SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


When 'The Great Influenza' Shut Down Ketchikan
More than a dozen residents died, but Ketchikan had a milder strain than other communities in 1918


November 26, 2008
Wednesday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska - Ninety years ago on November 23rd, the city of Ketchikan let out a collective sigh of relief.

For nearly a month, theaters, restaurants, schools and most stores had been closed. City Health officer Harry Ayers had forbidden gatherings larger than a handful of people. The reason: An attempt to stop the spread of the "Great Influenza" in Ketchikan.

On November 23, 1918, the public ban on gatherings would be lifted and life would return somewhat to normal but many residents would still be affected and some local residents were suffering lingering affects as late as the summer of 1920.

The influenza had arrived in Ketchikan in October, on ships coming from Seattle and Vancouver where it had quickly spread. Although it would "only" claim around 16 lives in Ketchikan, public health officials would later estimate that nearly a third of the more than 2,000 residents of the community would come down with influenza that would claim more than 50 million lives world-wide in a matter of months.

Modern scientists estimate that more than 20 percent of the people on earth had at least some symptoms of the "Great Influenza."

The exact cause of the Great Influenza has never been precisely pinpointed, although most researchers agree that it first appeared in the United States in the spring of 1918.

Within months it was spread world wide, primarily because of the massive troop movements taking place in the latter stages of World War I.

John Barry, author of the 2004 book, "The Great Influenza:The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History" believes the first signs of the new virulent form of the flu appeared in Haskell, County Kansas in February of 1918. By early March it had spread to large military encampments at Fort Riley and Fort Dodge.

Barry writes that plague was different from most of the known flus at the time because it tended to strike down young healthy people at a greater rate than the traditional targets of the flu: the young, the elderly and the already sick.

It was later determined that the great influenza inflicted its greatest damage by causing the immune systems of people to go into a form of overdrive that literally killed them.

Because healthy people had stronger immune systems they were more susceptible to the 1918 influenza. Many died within hours of showing the first symptoms ­ usually an inability to walk, followed by a blueish tint to the face and finally the coughing of blood from the lungs.

"Headlines Announced The Flu Was Coming"

Although the first cases of the influenza didn't appear in Ketchikan until late in October of 1918, residents had had a warning it was coming. Headlines in the September 17, 1918 Ketchikan Daily Progressive Miner noted that the epidemic was raging in Boston and New York.

By Oct. 12, Seattle officials were reporting dozens of deaths.

In mid October, Ketchikan resident Author Moa ­ the adopted god-son of Forest Hunt ­ wrote to his family in Ketchikan from Fort Dodge, Kansas, where he had been training for service in Europe since early September.

"There are many cases of Spanish influenza in camp and several deaths have occurred from it," he wrote, in the letter that was printed in the Oct. 18 edition of the Daily Progressive Miner. "The camp is under quarantine now."

By then most of the coastal communities in Alaska were also under quarantine. Territorial Governor Thomas Riggs had placed a marine quarantine in place, but it was impossible enforce because of the need for supplies in the isolated communities.

On October 19, it was reported that theaters in San Francisco and Seattle were closed and that public gatherings were banned. In the same issue of the Progressive Miner, it was reported that the captain of a local fishing vessel had just arrived from Prince Rupert and reported that more than 800 cases of the influenza and eight deaths had occurred there.

Also on the 19th, it was reported that pianist at the Dream Theater, Mrs. F.J. Woods, had left for Seattle the day before to go to Camp Dodge to take care of her husband, who had been stricken with the flu.

On Oct. 22, six cases of the influenza were reported in Loring and Ketchikan city council held an emergency meeting to decide what to do. The Loring cases were limited to crew members on the cannery ship Star of England, but local officials were concerned that others traveling from Loring would spread the disease here.

"Officials ordered Ketchikan 'Closed'"

The city council chambers were packed by citizens worried over the spread of the influenza. The council immediately approved the closure of most public operations in the city including the "schools, churches, theaters, and prohibiting of all public and social gatherings, pool rooms and all."

Children were warned to stay inside their homes and "special officers have been appointed to see that none enter the city without a physician's certificate of health."

The Daily Progressive Miner quoted city mayor A.A Wakefield as saying the city would take "every precaution to prevent infection from what ever source, at whatever cost and in accord with the principal that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

But it was already too late.

The next day, Dr. Henry Story reported to the Daily Progressive Miner that he had already been called to attend to several cases of the influenza. At least two cases were attributed to a recent arrival on the Princess Sophia. Story reported that the strain of the flu thus far appeared to be a mild form and that the patients were recovering.

On Oct. 25, Story reported that two dozen more cases of the flu had been reported and several families were completed "infirmed." Later that day, Mayor Wakefield order the public library to be closed int order to prevent the transferring of the disease by books.

On the 26th, the city set up a "temporary" hospital in the basement of the Methodist Church. Dr. Story reported that more than 100 residents were now showing signs of the disease and that several were in "very serious" condition. Mayor Wakefield asked for volunteers to help man the sickbeds and one who stepped up was Main School teacher Harriett Rossiter, according to local historian June Allen.

"Most people were afraid to go anywhere near those ill with the dreaded disease," Allen wrote on SITNEWS in 2003. "But Miss Rossiter nursed the isolated flu patients in a temporary hospital set up in the basement of the Methodist Church on Main Street, earning the town's gratitude."

"Villages Also Report Epidemic"

Dr. Dickenson also reported to the Daily Progressive on the 26th that the influenza had spread to several of the villages in the area and that many Natives were falling ill.

Also on the 26th, Russel Radenbaugh reported in a letter that "all the Ketchikan boys" had Camp Dodge were suffering from the flu but that his case had been mild.

Unfortunately, here is where the historical record has a hole. Two of the three employees at the Daily Progressive Miner, Paul Stanhope and Frank Elkins, came down with the disease, according to Lew Williams Jr's history of Alaskan news papering "Bent Pins to Chains."

The Daily Progressive Miner apparently stopped publishing until the second week in November.

On Nov. 14, George Hunter reported to the Daily Progressive Miner that seven people had died in Hydaburg.

On Nov. 16, the newspaper reported that Hazel Brown of Ketchikan had also died overnight, the fifth person to die in Ketchikan. That same day funerals were held for Mrs. George Brown and George Reglas.

On Nov. 17, Dr. Story reported that the number of cases ­ now estimated at more than 900 ­ had appeared to have peaked and that only a handful of new cases appeared overnight.

On Nov. 20, the Progressive Miner reported that the its printer Frank Elkins had died and that he was the eleventh local victim of the influenza.

On Nov. 22, city officials met and decided to lift the quarantine on public gathering.

"At the meeting it was evident that the people felt the worst was over and according voted ­ almost unanimously ­ to lift the ban," the Daily Progressive reported on the public meeting.

"Theaters 'Influenza Free'"

On Nov. 23, theaters were opened again and on the 24th, local churches had their first public services in more than a month.

The two Ketchikan theaters, the Dream and the Grand, both ran large advertisements trumpeting the fact that both theaters had been "fumigated, cleaned" and were "entirely influenza free."

But if the worst was over in Ketchikan, the same could not be said in much of the rest of Alaska. Nome reported that more than 150 Natives had died in nearby villages. Public health officials now estimate that between 4,000 and 5,000 Alaska Natives may have died in the Great Influenza of 1918, approximately 20 percent of the statewide Native population. By comparison, an estimated 500 white people died statewide, approximately two percent of the white population.

Early on in the epidemic, Territorial governor Riggs had traveled to Washington D.C. to seek additional funding and additional manpower to deal with the crisis and was granted $100,000 and several doctors were sent north. But winter had already arrived and they were unable to visit many of the isolated villages. When they surveyed the villages in the villages in the Spring they found that many of the smaller ones had been completely wiped out.

There were similar occurrences in Native villages along the British Columbia coast according to Prince Rupert Daily News.

Contemporary news accounts also indicated that Prince Rupert had been hit harder that Ketchikan by the epidemic.

The November 19, 1918 edition of the Daily News indicated that the epidemic which peaked in Prince Rupert around Oct. 22 had killed more than 35 people and sickened over 1,200.

Editor's note:

Dave Kiffer's great uncle, Ed Parker, was one of the Ketchikan victims of The Great Influenza.


On the Web:

Historical Ketchikan... Historical Alaska - More Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
To republish this article, the author requires a publication fee.
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Dave Kiffer ©2008

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