Willoughby: When flu snowballed into an influenza pandemic

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Red Cross nurses demonstrate how to transport a patient in 1918.

This year has gone down as one to remember for the flu. The number of cases has spiked and overflowed hospitals. Demand has lessened supplies of antiviral medication, which may prevent the spread of the virus that has invaded the body. Many of the most vulnerable, including dozens of children, have died. As badly as this year of influenza has been, the flu struck harder in 1918, a generation before the first flu vaccine. That year, many Aspen residents succumbed to a flu pandemic.

They called the pandemic the Spanish influenza. Another worldwide scourge, a raging war, helped spread the disease. In America, tens of thousands of soldiers encamped in crowded tents. Such close quarters allowed the illness to pass easily from one man to the next. Some researchers finger Camp Funston in Kansas as ground zero for the outbreak of the disease in America. Some of Aspen’s volunteer soldiers had been sent there for training.

Aspen’s newspaper first mentioned influenza in a September issue that noted flu-related deaths in Europe. Just weeks later, the Aspen Democrat Times reported 211,000 cases in Army camps, with 7,342 deaths from flu and pneumonia.

By mid-October, so many cases swamped Aspen that City Council consulted with health officers and local doctors, and then burst into action. Mayor Wagner proclaimed that “all schools, churches, halls, theaters and other places of assembly and amusement in the City of Aspen be closed immediately.”

The proclamation seriously curtailed interactions. Politicians who campaigned for the November election dropped flyers on porches rather than venture to knock on a door.

Little could be done to aid patients. Some sought help in the hospital but most suffered at home. Decades before penicillin, respiratory symptoms posed the most danger, especially for miners with lungs already impaired by silicosis. Aspen’s druggist Al Lamb offered Foley’s Honey and Tar as a cure, because it was known to sooth the throat.

By the end of October, flu had killed 28 Aspen residents, old and young, but the disease took its greatest toll on young men in their 20s and 30s. Nearly 10 percent of Americans in that age range died. Colorado registered a greater rate of fatality, likely due to high elevation. Silverton lost 123, one out of every 10 residents.

Aspen lost 42 residents to the flu. The number of victims reflected a family tragedy that included my grandfather and my great uncle.

John Sheehan, my maternal grandfather, and Jim, his brother, had owned and operated Sheehan Brothers, a grocery store on Hyman Avenue. Jim had volunteered early in the war effort, and left the store for John to manage. At the age of 34, John fell to the pandemic. Within days, Albert Frost, his brother-in-law, died.

My mother remembered the month her father died as images faded funereal grey. Her friends and family could not gather inside a church. So a service to honor the two men took place outside Frost’s house, now Explore Booksellers on Main Street. Mother recalled “no traffic, the town normally busy with activity was dead silent. It was as if the whole town had died.”

After the funeral, Ethel Frost — Albert’s wife and longtime clerk for the city of Aspen — lost her son in childbirth. My grandmother sold her home, a Victorian on North Monarch known as the half-house, and moved her five children into a house her parents had owned on Main Street. Just as flu victims’ families today grapple with a lonelier world, the two sisters, “flu widows,” struggled to survive.

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. Reach him at