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Spanish Influenza

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — They say every cloud has its silver lining, but sometimes the cloud starts looking quite silvery in comparison to its lining.
Consider this sentence from an Oct. 25 issue of the long-defunct La Veta Advertiser, “Owing to the epidemic, it looks as if we are going to be spared political platform speeches.”
If it were only so in 2012! Unfortunately though, it seems we have to trade the dearth of politicking for a killer epidemic.
The particular epidemic referenced above was one of the worst – the “Spanish Influenza” of 1918, which killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people world wide and infected more than 500 million. The politicking was for the county election, which the Democrats carried.
The Spanish Influenza strain was, and still is, considered the worst pandemic to ever hit the world. There was much dissension as to where the epidemic started. It was first thought to have begun in Spain, thus the “Spanish” designation, but many fingers pointed at Camp Funston, Kansas, the self same Army training camp where Huerfano County’s young soldiers were sent.
The October 18, 1918 issue of the Walsenburg World announced the first local death from the disease – Miss Ruth Baer, a bookkeeper for Sears and Sears Garage in Walsenburg. Due to the worldwide nature of the illness and sudden appearance of it in Huerfano County, city authorities determined to at once open a hospital dedicated to flu victims.
By the next week’s issue, the World reported there were 15 flu cases in the city and 40 more in the county. Two had died. The city already was alarmed by a typhoid scare that had taken six lives that fall.
In La Veta, the Oct. 18th paper announced that all counties in Colorado were “closed” to escape danger of the epidemic. There were to be no public gatherings of any kind, including school classes, church services, parties, theater showings. Pool halls were closed. Even club meetings were cancelled. Soon, the editors were apologizing for the lack of local news due to the ban on gatherings.
The Spanish Influenza virus targeted the immune systems not so much of the children, elderly or infirm, as most contagious diseases do, but of healthy adults, even young ones.
Despite the ban, no one could remain inside when the wonderful news of an armistice ending the war – “The War to End All Wars” – was broadcast Nov. 11. There was great jubilation and no end of public gatherings.
And, in fact, the local ban was lifted, except in La Veta, Oakview coal camp and Gardner, where the bug was hanging on. Walsenburg returned to normal – briefly. The illness prevailed, more lives were claimed, and the ban was reinstated.
The county board of health, and county physician Dr. A.S. Abdun-Nur, once again lifted the ban in mid December, though in La Veta it was announced school would not reconvene until January. At least 13 residents of the town and Oakview had died. The Drs. Lamme, S. Julian and James M., had opened a hospital for the victims in Dr. Julian’s Main Street office and home. Dr. R.A. Mathew, also of La Veta, had obtained vaccine from the Mayo Clinic and was offering free inoculations. These may have worked because La Veta’s last death of the epidemic was in late December.
Luckily, Walsenburg had a number of physicians to care for the many sufferers. There were Dr. Paul Mathews and Dr. G.S. Greear, who had recently moved to the city from La Veta, and several others. The large Rouse coal camp had two able doctors, W.S. Chapman and A.F. Stanley. Gardner was caught in the epidemic without a physician; theirs had decamped when presented with his hotel bill shortly before.
Most of the larger coal camps turned rooms in their Y.M.C.A. buildings into infirmaries, and these were often manned by volunteers assisting the over worked doctors, some of whom were official company physicians for several camps at once. The worst cases in the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company’s camps were sent on to the company hospital, now St. Mary Corwin in Pueblo.
Some families were hit harder than others. The family of Ronaldo Trujillo of Clover, north of Gardner, lost three members. Five members of the extended Witters-Brummett family of La Veta were claimed. The deaths of many former residents and relatives of citizens made the news columns weekly.
The Spanish Influenza weakened the immune system so that many otherwise healthy individuals contracted bacterial pneumonia because of it. The victims who died of complications of the flu were numerous but not numbered, nor are those of the flu itself, but dozens of Huerfanos were killed and hundreds infected. An estimated 675,000 American lives were lost due to the flu and pneumonia. The moral of the story – Get your flu shot. And don’t forget to vote.