The Blackest Week: A century ago, Silverton lost one-tenth of its population to Spanish Influenza

The following is excerpted from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. This month marks the 100 year anniversary of the pandemic sweeping through Silverton, Colorado, and killing about 10 percent of the population. 

James Edward Cole was thirty-six years old when he died. You might say he was in the prime of his life. He was born in Durango, but grew up in Silverton. After high school he started working under the tutelage of his father, William, at the family retail clothing store. He played on the Slattery’s Slobs baseball team. He married Adelia Bausman, and in 1916 they had a son, James. They built a house just down Reese Street from the new, stately courthouse. As the nights grew cold and the days crisp in the Silverton autumn of 1918, Adelia’s belly started to show the signs of a second child. James would never meet him. By late October 1918, James was dead, one of dozens who perished during the “Blackest Week Ever Known” in Silverton and the San Juan Mountains.

Soon after Europe became embroiled in a gruesome war in 1914, the impacts rippled into the Colorado high country. Demand for metals increased, as guns and mortars and tanks and planes rolled off the assembly lines. Metal prices shot up, giving the miners incentive to dig deeper in search of low-grade ore, and new technologies emerged for processing that ore. The county’s mines together produced metal valued at more than $2.5 million ($47.2 million in 2017 dollars) in 1917, close to a record.

Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 12.11.51 PMIn 1917 the United States entered the war, again sending ripples into mining country. By the time the war was almost over, in the autumn of 1918, at least 150 of Silverton’s young men, or around eight percent of the total population, were in the European trenches. Nearly half were immigrants or the children thereof, some fighting against brothers or cousins. The mass absence affected the community in obvious ways, and it also created a labor crunch at the mines. The American Mining Congress begged young men to resist the temptation to enlist and instead be “truly patriotic” and remain at their industrial posts, where they were sorely needed.

Even as the bodies of soldiers piled up on the battlefields of the first modern war, the planet was struck with something even more deadly, the so-called Spanish Influenza—perhaps the first modern pandemic. It might have originated, or at least gathered strength, in Midwestern pig farms before making a run through Fort Riley, a military camp in Kansas that housed nearly thirty thousand men, in March 1918. From there, this dastardly but rarely fatal first wave of the virus spread rapidly overseas along with soldiers and supplies. In October, a second wave swept the globe. Unlike other strains of flu, which typically break down the immune system leaving the bodies of the very young, the old, and the weak vulnerable to secondary infections like pneumonia, the Spanish Flu could fell a person all on its own. Because the virus turned the immune system against the body, it was harder on the young and healthy, people like James Cole, than it was on the old and frail. First comes a fever and the same aches and pains that come with other strains. Within days or even hours afterward, victims might become so dizzy as to collapse. The lungs fill with fluid, breathing becomes raspy, delirium and even psychotic episodes follow. Finally, victims cough up a bloody froth that ultimately asphyxiates them.

“While there have been one or two cases of this disease reported in our midst, there has not so far been any serious results,” noted the October 18, 1918, edition of the Miner. By then the virus was wreaking havoc all over, and some prophylactic measures had been put in place in Silverton: postal workers fumigated incoming mail, and large public gatherings were banned. But the people of Silverton were not overly alarmed. Maybe they thought their isolation would protect them; perhaps that’s what led nearly every local citizen to ignore the ban on gatherings and participate in a premature celebration of the war’s end on October 17. Just a day or two later, the symptoms surfaced: the ache of the back, the scratch in the throat, a fever’s hot flash.

Within days, many of the people who had celebrated that night would be dead.

For the next two weeks or so, Silverton became a living nightmare. At least one member of nearly every household in town was struck. Miners collapsed on the job, mothers at the dinner table. The hospital filled to capacity and then some, so Town Hall became a de facto clinic and then morgue, with the dead stacked next to the dying. The coffins ran out and the undertaker died. The burly Swedish miner who tirelessly dug the graves ended up digging his own. On October 25, the Silverton Standard heralded the “Worst Week Ever Known in History.” They had to issue a correction of sorts a week later, with a headline that read: “Past Week has been Blackest Ever Known …” So many died so quickly that a few went to their graves without being identified except as “Mexican from Sunnyside” or “Austrian from Iowa mine.”

Herman Dalla, an already fatherless six-year-old, lost his mom and two brothers. In another family a toddler, a teenager, and their forty-year-old mother died. One little girl was orphaned. Temperatures sunk below zero, making the earth at the cemetery nearly impenetrable. There was no way to dig one grave for every corpse, so long, shallow trenches were gouged into the earth, the bodies tossed in by the dozens. Some of the dead were later recovered by the families, but an untold number remain in the mass grave, unidentified.

All in all, the Spanish Flu claimed at least 150 San Juan County residents, maybe more. The town and county had the state’s highest per capita fatality rate from the Spanish Flu, and might have had the nation’s except for an indigenous village in Alaska that lost eighty-five percent of its population. Plenty of people got the flu in Durango and the surrounding areas—everyone in my maternal grandmother’s family was stricken except for her father, Lyman—but the fatality rate was relatively low. Gunnison quarantined itself early on, enforced with armed guards, and escaped almost unscathed. Maybe Silverton’s elevation exacerbated the effects, or perhaps it was isolation, or the dry, cold air.

Again, the community’s reaction to the disaster once the worst had passed was eerily sanguine, even cheery. It was looked back on as a sort of bump in the road that delayed a few things, but that had no real lasting consequences. The news in the weeks following focused on the end of the war, the fact that business was quickly getting back to normal, the mines were gearing up again. The Caledonia Mine had imposed quarantine during the flu, not allowing any miners to leave or any to come in from the outside. That they didn’t lose any miners to the flu was less remarkable to the local newspaper than the fact that their ore production hadn’t faltered during the mass misery. The miners that weren’t in Europe or dead from the flu were soon back at work. The community had been tested again. Perhaps they passed this trial, perhaps they didn’t.

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Want to read the rest of the book? Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine. 

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