History in Focus: 2020 and 1918 | CraigDailyPress.com

History in Focus: 2020 and 1918

The Covid-19 crisis has created a surge of fear and brought the frantic nature of American life to a screeching halt. Yet, we can conquer today’s uncertainty if we look back into Moffat County’s not-so-distant past and figure out how our beloved town battled the deadly flu epidemic of 1918. 

In 1917-18, the 1,200 residents of Craig confronted several “unprecedented” events: US entrance into the Great War, shipping young men off to the bloody trenches of France, and control and rationing of the economy by the War Industries Board.  To top it off, the vicious 1918 flu insidiously spread around the world claiming 8,000 Coloradans, 675,000 Americans, and millions around the world (www.cdc.gov – History of 1918 Flu Pandemic).

The US army rapidly expanded from a mere 378,000 to 4.7 million, creating jam-packed military bases ripe for the spread of disease.  At the same time, an avian flu mutated and infected swine herds in eastern Kansas, and in March of 1918, the first 100 flu victims were discovered at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas (www.cdc.gov).

Ironically, happily isolated Moffat County found its young men in the middle of the flu epidemic from the beginning.  On September 6, 1917 the Moffat County Courier announced its first two draftees, Roy D. Edwards and James Monoghan, had recently departed for Camp Funston!  On September 13, thirteen more draftees were announced…and shipped to Camp Funston.

While Moffat County’s young men faced the Hun, the flu moved through the US in three distinct waves and the deadly second wave slammed Moffat County in October of 1918.  On October 16, the Craig Empire announced the local board of health, “passed an order closing all public gathering places. This includes schools, churches, lodges, theatres, pool halls, card rooms, dances, and social affairs…”  Without internet, social media, television, radios, or even telephones, the sudden social distancing must have been extreme and intense. 

Further, the order stated “no loafing or standing around” was allowed in buildings or public areas, businesses were expected to ventilate fresh air, and no more than twelve people were allowed into the post office.  Any business using cuspidors (spittoons) was required to clean them twice a day.  The order also stated: “Do not allow any one in the home to spit or expectorate (spit phlegm) upon the floor nor in the coal bucket…”  Hmm…I just assumed no one would spit on any floor, flu or no flu!

Children were permitted to come to town on errands but they had to return home immediately. 

Children could play outdoors, “but in no event must they be more than one block from home and parents will be held responsible for the enforcement of this order.”

But it was too little, too late.  With no hospital, no electricity, and nurses drained away to the war effort, Craig was at the mercy of the vicious virus.  By the end of October, The Moffat County Courier reported 150 flu cases (10/31/18).  In desperation, the newly constructed Breeze School was converted into a temporary hospital to  improve care and reduce workload for medical staff. 

The Breeze Street school following it’s construction.
Photo courtesy Museum of Northwest Colorado

Official deaths from the flu in Moffat County are hard to come by.  At the height of the epidemic, entities were strained; even the local newspapers struggled to keep going and obituaries were haphazard.  Yet, in just one death we can feel the emotion and sense of loss during this difficult time.

Mrs. Alice Pratt created a small home hospital and ministered to many flu victims.  Worn down and weakened, she fell prey to the killer influenza.  She left behind a husband and three children, the oldest just 16. Without hyperbole the Craig Empire wrote, “It can be truthfully said Mrs. Alice Pratt gave her life for humanity” (10/30/18).

As the flu started to subside, the Germans surrendered on November 11. In Craig, a crowd of young men dragged the Kaiser in effigy behind a truck and hung him from the municipal flagpole at the intersection of Yampa and Victory Way.  After repeated blasts of dynamite the Kaiser fell to the ground where he was torn apart by several patriotic dogs.

By January of 1919 the Breeze School was disinfected and reopened, and life slowly regained its former tempo.  And soon enough, in the manner of our predecessors, we, too, will emerge from our eery moment of slowed down uncertainty to resume our hard work, goals, and pursuits.

Thanks to Dan Davidson, Director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, for his research and access to the museum archives.  James Neton can be contacted at: netonjim@yahoo.com 

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