mask wearing and limiting public gatherings, in mid-Nov. a week later, the outbreak was on the wane, and full credit was given to the mask wearing… the conundrum has been expressed: “The only defense of the ‘social distancing’ and lockdown strategies is the old fallback of ‘heads-I-win-tails-you-lose.” If any of the metrics associated with Wuhan virus go down, it is because the appropriate measures were implemented in a timely fashion. The increase before the extraordinary methods was due to those methods not having been imposed. No thought is given to the equally possible reason that nothing anyone did had any effect and the virus simply ran its course. When we try to go back to normal and get hit by the ‘second wave,’ the cause will be because we abandoned the lockdown too soon, not that viral infections tend to run in waves, like, for instance, the two flu seasons we have each year.” The other detail I focus on is the apparent weakening of the virulence of the second wave through mutation. What will happen in the fall? Which strain of a number of strains will return? We have been fed so much speculative computer fiction that hasn’t come to pass—resulting in this ‘ratcheting’ down of control.
      I will wear my bandana inside like they want to protect others in this ‘pandemic exercise’, but I view the information we are receiving through very cynical eyes.

      • “Were the percentage of flu deaths per capita, 200 out of 37,000 in 1919 (one out of 185 people), carried forward to our current population we would have about 800 deaths in the county”.–
        Actually, this is somewhat of an illusory statistical reference that is based upon the limited exposure that Humboldt county had experienced due to its isolation and lack of travelers from outside the area back then, which is NOT the case today. ‘scuse me for adding more statistical noise to the “what if” cacophony.

      • No thought is given to the *equally possible reason that nothing anyone did had any effect and the virus simply ran its course. *

        AND

        …*viral infections tend to run in waves, like, for instance, the two flu seasons we have each year.”*

        Hear! Hear!

        As desperately as we scramble and grasp, and glorify our own efforts, there are so many things in this life that we cannot control.

        I read the studies that the CDC/local government is using to bolster the (new) argument for mandatory masking ,and those reports are littered with words like “could ,” and “may,” and “might. ” And when
        digging deeper into the specific situations where the few documented incidences of(assumed) asymptomatic carriers infecting others was happening? We meet none of the criteria. Read them yourself if you are curious.

      • You had me agreeing with you until you called it ‘speculative computer fiction’.
        I do hope that you believe the pandemic is real.
        When this finally passes & history looks back, I believe we are going to see so many more people having been infected & died from the coronavirus.

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