Newspaper Archive of
Walsh County Press
Park River , North Dakota
January 4, 2012     Walsh County Press
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January 4, 2012

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PAGE 10 THE PRESS JANUARY 4, 2012 The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: ]P',mt00t ][ By David Larson for The Press PARK RIVER, N.D. --The autumn of 1918 was strange: it was, to coin a phrase, the best of times and the worst of times--a rime of overwhelming joy, a time of relentless terror. The joy erupted at the end of the Great War. In 1917 the United States had finally entered the con- flict against an enemy that could be fought against, the German army. As tens of thousands of fresh American troops and mountains of materiel flooded France in 1918, the German army broke. Overall losses were appalling: the war's soldier victims numbered 10 mil- lion worldwide, 47 of them from Walsh County. But on November 11, 1918, after four years of slaugh- ter the Germans were finally de- feated. The terror was an enemy that could not be fought, an enemy that struck at random and struck with impunity--the Spanish Flu. The influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 struck so rapidly and so heavily that in certain areas of the world that the bodies could not be buried, nor even counted accurately. Its victims numbered 50 and 100 mil- lion worldwide, 5 to 10 times the number of men who died on the battlefields of Europe. It infected all age groups, but was particularly lethal to people in the prime of life, from ages 20 to 40. It killed quickly. The normal course of the disease began with "normal" flu symptoms, which rapidly became more intense. The victim became too weak and feverish to get out of bed. Then, after a period ranging from three to ten days, the flu either went away, or turned into pneumo- nia. Pneumonia cases were severe, but didn't last long. A crisis situa- tion arrived in a day or so: victims either survived the crisis, or they didn't. There are estimates that in some areas more than 50% of the popu- r lation contracted the Spanish flu, and that 10-20% of those victims died of it. It is impossible to tell how accurate these figures are; even in the United States no one, it seems, not even county health offi- cers, had the time to count the af- flicted accurately. Based upon the information in Park River newspa- pers for 1918-1919, those percent- ages appear to be a bit high, never- theless the last months of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 were times of severe disruption of the usual pattern of life in Park River. The epidemic in the US began in the spring of 1918 in a Kansas army camp. It was rapid-spread- ing, debilitating, and deadly, but it was also far away from North Dakota and isolated from the gen- eral public. Through the summer of 1918 there was no mention of the epidemic in the local papers whatsoever, unless perhaps it was an article in the national news. In- evitably, though, the epidemic spread from Kansas to the nation and-from military camps to the broader public. Park River was first hit indirectly; a local soldier died far from home in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Lt. Oliver Ellingson was sick with influenza for about a week. When he began to feel bet- ter the hospital released him. The next day, Sunday, he was back in the hospital; by 5:00 Monday he was dead. A week later he was buried in Garfield Cemetery. The same week Ellingson died two more Walsh County soldiers died in military camps. The local reporters knew what both papers in town knew, but didn't talk about: the epidemic was spreading. At exactly the time of Ellingson's death a marine from New Rockford brought' the flu home to North Dakota; by Octobe r 6 over a hundred cases were re- ported in New Rockford alone. Our local reporter's only conces- sion to the growing concern was to comment that "there are no cases of influenza here." As the month of October dawned the local papers, the Press and the Herald, were still playing ostrich. If a reader judged solely on the basis of the newspapers, Park River's life was very normal: Police Chief Schlenk offered a $10 reward for arrest of the people who were damaging street signs, the Lyric offered 15 cents and 10 cents admissions to a five-reel movie; wheat prices were stable; the Con- way bank was robbed. The papers described Lt. Ellingson's funeral in detail, but didn't saya word about the influenza epidemic. Well, maybe there was: the obituary of pioneer Grafton merchant Stewart Caimcross mentioned that he had died of pneumonia "following a severe cold." The Grafton News and Times mentioned that Cecil Birder of Park River had contracted pneumonia, but it played the same game as the Park River papers: in- fluenza struck elsewhere, not at home. By the second week in October, though, the epidemic was so ad- vanced that it could not be totally ignored. The county commission- ers closed down unnecessary pub- lic gatherings, and directed that public places of amusement be thoroughly fumigated and disin- fected during the present Spanish Influenza epidemic "that is scour- ing the country." The State Board of Health then closed all schools and all public meetings in towns in- fected by Spanish Influenza. Both local newspapers carried the no- rice. The Gazette even gave it front page coverage--three short para- graphs of canned press release, hid- den at the very bottom of the page. Park River newspapers, like oth- ers in the county, reported faraway deaths, but not local conditions. Even as a hundred New Rockford citizens tried tO recuperate from the flu, and as the Grand Forks news- papers began to reveal the spread of the disease, the local newspapers mentioned absolutely nothing about the our situation. Instead they reported the death of an eight- een-year-old local boy at Camp Custer, near Battle Creek. Private Robert Bates' father received a telegram at 4:00 that his son was critically ill; a second telegram, two hours later, announced Robert's death. Nevertheless, the local flu seeped--indirectly--into the pa- pers. I