Vancouver was an Army town in 1918, and on Nov. 11 of that year joyful residents held a parade to celebrate the end of World War I. While soldiers marched in the streets, they later returned to Vancouver Barracks, where they were otherwise under a strict quarantine.
Residents had also recently been under a statewide quarantine. But local officials allowed the war-weary residents to emerge from it as Clark County grappled with the local peak of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Today, COVID-19 has halted routine life, with some referring to the fight against the new virus as a war. While unique in our lifetime, there is a precedent in the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents.
When influenza hit just over a century ago, the World War I effort had already prepared the Vancouver area for — and at times distracted it from — the pandemic.
“I think everybody was already kind of used to thinking of tens and tens of thousands of people dying each week,” local historian Jeff Davis said. “It was on a back burner to everybody.”
Typical of many communities during the influenza pandemic, the exact number of illnesses and deaths in Clark County remains unclear. Robust record keeping fostered illusions of high numbers of cases in places like Spain, precipitating the “Spanish flu” misnomer.
Of the several waves of the influenza pandemic, Clark County most viscerally experienced the second wave, said Donna Sinclair, an adjunct professor of history at Washington State University Vancouver.
The virus spread like butter in the battlefield trenches of Europe and at military outposts throughout the world, eventually including Vancouver Barracks.
“It hit really quickly, and it was like a tornado,” Sinclair said.
When it was over, an estimated 675,000 Americans had died, along with tens of millions around the world. More than 4,000 people died from September through December of 1918 in Washington, which fared better than most states, according to a 2017 essay written by Whidbey Island historian John Caldbick.
“Vancouver in Clark County was one of the first cities in the state to address the pandemic,” Caldbick wrote.
Newspapers in 1918 offered plenty of stories about the final months of World War I, but relatively few about the growing pandemic.
A story on April 3, 1918, about a “mysterious illness” that struck 2,000 Ford Motor Co. employees in Michigan appears to be the first mention of the looming crisis in the Vancouver Daily Columbian.
“It was kind of an, ‘Oh gee, well, isn’t that awful. But we’ll be OK,’ kind of thing,” local historian Pat Jollota said.
Newspapers published creative, but incorrect, treatments for flu. One recommendation involved cutting an onion in half and setting it in a room to absorb flu germs. Another advised people to mix table salt with water to use as a nasal spray, tooth powder or mouthwash.
“They didn’t know what it was,” Jollota said. “You couldn’t conceive of something that was alive but not really alive.”
By late September 1918, another headline read, “Epidemic of influenza is in training camps.” The surgeon general would soon issue a warning that the virus was sweeping westward.
By Oct. 10, 1918, 50 people in Vancouver were reported to have contracted the virus.
Local governments and officials at the barracks frequently communicated with each other. These connections, combined with military resources and access to information, was key to the city’s quick response, Sinclair said.
“There was concerted effort to halt it as soon as possible,” Sinclair said. “I think that the public health aspect of the military being here was probably pretty important.”
Three days before the report of 50 cases, city and county health officer Dr. J.M.P. Chalmers, who would battle influenza himself a couple of weeks later, warned the Vancouver City Council that influenza had appeared. At that same meeting, the council closed all public places, including schools, churches, theaters and dance halls.
The order came just a day after a similar directive was issued in Seattle, where the flu had struck a few days before coming to Vancouver. Other areas of the state waited until as late as mid-January 1919 to issue closure orders.
In mid-October 1918, local faith leaders told newspapers that they would go to places of worship and pray for their congregations. But they asked other worshippers to stay home.
“For the first time in the history of Vancouver, running back nearly a century, no church bell tolled in the city yesterday,” read an Oct. 15, 1918, story in the Morning Oregonian. “When the city awoke from its late slumbers, all of the principal streets took the appearance of promenades.”
In the weeks before more strict quarantine measures were put in place on Nov. 2, soldiers at the barracks were not allowed to gather in public places but could host friends and family. Military police patrolled public places to disperse any crowds of soldiers who had gathered.
Street traffic plummeted. An Oct. 12, 1918, story in The Oregonian noted a “material decrease in traffic, and the (Interstate) Bridge tolls are at low tide.”
By Nov. 6, the state Board of Health had ordered people to wear masks in public places.
The mask mandate didn’t receive a groundswell of support and was difficult to enforce. But it was a source of humor for those who read a story in the Nov. 7, 1918, Columbian about lawyers wearing masks during court proceedings.
“Superior Court Conducted by Masked Men,” the headline read.
Many Clark County residents who lived outside of Vancouver viewed influenza as an urban problem, Jollota said. But the virus spread to small communities as well.
“People would say, ‘Don’t go to Vancouver. There’s flu there.’ But it was traveling into their towns,” Jollota said.
‘Strangers came here and died’
For civilians, an emergency hospital was established at St. James Parish Hall with 50 cots to ease the burden on St. Joseph Hospital, the main permanent medical facility at the time.
The emergency hospital would remain open until Dec. 17, 1918, when the six remaining patients transferred to a less-pressed St. Joseph. In two months, the emergency hospital treated 120 patients, five of whom died.
The Vancouver Barracks Post Hospital typically saw about 1,000 patients per year, Sinclair said. About 2,500 checked in over the course of 1918.
During World War I, the barracks served as a demobilization center and hosted the Spruce Production Division, which milled the wooden frames for Army warplanes. About 13,805 people lived in Vancouver, and the barracks housed about 9,500 soldiers and Spruce Production Division employees, Sinclair said.
At the height of the influenza crisis, 85 nurses tended to 1,400 patients at the barracks. At one point, the barracks sent out a plea for more nurses.
“It just brought a whole phalanx of potential victims,” Jollota said. “They were strangers who came here and died.”
In 1918, newspapers would regularly publish stories about individual deaths, caused naturally or otherwise. That practice continued during the influenza era.
Local victims included 15-year-old Ralph Brown, 24-year-old Margaret Young and YMCA Secretary Eric P. Holt. Soldiers who died at the barracks included Hans Christofferson, who lived near Salem, Ore.
Richard Sleight was aiming toward a commission as a soldier at the barracks, working in the shipyards during the day and performing drills at night. He contracted the flu after the constant work, along with commutes in the rain to and from Portland. After 10 painful days, he died at age 28.
Dr. Miles Lieser was one of several medical professionals to contract the flu. While recovering, he developed pneumonia and died.
In a 1992 interview, one of numerous oral accounts archived by the Clark County Historical Museum, Kenneth Teter of Ridgefield recalled that Lieser had helped his mother deliver him in 1916. He described Lieser, who was a member of a pioneering local family, as an “ingenious man.”
Neil Atkinson of Vancouver said in a 1980 interview that his mother suffered a mild case of influenza. Many of his neighbors also contracted the virus, and some died.
“It was serious, and many people in Vancouver were sick with it,” Atkinson said. “It was just a, well, just a very serious epidemic.”
Ardis Woodward Dye of La Center was 15 years old in 1918. She joked in a 1989 interview that, despite being “pudgy” in her youth, she lost a considerable amount of weight due to the flu.
“The doctor was worried,” she said. “He had to give me something to build me up.”
Dye said her mother also suffered from the flu and it nearly killed her. After her own bout, Dye developed chronic bronchitis.
“I guess I was dangerously ill even though we didn’t have sense enough to know,” Dye said.
An unpleasant reminder
By late October 1918, the height of the outbreak was believed to have passed. The number of new cases had decreased to roughly 20 per day.
“The people of the city are losing much of their fear of the disease and realizing more that the best of care must be taken of patients, thus decreasing materially the death rate,” according to an Oct. 31 story in The Columbian. So the parade was held on Nov. 11, the official day of the cease-fire. (Today, we celebrate it as Veterans Day.)
Nearly two weeks after the parade, concerns rose about a resurgence of the virus as 33 new cases were reported. Residents were fortunate that, while the flu appeared in smaller scale before and after the waning months of 1918, the virus would not wreak as much havoc as it had in October and early November.
But it was an unpleasant reminder that, while the “war to end all wars” had ended, another fight was not yet settled.
“People very quickly didn’t want to remember. They didn’t want to talk about it,” Sinclair said. “They pretty quickly wanted to move on, and there was a lot to deal with in the midst of the war.”