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The smallpox epidemic of 1899

by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA — Walsenburg World, Feb. 16, 1899. Two cases of smallpox have been reported in Cucharas.
Such an innocuous sentence, yes? No.
Cucharas was an important point on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad line, where the tracks branched from the north to head either west to La Veta Pass and beyond, or south to El Moro and the coalfields of Las Animas County. If railroad workers were exposed to smallpox, they could carry the virus all along the line.
In 1899, the D&RG was converting the old narrow gauge between La Veta and Alamosa to broad, or standard, gauge. The company had put out bids for the work, and one called Clough and Anderson had been hired to complete the grade from La Veta to the San Luis Valley. The standard gauge had been completed into La Veta from the east in 1893, and in the town’s yards many types of goods, including tons of ore from the Cripple Creek and San Juan areas, logs destined for mine props, livestock, mail and all manner of merchandise, along with passengers, were transferred from the big cars into the narrow cars for the trip across the mountains.
Clough and Anderson had been hiring hundreds of railroad workers, mostly graders, throughout the winter. At the promised rate of about $2.00 a day, plus room (in a tent) and board (mostly beans), there were a lot of applicants from all over Colorado and out of state. They began converging in earnest on La Veta in March and were sent on west to camps along the right of way. While the pass itself was still covered with snow, work began at the lower elevations.
The graders mostly came to La Veta by way of Cucharas, which you recall is about six miles east of Walsenburg. There, many contracted not only with the railroad, but also with the smallpox virus.
La Veta merchants were happily anticipating collecting graders’ dollars while they were in town. They were not expecting a disaster.
The first graders turned out to be a bit obstreperous, so the town fathers that March made arrangements to hire a new marshal, and to move the jail. One of the applicants for marshal was an oldtimer named William McWhirter, who’d brought his family west with the Georgia Colony, and the man hired to move the jail was “Mr.” Pushee, who’d bid $10 for the task.
Clough and Anderson, meanwhile, had built a powder house for their dynamite just west of town, rented quarters for an office and leased the big warehouse of Dave Ryus for nine months. And the graders kept coming.
In March, the town was stricken with a scarlet fever epidemic. It had just weathered another of “la grippe”, a strain of flu. At the beginning of April, special trains and local hack lines appeared to transport graders up to their camps lining Middle Creek. Many had little to do beyond work, and drinking was a constant problem. If the men could not find whiskey at the camps, they came into town.
At the Friday, April 21 meeting of Town Board, newly elected mayor R.A. Hayes told the assemblage that since there was smallpox in town, he had asked the three local doctors to go to the camps to investigate. Clough agreed to move his men outside of town limits. A quarantine was set to begin Saturday.
The very next night a special meeting was called. Already 10 men were in the smallpox hospital. Clough and Anderson denied there was smallpox in the camps, even though most of the sick being treated were graders from the camps. On Sunday another meeting brought the county health officer, Dr. C.M. McGuire, and a county commissioner. Their visit to the camps proved smallpox was present there. Finally, Clough took some responsibility for his employees’ illness and bought numerous tents and lots of camping supplies in Walsenburg and set up a quarantine camp just east of La Veta. However, the D&G and their contractors refused to pay for medical care already received by their workers. They claimed that since they had brought the sufferers into town for treatment, it was the town’s responsibility to pay for them!
By May 2, the town owed $140.50 for food, supplies, care and transport and burial of the dead (this is in the day of $2.00 coffins). A special meeting on May 4 found Commissioner E.A. Lewis, who was overseeing the disease around the county, telling Town Board that patients wanting to go to the hospital could do so, but their homes must be disinfected, their families vaccinated (the vaccine had been around for nearly two centuries, but did not become standard until World War I, because the inoculation could be as potent as the disease) and quarantined. If he, or she, though few women left their homes and families to go into separate quarantine, stayed put, he would be responsible for his own medical expenses.
On May 7 the Town Board ruled that no railroad workers could enter town limits for any reason whatsoever, and that Clough and Anderson must move all their sick workers out of town within 24 hours.
Of course it was too late. How many graders died is unknown, as there was no accountability of any kind on the part of the D&RG and its contractors. La Veta lost possibly 10 or 12 of her citizens, among them William McWhirter, the wannabe marshal, and Nellie Pushee, 21, the daughter of the jail mover.
By June 10, the town owed $1,700 in smallpox related expenses. The town was locked up tight against transients, and the camps were quarantined. Yet still the ill were found writhing on sidewalks, in alleys and in homes around town. Twenty-two patients were still in the quarantine hospital (although there were also three cases of “black measles”).
As quickly as it overwhelmed La Veta, the smallpox epidemic waned in mid June. By July 1, it was over. The quarantine was lifted and church services resumed. Haying started, and sawmills went back into operation now that people could leave their homes safely. Saloons and hotels reopened. Later that month the county agreed to pay three quarters of the expenses incurred if the Town of La Veta would cover the rest. By March of 1900, it was determined the epidemic cost the county $2,975.32.
But it cost La Veta more, in lives.