Marolt: A flu season to never forget
I imagine three Marolts, potentially my great aunts and uncle, in the prime of their lives, just kids really, in the summer of 1918. It had to be beautiful, as summers always are in Aspen; perhaps more so than usual for them considering their strength of youth and nothing going on other than a continuation of the Quiet Years.
To feel their portent more than intellectually bookmarking them, we need to look further back to the beginning of history’s significant events. We gaze through a telescope at a star and think that it is impossibly distant. When we tilt the lens a bit and focus on what we are told is an entire galaxy beyond, looking back at the star, it is large and much closer than we previously believed, almost as if you can reach out and touch it.
Louis was 14, and probably engaged in a lot of carefree messing around with his friends. Pauline was 22 and Mary 26, spending their days doing what they were doing under blue skies and cotton-ball clouds that delivered a refreshing afternoon shower as reliably as the sometimes sidetracked milkman set his bottles on the front step. All were of a good age, time and place to be optimistic. Yet, of the three of them and the town they lived in, only one would survive to see the new year and, to many of its residents, its ultimate survival likely felt tenuous.
What killed the three Marolts in the late fall and early winter of 1918, found even this quietest of forgotten towns that many probably considered safely hidden between the bustles of a silver-mining boom that was and a skiing revolution that would be. The killer came silently and unseen, but by fall you can bet there wasn’t an Aspenite who didn’t feel it approaching.
On Oct. 23, 1918, the Aspen Democrat-Times proclaimed, “The crest of the flu epidemic has been passed and we are now on the up grade to health and happiness.”
By that evening, the virus had killed five more residents. In the ensuing three weeks, 47 more would fatally succumb. In the final official tally, there were 74 official deaths from the flu recorded in Red Butte Cemetery records. The toll was likely significantly higher, as many who died were interred on ranchlands or in the surrounding woods.
By Nov. 12, people were scared. In the Democrat-Times, the local Health Board was called out for being “far too lax in their enforcement of quarantines.”
“Down in Carbondale,” the paper pointed out, “just as soon as the flu showed up there, the Town Council put on the lid and put it on right and are keeping it on. No one is permitted to go into or leave the town; no visiting is permitted under any circumstances; if a person goes to a home where there is a case of flu he or she stays right there until released by a physician.” Similar drastic measures were implemented to the south in Gunnison.
Keep in mind that the population of Aspen was about 1,200 in 1918. Considering this, the local death rate from this Spanish flu was astonishingly higher than its appalling norm. Climbing toward claiming one out of every 10 residents, the death rate was multiples higher than the state or national rates. This was not uncommon for Colorado’s mountain towns. The Silverton Standard listed the names of 146 dead in its Dec. 14 edition and, later, a total of 833 cases of the flu in the tiny town. High altitude and susceptibility of miners’ lungs to infection were thought to be significant contributing factors.
In the end, our nation suffered more than a half-million deaths due to the flu pandemic of 1918; more Americans’ lives than were claimed by both World Wars combined. Estimates are as high as 21 million deaths worldwide. Far from being insulated, Aspen suffered proportionately worse.
The lethal flu pandemic of 1918 is a historical tragedy that we can now choose to grieve over when it is convenient or if we are in the mood for sorrow. Not causing deep pain, it proves that, even in Aspen, the human condition exists. In that, we might even find relief. The reality is that we, Aspenites, do suffer. We will die. If nothing else about this place does it, these two facts connect us soberly to the rest of the world.
The escape we have manufactured is just that — made by us for a finite period of use. I don’t imagine recalling this episode in history will cause any of us to lose sleep, but to the Aspenites who lost so much in an inescapable tragedy almost a century ago, I’m sure it changed their perspective profoundly. Say what you will about the 1950 World Championships or the hatching of the Aspen Ideal, it may have been in that period of intense common suffering and fear that this community’s soul was truly formed, even if it was pushed out of memory.
Roger Marolt wrote this piece for the Aspen Historical Society. Roger@maroltllp.com.