Lessons from the 1918 flu pandemic in Aspen

Tim Willoughby
For the Aspen Times Weekly

Should I use soap and water or wear a mask? Should I take the train? Will they close the schools? What will this do to local businesses? Aspen’s residents faced the 1918 influenza pandemic with the same questions we ask about the new coronavirus today.

The answers were not much different.

Aspen first took notice when newspapers reported a large outbreak in Spanish cities in July 1918, hence the informal name “Spanish influenza.” Spain may have seemed far away, but World War I had focused American attention on Europe. Around the same time, reports indicated the affliction had felled German troops, a greater consequence for Americans than the death of Spaniards: would influenza alter or end the war?

By August, papers reported the epidemic had killed 109 Swiss Army soldiers, and more than 14,000 others were sick. The pandemic began to quickly spread on our home shores, and grew into a tangible threat, rather than a far-away curiosity, much like COVID-19 has here since the first confirmed case in Washington state in January.

Our main lines of defense have not changed — leadership, quarantines and our daily decisions and habits.

Late in August, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office reported an outbreak of the Spanish influenza at Fort Morgan, an Army camp in Alabama. In September, newspapers across the country published his explanation of how the disease spread and his advice: “wear a gauze mask, and avoid crowded areas like street cars.”

At that time he considered quarantining impractical.

Thousands of young conscripted men resided in training camps across the country. Several men shared a small tent, and they pitched the tents close together. Men marched side by side all day, and the disease spread rapidly. In a short period of time the Army announced more than 20,000 cases, with 10,000 at Camp Devens in Massachusetts.

That eastern state seemed far away from Aspen. But soon the Army reported that the disease had infected troops who had been training on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. Letters home from Aspen’s soldiers began to report illness and deaths of local troops in the camps.

Overnight, everything changed. On Oct. 24, Charles Wagner, Aspen’s mayor, wrote in a proclamation, “It appears that there are some well-defined cases of Spanish influenza in the city of Aspen and vicinity.” He closed schools, churches, assembly halls and theaters.

A week later, Aspen tallied eight people, including one of the town’s two doctors, in the hospital with respiratory problems. Four men had died. Aspen asked the Colorado Board of Health to supply an additional doctor to address the crisis. The local American Red Cross organized nurses to train other helpers and make home visits. Citizens were advised to “stop visiting neighborly talk, keep children confined to the yard, dress warmly, and if you had business downtown do it quickly without socializing.”

The common occurrence of influenza, or the “flu” as we refer to it today, added to confusion. Every few years outbreaks had spread across the country, including Aspen. Some people considered the Spanish influenza as just another flu.

But the pandemic took its toll on the young, the old and the vulnerable. Deaths from respiratory complications rose. No antibiotics at the time would hold at bay respiratory complications, such as pneumonia.

A century ago in Aspen, when the population was about 1,200, many miners died when mining and smoking damaged their lungs. Winter and high altitude added additional respiratory challenges. Childbirth killed many women and infant mortality ran high. Tuberculosis, or “consumption,” raged with little control. The Spanish influenza distinguished itself from other maladies mainly through a faster spread and higher mortality rate.

As with COVID-19 today, no cure existed for the Spanish influenza. Only the symptoms responded to treatment. Like today, quacks pushed unproven home remedies for the disease. They offered cinnamon oil to relieve congestion. Al Lamb Drugstore in Aspen advertised and sold Foley’s Honey and Tar. The ads claimed the mixture contained no opiates, and that children liked it.

Grand Junction closed its public places in October and reported 22 cases with one dead. In early November, Montrose reported 381 Spanish influenza cases, with 41 deaths in 55 days, a death rate that exceeded 10%.

We worry today about travel on airplanes. Compare a couple of hours on a crowded plane to a much longer journey on a crowded train. In 1918, trains connected the country. Aspen held close ties to Leadville and Denver. Salesmen and other businesspeople traveled among the towns daily.

Aspen’s quick action appeared to work and the number of cases and deaths began to drop. Near the end of November, the government lifted the ban on public events. But cases continued to add up, and another large outbreak occurred. In February, Aspen closed its schools again.

In January 1920, Chicago reported 2,230 cases of Spanish influenza with 31 deaths. An additional 321 pneumonia cases resulted in 45 deaths. A few people demanded that Prohibition be suspended because of the outbreak. A health official countered, “Whiskey is not a cure for the flu nor a remedy.”

The 1918 pandemic affected personal stories, including those of my family. As well as killing the very young and the very old, the Spanish influenza took its toll of younger men. John Sheehan, my grandfather, died at the age of 33 and left a widow with five young children. Sheehan’s brother-in-law also died from the influenza. His widow, Ethel Frost, had been pregnant and lost her baby. With little income, the two widows moved into a house on Main Street, now occupied by Explore Booksellers.

My mother had been only 10 years old at the time, and she told me her father’s funeral etched a vivid memory. Gatherings at churches had been banned, so the ceremony took place in front of their new home. The year dealt several grim blows: a pandemic, World War I, closure of Aspen’s largest mine and many left without work.

The 1918 pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide. It killed 50 million, including 675,000 in the United States. Aspen lost a large proportion relative to its population.

For COVID-1,9 we can use modern test kits to accurately identify the disease, we can treat it with more sophisticated ventilators, and technology offers the potential for immediate and far-reaching communication. But our main lines of defense have not changed — leadership, quarantines and our daily decisions and habits. The 1918 surgeon general’s admonition is worth repeating, “coughs and sneezes spread diseases.”

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective for The Aspen Times. Reach him at