Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't.
 - Mark Twain
Colorado Sports

The Spanish Influenza -
Terror and Heroism in Silverton, Colorado
Jennifer Leithauser

The Flu is Hell!

When your back is broke and your eyes are blurred,
And your shin bones knock and your tongue is furred,
And your toenails squeak, and your hair gets dry,
And you’re doggone sure you’re going to die,
But you’re skeered you won’t and afraid you will,
Just drag to bed and have your chill,
And pray the lord will see you through.
For you’ve got the flu, boy, you’ve got the flu!

When your toes curl up and your belt goes flat.
And you’re twice as mean as a Thomas cat.
And life is a long and dismal curse,
And your food all tastes like a hard-boiled hearse,
When your bones all ache and your head’s a-buzz,
And nothing is as it ever was;
Here are my sad regrets to you…
You’ve got the flu, boy, you’ve got the flu!

 What is it like, this Spanish flu?
Ask me brother, for I’ve been through;
It is misery, out of despair
It pulls your teeth and curls you hair,
It thins your blood and brays your bones,
And fills your craw with moans and groans,
And sometime, maybe, you get well;
Some call it flu…I call it hell!

  - The girl on South Main, Silverton Colorado[1]

     Though many have forgotten the great Pandemic that swept the world in 1918, and though it is rarely mentioned in history books and is often overshadowed by the events of World War I, the Spanish influenza had a great effect on the people of Silverton, Colorado. It swept through the town bringing with it terror and chaos; then, just as suddenly, it was gone, leaving the survivors with shattered lives, daring them to go on. The people of Silverton rose to the occasion and picked up the pieces. The survivors went on with their lives, passing on to following generations the memories of those they had loved, those they had lost, and the tragedy and heroism they had witnessed during the last weeks of October 1918.
     For the citizens of the United States, 1918 was a year of anxiety and hope. The country had recently entered the Great War and faced the task of making the world “safe for democracy.” The nation was emerging as a great world power, taking the lead in industrialization and scientific advancement. With this scientific advancement came important medical discoveries and people were confident of the well being of the country.
     The small, isolated community of Silverton, Colorado shared in this confidence and hope; the
mines were producing, and the town was prosperous. As in the rest of the United States, patriotism was strong and several of the local boys had proudly gone to fight for their country. The Red Cross was busy holding drives, and there was an abundance of patriotic speeches to attend. The town held dances and rallies for the Liberty Loan drives, and the people of Silverton were proud of the contributions they made to the war effort.
     Silverton, though caught up in the national events of the day, also concerned itself with the many local happenings of the time. People were eagerly anticipating the construction of the new Silverton-Durango highway, which was begun in April 1918 and would provide the residents with greater access to the outside world.[3]
     It was also a time of prohibition and Silverton’s relative isolation helped the town escape the scrutiny of larger cities. Bootlegging ran rampant, with the distance and the terrain helping to keep brewers and distillers one step ahead of the Prohibition officers most of the time. Someone from Durango would usually phone up to Silverton to let the residents know that an inspector was on his way, and, since the train was the only way to get into town, there was usually ample time to hide any “evidence”.[4]
     While Silverton’s bootlegging industry was doing a great business, the town’s red light district, on notorious Blair Street, was thriving, with girls such as Big Tilly, Pearl Thompson, Denver Kate, and “Jew” Fanny working the line. These were exciting times in Silverton despite the war and inconvenience of prohibition that brought disruptions to daily life. The town was hopeful for the future, and 1918 looked as though it would be a promising year.  Little did anyone know that somewhere in Europe, a deadly killer was preparing for its return to the United States. All too suddenly, Americans would have much more to worry about than Liberty Loan drives and the events overseas.
     In the fall of 1918, the disease commonly known as “Spanish” influenza (though it is almost certain that it did not originate in Spain)[5] entered the United States via a troop ship that docked in Boston Harbor. The disease spread quickly through the military camps and soon there was no way to prevent its spread to the civilian population. On September 3, the first civilian death occurred in Boston, and the disease set off through the population like wildfire. The authorities urged the public not to worry. They maintained that the situation was not urgent and reassured the public that if proper precautions were taken, the disease could be easily avoided.
     The situation proved to be more urgent than anyone wanted to believe. By the time it had run its course, the Spanish influenza killed no less than 675,000 Americans - more than were killed in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined.[6] Around the world, it is believed to have taken more than fifty million lives - a tenth of the global population - and that number could very well be a gross understatement.[7]
     The death toll, however incomprehensible, pales in comparison to the infection rate. More than one half of the earth’s population became ill with the influenza. This pandemic has been compared to the Plague of Justinian in 542 A.D. and more commonly to the Black Death of the fourteenth century. In fact, the Spanish influenza killed more people in one year than the Black Death killed from 1347-1351.[8] This strange new killer baffled medical professionals of the day and terrified everyone. There was no escape, no place to hide, and nothing that anyone could do to stop this killer. A leading physician of the time, Victor Vaughan, reflected, “It seemed that Nature gathered together all her strength and demonstrated to man how puny and insignificant he and his fellows are…”[9]
     Man was indeed no match for this disease. People were ill prepared to battle such a killer. The government tried to ignore it while the public attempted to go on with their normal lives and the death rate increased rapidly. Finally it reached the point where it could no longer be brushed aside. The Steamboat Pilot reported that to list “the names of those who were visited by this malady would be almost equivalent to compiling a city directory.”[10]
     Such numbers absolutely could not be ignored. Congress quickly passed a bill providing one million dollars to the Public Health Service to fight the disease, and they also passed a measure establishing an emergency medical reserve since most of the country’s medical force was off at war.  Public advisories were issued, and people were urged to take precautions. In Silverton, they were advised to keep themselves and their children away from people who had bad colds, to keep their kids away from school if they had bad colds, to cover their mouths when they coughed or sneezed, to keep their living rooms well ventilated, to spend lots of time outdoors, and to consult a physician if they experienced any of the posted symptoms.[11] This seems like simple advice, but it was all that could be offered at the time.
       The disease caught the people of the United States off guard, and most people did not know how to react to it. Some believed that, “…to treat the whole thing as a joke would somehow minimize the terror.”[12] Quickly though, they realized that it was no joke and the fear set in. In her novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver at the time of the epidemic, paints a picture of people beginning to realize the seriousness of the epidemic, “ ‘It seems to be a plague,’ said Miranda, ‘something out of the Middle Ages.’ ‘It’s as bad as anything can be,’ said Adam, ‘all the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night.’”[13] Finally realizing the seriousness of the situation, people reacted to it as best they could.
     Silverton, however, was still isolated, and though the disease began to sweep the nation in early September, it did not find its way into Silverton until the middle of October. While the flu raged across the country in those early months of autumn, the people of Silverton went on with their daily lives, paying but little attention to the Spanish influenza. The war, mining, and the upcoming election occupied their thoughts.
     The Spanish influenza crept into the town when they least expected it, despite the precautions taken by the town authorities. On October 14, Dr. R. C. O’Halloran, Silverton’s health officer, reported to the town board that, to his knowledge, there were no cases of Spanish Influenza in the town. However, as a precaution, it was decided that all places of public gathering should be closed “until further notice.”[14]  This included the school, the theaters, and the churches. This decision in Silverton came just one day before the Colorado State Board of Health passed a resolution stating, “…all public gatherings both indoor and outdoor, of whatsoever character of nature are hereby forbidden and the people are advised and warned against visiting among their friends and acquaintances.”[15]
     These same precautions were being taken all across the United States. In some places, face masks designed to protect a person from germs were mandatory, while most all towns recommended them. Silverton never required the masks by law, but many of the town’s people used caution and did not go out without them. Everywhere, businesses and schools were closed, and public gatherings were banned indefinitely. In some places it was a crime to cough or sneeze in public and citizens were warned to avoid kissing and shaking hands.[16]      
      Silverton took precautions with the mail as well. The Silverton Weekly Miner reported on October 11 that the mail from the east had been exposed to the dreaded disease somewhere between Lumberton, New Mexico and Durango, Colorado and that the postmaster had thought it best to fumigate the mail before distributing it. As an added measure, he also had all the newspapers and other such mail burned rather than run the risk of contaminating the community. For these precautions the postmaster was praised; it was written, “The Postmaster is to be commended for this thoughtfulness as an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.”[17] Prevention however, was rarely possible and the disease inevitably worked its way into the community.

I had a little bird
And its name was Enza
I opened the window and


--Children’s jump rope rhyme 

      For all of their precautions, the town of Silverton made one terrible mistake, which may have paved the way for the entrance of the Spanish influenza. On either October 16 or 17, the town of Silverton awoke to face another peaceful and productive day. It was expected to be a quiet day due to the ban on public gatherings, and the people were encouraged not to loiter in the places of business that remained open, or on the streets. There would be no school that day and taking advantage of the free time that this offered, young people like Mickey Logan and Eddie Lorenzon found work to occupy their time. That particular afternoon Mickey Logan was herding cattle west of Silverton, when in town, “all the bells and all the whistles began to blow.”[18]
      He quickly set off to see what was happening. Upon reaching town Mickey was told that the armistice had been signed and the war was over! This report came from the Ouray Herald and was apparently checked with the Denver authorities, where a celebration was reportedly already underway. This joyful, though false, news was the “signal for one of the biggest demonstrations ever held in Silverton.”[19] The celebration began that afternoon and continued throughout the night. Pianos were moved out into the street, so that everyone, even those who would never dream of stepping foot in a saloon or gambling house, could join in the festivities. The Silverton Weekly Miner reported,

There was not a man, woman, or child in Silverton that was able to be out of doors that did not take part in the doings in some manner or other. The business houses all closed their doors and suspended for the rest of the day and fire bells, engine whistles, and anything that could be used for making noise was brought into use. A great parade was one of the big features headed by several of our prominent people carrying flags, followed by automobiles appropriately decorated. And as a fitting climax, the affair was brought to an end by a big bonfire and concert. [20]

     It was a great celebration. Despite prohibition, the liquor flowed, and despite the cold, few took refuge indoors. Silverton quickly discovered that the news of the armistice was false, though the Silverton Standard did not let that dampen the spirit of their report, as they believed, “we had a celebration coming and all San Juan County is better off for her turn out.”[21] However, the county was not better off and Mickey Logan provided a chilling account of the celebration that night,

My Dad, Bill Logan, ran a freighting business in town. He got wood from down by the river and hauled it up to the intersection by the Pickle Barrel. A big bonfire was built, and there was music and dancing all night long. Bottles were shared and gaiety reigned. But by daylight the flu was killing the celebrants.[22]

     The mysterious and dreaded Spanish influenza had entered the town and the people there could never have prepared for the terror and confusion that it would bring.

“Life was just one long emergency.”[23]

     The flu crept silently into the town of Silverton, in the same way that it had made its way into the United States and was quietly creeping into towns around the world. There was no way of knowing how the disease had found its way into such an isolated town. On this subject A. A. Hoehling writes, “…it was all the more baffling to medical science that pinpricks such as Silverton, CO and Belen, NM, should have become targets for heavy infection. More than half the population of both towns was ill.”[24] No matter how baffling it was, the fact remained: Silverton’s isolation had done nothing more than postpone the onset of the disease. Spanish influenza had finally reached Silverton, and before it had run its course, it would devastate the little town.
      The epidemic hit Silverton hard and the death rate was unbelievable. By November 2, the Silverton Standard was reporting 128 deaths, and claimed that, “In no city, town or village has the epidemic of Spanish influenza proved more fatal.”[25] The infection rate in town was also high. Life at an altitude of 9,318 feet above sea level made the people more susceptible.[26] The occupation of mining also made one more susceptible to the disease, as many of the miners had developed silicosis due to the dust they breathed in daily at the mines.[27] It is widely believed that Silverton had the highest per capita death rate in the United States. Though there is no way to definitely prove this claim, the numbers do support that conclusion. It was reported that in Silverton there were 833 influenza and 415 pneumonia cases, which was apparently twelve times the state’s norm.[28] It was also reported that the average percentage rate was ten percent afflicted and one or two percent dead, while in Silverton they lost nine percent of their population in three weeks.[29]

“With darkness apprehension was magnified. ‘If I should die before I wake’ had become more than a phrase out of nursery-taught prayers.”[30]

        The numbers were incredible and they promoted grief and terror in the people of Silverton as they tried to grasp the situation and survive those trying times. The Silverton Standard calls this time, “The Worst Week Ever Known in the History of San Juan County”[31] and in the Silverton Weekly Miner the headline read, “Many of Silverton’s Prominent Citizens are Called by the Grim Reaper---Past Week has been Blackest Ever Known in the History of the District.”[32] Neither paper had the space, time, or workforce to write up obituaries for all of the dearly departed. Instead, lists were published in both papers, often taking up entire pages. The Silverton Weekly Miner reported, “There has scarcely been a household that has not been touched by sickness or death of a loved one or a friend.”[33]
      The incredible number of sick and dead had a crippling effect on many of the systems in the community. In this, an election year, politics were the focus of the town, and when the epidemic hit, the election could not escape its effects; both parties lost a candidate. Nobody in either party knew exactly how to deal with this sort of situation. The Republicans simply decided not to look for anyone to replace their candidate, and they scolded the Democrats for even considering a replacement for theirs. Public gatherings were prohibited, so there were no political rallies or debates. The campaigning was limited to the newspapers, making for a strange political atmosphere. This bizarre atmosphere was accentuated by the daily inconvenience in other sectors of life, as the disease affected both businesses and public services.
     One of the most reported inconveniences faced by the people of Silverton was the shortage of telephone operators and the inability to call for a doctor when one was needed. All six of Silverton’s telephone operators were down with the flu. The company’s manager, the local schoolteachers, and Miss Erma Revell of Durango, attempted to handle the flood of calls. In order to keep up, they had to appeal to the public to limit their calls and to have patience. The company placed a column in the newspaper stating, “With an epidemic of the nature that has been rampant here this week, and not alone here but all over the country, the people would take into consideration the numerous calls for doctors, who should have preference at all times, they would not be so rapid in finding fault.”[34]
     The post office was another important service that was affected by the disease. Its ability to provide service was slowed, but never halted, though most of the employees were sick, leaving only one man with the task of getting the mail out on time. [35] Another disappointing inconvenience faced by the town was the suspension of construction on the highway to Durango due to the fact that the one hundred and fifteen man workforce abandoned the job when the engineer was killed by the Spanish influenza. Thus, Silverton was inconvenienced by the loss of many of their daily services and the delay of their anticipated connection to the outside world.
     Besides losing the reliability of their daily services, the town’s economic base, mining, was also paralyzed by the epidemic. The Silverton Standard reported,

Thru out the mining district activity has been suspended during the epidemic of Spanish influenza, which has been sweeping thru this part of the state for the past three weeks. A number of our mines were forced to suspend operations on account of men leaving the properties and county, trying to escape the flu.[36] 

    The Caledonia, in Minnie Gulch, was the only mine able to keep producing during the epidemic; this was made possible by the strict quarantine that was placed on the employees. Nobody who left the property was allowed to come back, and nobody new was allowed onto the property. [37] It was this policy that kept the Caledonia operating and kept the miners there from contracting the disease. However, the production at the Caledonia could not make up for the fact that the other mines were not producing. Due to the mine closures, the ore shipments during the month of November were well below normal. At the Sunnyside mine in Eureka, only six cars of ore were shipped in November, down from their usual fifty cars a month. The monthly shipments from other mines were similarly effected. [38]
     The flu worked its way in, and eventually made its mark on all aspects of daily life, as a visitor from Durango reported,

Everything is closed, even barbershops. Clerks in stores wear masks. There is but one girl in the telephone office, Miss Erma Revell, of the Durango exchange, who handles long distance. People who can are reported to be leaving. All the mines have closed down. It is sad. [39]

     That it was "sad" is most likely an understatement. Most people were terrified, though some tried to deny it. Some used humor to try and downplay the horror. Others, such as Joe Jacob, foreman of the Pride of the West mine in Cunningham gulch, reportedly claimed, “the ‘flu’ does not scare him very much.” [40] Hardly anyone believed him. Life for many had become just one long nightmare and “…a walk along any city street became a terrifying experience for the most hardened observer.”[41]  The situation had become so bad in Silverton that when the real armistice was reported on November 11, the townspeople were in no condition to celebrate. One survivor, Dorothe Jackson Thompson recalled,

The influenza hit the towns people very hard; often whole families were wiped out in no time. It was very contagious I remember we’d wear facemasks if we had to go outside. My mother even handled letters we received very carefully and heated them with a hot iron to kill the germs. A wagon and team of horses went down the street every day, picking up the dead. My sister got it and mother shut me out of the room where she cared for her. My father escaped it, heaven only knows why, as he was constantly exposed. I didn’t get it either, but everyone was sure scared.[42]
     The events of those weeks in late October/early November are beyond comprehension. Everyone was nervous: who would be the next to die? As one historian points out, “For millions of Americans, life had become a painful, nightmarish ordeal. For the robust, those who remained standing, life had become nearly as surreal. All health seemed vanished from the world.” [43] All eyes looked to the medical profession for help. It seemed to them that surely with all the recent medical advances, there was something the doctors could do.
      Thus the health authorities faced an almost impossible task; that of treating a disease that was spreading rapidly through the entire population, and was unlike anything they had ever witnessed before, or would again. The disease had an incubation period of only one or two days. Often the patient went from a state of apparent health to complete collapse in only a couple of hours.[44]   
     James Ruane, the first death from Spanish influenza in San Juan County, died at Eureka on his way to the hospital in Silverton, “from an attack of pneumonia which he had been suffering from but a few hours.”[45] Mickey Logan recalled, “I’ll always remember Mrs. Quarnstrom’s brother, Quinton, [a] big, big, tall Swede, about six foot six, weighed about three hundred pounds, up there digging graves at night and we buried him in one the next morning.”[46] This story also illustrates another one of the bizarre features of the Spanish influenza. It tended to kill people in the prime of life rather than the very old and the very young who were the usual victims of the disease. This aspect baffled civilians and the medical world alike. In Silverton, this strange feature, along with the swiftness of the deaths, haunted those who lived to tell the story. Many would recall burly miners who appeared healthy one moment and then the next moment were gone.
     The disease seemed to break all of the norms of influenza. Even the symptoms were unlike anything that had been associated with the disease before. This particular strain of influenza brought with it complications and many suffering from influenza, developed pneumonia. These patients spit up blood; projectile nosebleeds were also common. In a large number of cases the skin turned purple or blue, when cyanosis, which is caused by a lack of oxygen, set in. [47] Basically, the victims were drowning as their lungs filled with what has been described as bloody, frothy, fluid.[48] The physical suffering caused by the disease was immense. One medical journal reported, “… the patient feels as though he had been beaten all over with a club.”[49] This was the only way to describe it. The disease was so awful that no medical terms seemed accurate.
     Not only was there no medical way to describe the victim’s suffering, there was also no medical explanation for what had caused such suffering, or for what had caused a common disease like influenza to suddenly turn so deadly. Thus the disease became all the more terrifying, as the medical world struggled to find an explanation. There were many theories. Some thought that it was caused by a peculiar order of plants; others believed it was the Germans who were at fault. In New York one physician attributed the disease to bed bugs, while a doctor in Boston felt that excessive clothing was to blame for the disease.[50]
     The terror was further heightened by the fact that there was no effective treatment for the disease. The fate of the world seemed to hang in the hands of the medical community, and they were completely helpless. One physician, when asked, “Are we going to be wiped out?” replied, “For the first time in my life I’m panicky, and I believe we are.”[51] Victor Vaughan, one of the most prominent physicians in the United States, is reported to have said, “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration, civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth.”[52]
     The disease raced through the population. In Colorado, two cases of influenza were reported in September 1918; by October the health authorities were reporting thirty one thousand three hundred and four, and there was nothing that they could do to stop it.[53] In the face of such a crisis, people turned to folk remedies to protect themselves. Some of the residents of Silverton believed that eating a lot of garlic and keeping the windows open at all times was the best way to fight the flu. There were also quite a few who believed that they would be protected as long as they kept drinking.[54] One Silverton resident recalled,

No antibiotics then and not much known about this new killer. Many died quickly and it was especially bad with the miners. Many could not speak English and their idea of getting well, was to go to bed and take whiskey. The hospital was full, so the doctor sent my father to the miner’s shacks to administer to them. Many were totally drunk and couldn’t be helped.[55]

 Though people put much of their faith in folk remedies, the medical professionals continued to strive to find the cure for the illness. Silverton’s own Dr. A. L. Burnett is reported to have come up with, “a highly efficacious method of treating Spanish influenza, if the results achieved at Silverton are any criterion…”[56] Dr. Burnett tested his treatment on twenty-nine of Silverton’s flu victims and his report to the Colorado State Board of Health stated,

Since the first series of five cases we have given the intravenous compound chlorine solution to twenty four cases, making a total of twenty nine cases so treated, with a mortality of 6.8 percent, as against the former high mortality here of 20.1 percent.[57]

    In response, the Board of Health replied that they were intending to spread his results to other health professionals. Though it is not known whether this treatment was widely accepted, or just how effective it really was, the Board of Health expressed relief that “all of the brains of the profession is not located in Denver.”[58] Indeed they were not. While Dr. Burnett worked on his special treatment, Dr. R.C. O’Halloran, another Silverton physician, reportedly traveled to Denver in an effort to discover the best way to treat the disease.
    Despite the best efforts of local officials, the cases of influenza in the town continued to increase rapidly. The local hospital was so crowded that like many other places around the world, Silverton was forced to find an alternate place to care for the sick. Thus, cots were brought down from one of the boarding houses and the fireman’s room at the City Hall was converted into an emergency hospital.[59]
    There were six doctors in the town at the height of the epidemic, three local physicians, one from Durango, one from Ridgway, and one from Denver.[60] These six doctors worked night and day. However, in the case of this epidemic, when the doctors were helpless to come up with an effective treatment, all that could be done for a patient was to make them as comfortable as possible. This task fell to the nurses, whose care often meant the difference between life and death. Silverton was short of nurses and was forced to appeal to outside of the town for help. To which the neighboring town of Durango responded heroically. On October 23, the Durango Evening Herald reported,

Silverton this morning makes a request for Durango to send nurses and at least one doctor. Their hospital is full and thirty-five cases are being cared for as best they can at the City Hall, which has been temporarily turned into a hospital. The need is very urgent for nurses and if any person who reads this can be of nursing assistance they are earnestly asked to arrange to go to Silverton on the evening’s train.[61]

    Despite the fact that they were few in number, the nurses of Silverton worked tirelessly to save the lives of the people in town, many of whom were friends or loved ones. One of the nurses, Ms. Edna Jane Miller, even gave her life in the struggle to save the lives of others. The people of the town did not just leave it up to the nurses to care for those in need. The epidemic brought out Silverton’s true colors, as men and women of all classes and social standing banded together to cope with the disease. 

“Nobody says ‘God Bless You’ when you sneeze these days.”[62]

     Though it is conceivable that such a highly contagious and deadly disease would break down society and have a negative effect on human relations in an area, in most places this was not the case. Through the horror “a kind of dogged selflessness, sometimes amounting to heroism became commonplace.”[63] Truly, people around the world sacrificed what they could to help their fellow human beings during the nightmare of the epidemic.
     In Silverton, most all of the people in the community answered the call of duty, put aside their grief and fright, and lent a hand to those who were unable to help themselves. The Silverton Weekly Miner reported, “It is a time when all defining of class religions or anything else have been cast to the winds and those who are able to do anything at all are working night and day in the interest of those who are sick and confined to their homes.”[64] On November 1 they claimed, “There is no place where the people rise to the occasion in times of need like the good people of Silverton do.”[65]
       Some of the best remembered of those who provided care to the ill were the girls of the line. These women were out as soon as the epidemic hit, trying to ease the pain of their fellow human beings. They carried broth to the sick and took in the children of the town who had been orphaned in the epidemic until other care could be arranged[66]. These ladies worked in some of the worst conditions. At least one of the girls, “Jew” Fanny, nursed those who were sent to the pest house a mile north of town, where people were sent primarily to die.[67]  No matter what the conditions, or who the victim, the ladies of Blair Street were willing to help. It is widely agreed that they saved a great many people, and had some of the biggest hearts in the town. Some of these women, such as Bessie Miller and Pearl Eastman, selflessly gave their lives saving others.
      Others were also willing to help in any way that they could. Battiste Matties, another of Blair Street’s many characters, turned his home into an infirmary and lost only one of his patients. His success was attributed to a chicken broth he made using red wine. He made a whole batch of this broth and distributed it throughout the town.[68] The Anesi family, spared from the ravages of the epidemic, also helped out,doing whatever they could to ease the pain of the town. They could be found carrying groceries and distributing broth to those who were ill. Jack Slattery,who in 1918 was campaigning for a seat in the Senate, was seen all over the county that fall nursing the sick and doing what he could to ease their pain. The Silverton Standard reported, “Nursing at the Iowa mine and mill, at the City Hall and generally doing about sixteen hours of work everyday, Jack Slattery has been a busy man during the influenza epidemic.”[69]
     Help sometimes came from unexpected places. Even those who were simply in town on business and who had no personal connection with the people of the town were willing to lend a hand in these hard times. The Silverton Weekly Miner reported that the construction crew of the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company, 

Were [A] Fine Bunch of Fellows…In recent trying times these men were always at the disposal of those who were in distress and many little acts of kindness and thoughtfulness were shown by them that could otherwise have been cast to other means by the fact that their duties did not require them to be at the disposal of the general public in this manner; but that fact was not taken into consideration at all, these men thought it was for the good of all and that their company was a second consideration in such times.[70]

 Silverton was fortunate to have such help from people who were practically strangers. Relief also came from Durango, where the women banded together to send aid to the people of Silverton. The Silverton Standard praised the people of Durango,

To break the terrible sadness of the past ten days came the splendid action of the Durango Red Cross and the people generally of our neighboring city: Gallons and gallons of rich broth arrived every day from Durango to help strengthen our helpless sick. In addition hospital garments and supplies were always forthcoming. This relief was badly needed and certainly appreciated. We will never forget the efforts of Durango to relieve our suffering. [71]

     Other out of town help also arrived, as those who had once called Silverton home attempted to help the town through the hard times. B.B. Galvin, former secretary of the Silverton Commercial Club, donated one thousand dollars to the Miner’s Union Hospital in hopes that it would help the town get through the epidemic.[72]
     Silvertonians were eternally grateful for all of the help that they received from outside of their little town. However, it was those who lived in the town, the ones who were sharing in the sorrow and pain, who had a personal interest in helping those in need, that made the best volunteers and who did the most to ease the pain.  One of the best examples of the courage, heroism and sacrifice of the people in Silverton is found in Louis Wyman’s story about “Harry”:

     In the fall of 1918 the flu struck our town. For a while people fought the plague with spirit and courage. But their defenses crumbled as the death toll mounted. A time came when the dead could no longer be cared for in the usual manner. No help was available from other communities. They, like Silverton, were prostrate. Prepared food for those who could no longer care for themselves arrived by train daily. The Town Hall became a hospital, or, more aptly, a place to die. It seemed the black crepe of death was hung on every door in town.
      Harry forsook his little shop behind the hardware store. Through those dark days he labored around the clock in the morgue. After the supply of coffins was exhausted, he made rough boxes for the dead or wrapped them in blankets as best he could before they were taken to the cemetery.
     If he felt fear of the plague, he mastered it and lived with the dead. As long as there was a body to be cared for, he stayed at his self-imposed duty. His only rest was a short nap in a chair until called again to help a stricken family care for their dead.
    Harry never wore a flu-mask, nor took any other precautions to protect himself against the infection. He was far too busy helping desperate people through their days of despair. If he wasn’t needed at the morgue, he went to homes where families were down and helpless. Many a one walked the streets again because of him.
   When it was all over, and the town had shaken off its terror after that winter of flu, Harry was back at work. He went shuffling along with a window pane, a rubber sewer-pump or a Stillson wrench tucked under his arm. Things were getting back to the way they should be, and no one doubted that Harry would be there to do the patching and fixing.

How do you measure the worth of a man? Is it by the castle he builds? By the battles he fights? Or perhaps by the wealth he amasses? I don’t know, but I think the rod would have to be long to measure the little guy who stood tall and said to his neighbors, “Come, let me lend you a hand.”[73]

It was people like Harry, and the countless others who volunteered their time so courageously and selflessly, who did the most to help the town through this terrible time. But despite the efforts of all those who risked their lives to ease the pain of others, and despite the fact that these volunteers did everything they could to save the people of Silverton, the town lost no less than ten percent of its citizens, good people, who would be desperately missed.

“In Serene repose on Boulder’s breast
Age and youth lie in peaceful rest.
This mountain has in trust to hold
A dust more precious than dust of gold.”

--A.L. Maxwell[74]

            Those terrifying weeks in October and November brought the death of approximately one hundred and fifty of the town’s approximately fifteen hundred residents. The mortuary was overwhelmed, and bodies began to pile up. The situation was made even more desperate by the death of R.E. McCleod, the town’s only undertaker. In the entire town there were no coffins to be had. Graves could not be dug fast enough to keep up with the dying. One resident recalled, “We ran out of coffins and these men were just wrapped in blankets and left outside to freeze. The ground was too frozen to dig graves anyway.”[75] 
     A letter printed in a newspaper in Oklahoma provides an even better description of the conditions in Silverton during the epidemic, “Ten degrees below zero last night, fair today; 142 flu deaths in ten days here in town, which only has 2,000 people; as high as seventeen one night. Buried forty-five in one grave --- made with team and scrapers. No coffins to be had, we are 500 miles from Denver and could not get them fast enough.”[76] Mary Swanson, a young woman who was left to care for her siblings and run the family business when she lost her mother in the epidemic, remembered,

 It was a nightmare. I remember they had twenty-one men in the City Hall, sick, and the next morning there was only one left. They all died that night. They had a carpenter named Ben Boyd.[77] He made those rough caskets. And we buried them in trenches up at the cemetery. I think there were sixty some buried in one trench…It was awful bad. Nobody knows how bad.[78]

     In an effort to relieve the town, undertakers arrived from Durango and Telluride. Despite their best efforts, the bodies were piling up, and the town had no choice but to dig two long trenches up at the cemetery in which they placed the rapidly increasing number of corpses. The townspeople made sure to mark these trenches well and later families were able to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones and move them to family plots, though many remained in the trenches, miners without relations, often known only by their first names and nothing more.
      The cemetery, with its new mass grave, was now home to many of Silverton’s citizens; people who would be missed and whose death had left an incredible void in the community. Among those who now called Silverton’s Hillside Cemetery their home was Louis Schafer, a mining engineer and one of the most successful tungsten operators in the district. It was said that “In the mining world the name of Louis Schafer was known in every community for without doubt he was a man that brought credit to men of his profession, he was honest, he was efficient, and it is said of Louis Schafer that he ranked high in the esteem of mining men in general.”[79] He was also the Democratic candidate for County Surveyor. His death created an opening on the ballot and a controversy between the political parties. The loss of many men like Louis Shafer robbed the community of hard workers and some of the best miners in the district.
     The name of Mrs. Margaret Lorenzon can also be found on the list of those who died. Just a little over a week before her death, this woman stood at the train depot and watched as her son set off to war. [80] Though she may have considered the possibility that this would be their last meeting, nobody expected that it would be she who would be stripped of life so suddenly. Hers was just one of the many families who suddenly found themselves without the care and compassion of their mother.
     Other families were suddenly left without a provider. James E. Cole, one of the most prominent members of the community, was one of the many fathers who departed from their families all too soon. Mr. Cole left a two-year-old son and a pregnant wife. His son, who became man of the house all too soon, was forever affected by the death of his father.[81] He was lucky though, because he still had his mother. Many children were orphaned by the epidemic, some losing both parents to the disease within a short period of time, sometimes mere hours. Others lost only one parent to the disease, but for some, that one parent was all that they had to lose and they too were orphaned by the Spanish influenza. One of these children was Herman Dalla whose father died in 1911, and whose mother was taken by the flu. Herman clearly recalls these dreadful times,

Hell, I was only six years old but I can remember the wagon coming from the mortuary and them loading my mother’s body into the back. I was watching from an upstairs window. Two of my brothers died. That left nine of us kids with no mom and no dad. Mary was the oldest of us and she kind of took over. We had records of who owed money to mom and the boarding house, but everybody said they’d paid up. It was rough.[82]

     The townspeople grieved not only for the loss of family members but also for the great number of friends who were taken from them by the epidemic. Nellie Hill, who was stricken with the flu and in a coma for three weeks, once told a friend that when she finally came out of the coma, one hundred and twenty three of her friends were dead.[83] B. Pasquale told a similar story. Having just come into town from the Caledonia, he reportedly said that the town did not even seem like the same town as there were so many people missing.[84]
     These are merely a few examples of the community’s loss. There were so many good people taken from the community and so many families were overcome with grief that it is impossible to mention them all, but they each had a role to play, and were all too quickly snatched away, most in the prime of life, leaving children to be cared for and work to be done. Silverton was never the same after the loss of so many good people. For all the dying, there were many who survived. The survivors were haunted for the rest of their lives by what they saw and experienced during those few terrible weeks.

“The resemblance to the disappearance of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland  is striking.”[85]

     The Spanish influenza eventually released its grip on the town of Silverton. Those who had managed to survive again appeared on the street. Businesses and the school were once more in operation. The emergency hospital was fumigated, and the City Hall was once again used for city business. As the flu raged in surrounding communities, Silverton’s town board decided it would be best to place the town under quarantine, effective December 4. Silverton, herself recovering from the epidemic, sent nurses to Durango in an effort to repay the kindness they had received from that town and help them nurse their influenza victims. The town was focused on preventing the return of the Spanish influenza into the community. Their efforts were successful; the quarantine was lifted in mid-December, and things slowly returned to normal. The Silverton Weekly Miner recalled the heroic efforts of the town and proudly summed up the situation by stating,

Our state, our county, and Silverton met every test quickly, generously and willingly, and proved to be true blue. Not only did they meet the calls from the outside, but when the community was stricken with the recent epidemic and we lost many we could not afford to spare, yet the time of stress showed there was here the spirit of willingness to forget private interests for public good, to help one another, to assist those who needed help, visit the afflicted, to care for the suffering, and to comfort the dying, that makes a people noble.[86]

     The epidemic was over. The terror had ceased, and Silverton had pulled through. Though many important members of the community were lost, and production at the mines fell off $60,000 in gold and 200,000 ounces of silver, Silverton and the entire United States emerged optimistic for the future.[87] People who would live forever with the grief of having lost so many friends and loved ones, began to pick up the pieces of their lives and prepared to face what the future had in store for them. As Katherine Anne Porter writes, “No more war, no more plague, only the dared silence that follows the ceasing of heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”[88]



Primary Sources and Documents

“Across the Great Divide: San Juan County’s Second Century”. A series of interviews sponsored by the Silverton Public Library. Session Two, 15 September 1976.

Davies, E. “The Influenza Epidemic and how we tried to control it.” Public Health Nurse 11 no. 1 (1919): 45-49. 

The Durango Evening Herald. 21 October 1918 – 25 October 1918.

Keegan, J.J. “The Prevailing Pandemic of Influenza” Journal of the American Medical Association 71, no. 3 (28 September 1918): 1051-1055.

King, James J. “The Origin of the So-Called ‘Spanish’ Influenza.” Medical Record 94 (12 October 1918): 632-33.

Logan, Mickey. Interview by Allen Nossman. 1 July 1987. San Juan County Archives, Silverton, Colorado.

Lorenzon, Eddie. Interview by Allen Nossman. 25 February 1985. San Juan County Archives, Silverton, Colorado.

Minutes of the Meetings of the Colorado State Board of Health. 28 October 1918 – 27 December 1918. 

Minutes of the Meetings of the Silverton Town Board. 14 October 1918 – 24 February 1919.

Minutes of the Meetings of the San Juan County Commissioners. 19 November 1918 – 7 February 1919. 

The Ouray Herald. 9 May 1918 – 7 November 1918. 

Peterson, Agatha Salfisberg. Interview by Allen Nossman. 20 July 1977. San Juan County Archives, Silverton, Colorado. 

Sartore, Phil. Interview by Allen Nossman, Louis Dalla, and Gerald Swanson. 30 April 1980. San Juan County Archives, Silverton Colorado. 

The Silverton Standard. 12 October 1918 – 25 January 1919. 

The Silverton Weekly Miner. 19 April 1918 – 28 March 1919. 

Thompson, Dorothe Jackson. “Silverton Recollections.” San Juan County Historical Society, 1979. 


Bird, Allan. Bordellos of Blair Street. Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Other Shop, 1987. 

Silverton: Then and Now. Englewood, CO: Access Publishing, 1990. . 

Collier, Richard. The Plague of the Spanish Lady. Forge Village, MA: Murray Printing Co, 1979.

Crosby, Alfred. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The influenza of 1918. Cambridge University Press: 1989.

Flexner, Simon and Flexner, James T. William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine. New York: Viking Press, 1941.

Hoehling, A. A. The Great Epidemic: When the Spanish Influenza Struck. Boston: Little, Brown Co., 1961.

Iezzoni, Lynette. Influenza 1918: The Worst Epidemic in American History. New York: TV Books, LLC, 1999.

Jordon, Edwin O. Epidemic Influenza, A Survey. Chicago: American Medical Association, 1927.

Kolata, Gina. Flu. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Luckingham, Bradford. Epidemic in the Southwest 1918-1919. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1984.

McAdoo, William G. Crowded Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931.

Marshall, John and Zeke Zanoni. Mining the Hard Rock. Silverton, CO: Simpler Way Book Co., 1996. 

Olsen, Mary Ann. The Silverton Story. Cortez, CO: Beaber Printing Co., 1962. 

Peterson, Freda Carley. The Story of Hillside Cemetery: Burials 1873-1988. Oklahoma City, OK: Freda Peterson, 1989.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider and other Stories. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1936.

Pyle, Gerald F. The Diffusion of Influenza: Patterns and Paradigms. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986.

Smith, Duane A. Rocky Mountain Boom Town: A History of Durango. Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1980. 

VanHartesveldt, Fred R. The 1918-1919 Pandemic of Influenza: the urban impact in the Western World. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1992. 

Vaughan, Victor C. A Doctor’s Memories. Indianapolis: Bobbs – Merrill Co., 1926. 

Wyman, Louis. Snowflakes and Quartz. Silverton, CO: San Juan County Book Co., 1977.


Deming, Dorothy. “Influenza 1918: Reliving the Great Epidemic.” American Journal of Nursing 57, no. 10 (1957): 308-9

Fernandez, Elizabeth. “The Virus Detective.” San Francisco Chronicle. 17 February 2002.

Fincher, Jack. “America’s Deadly Rendezvous with the ‘Spanish’ Lady.” Smithsonian
19, no. 10 (1989): 130-145.

Johnson, Noall and Juergen Mueller. “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918-1920 ‘Spanish’ influenza epidemic.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76, no. 1 (2002): 105-115.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Dead Zone.” The New Yorker, 29 September 1997, 52-65. 

Keen-Payne, Rhonda. “We must have nurses: Spanish influenza in America 1918-1919.”
Nursing History Review
8, (2000): 143-156. 

Kolata, Gina. “Lethal Virus Comes Out of Hiding.” New York Times, 24 February 1998.

Leonard, Stephen J. “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Denver and Colorado.” Essays in Colorado History, no. 9.  Denver, CO: CO Historical Society, 1990.


Nonprinted sources 

Billings, Molly. “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918.” June 1997. (20 September 2002). 

Influenza 1918.
Produced and directed by Robert Kenner, 2 hr. PBS Home Video, 1998. Videocassette.

Other Documents 

Byerly, Carol R. “The Politics of Disease and War: infectious disease in the US army during WWI.” Ph. D. diss., University of Colorado, 2001. 

Cole, Jim, discussion with author, 18 October 2002. 

Gribble, Constance J. “We hope to live through it: Nursing and the 1918 influenza epidemic: lessons for this century and the next.” Thesis, Gonzaga University, 1997. 

Halaburt, Marguerite. “Medicine in Silverton”. San Juan County Historical Society, 1990. 

Swanson, Gerald. Interview by author, 21 September 2002, Silverton Colorado.  

[1] Silverton Weekly Miner, 13 December 1918, vol 43 no. 23.

[3] Silverton Weekly Miner, 19 April 1918, vol 42 no. 41, front page.

[4]  Phil Sartore, interview by Allen Nossaman. San Juan County Historical Sociey. 30 April 1980.

[5] It is commonly believed that the flu originated at Ft. Riley in Kansas in the Spring of 1918. The soldiers there are then believed to have carried the disease to Europe where it mutated into a much deadlier form, which was then brought back to the United States in the fall. However, this is only one of the many theories on the origination of the Spanish influenza.

[6] Rhonda Keen-Payne, “We must have nurses: Spanish Influenza in America 1918-1919” Nursing History Review 8 (2000): 143. ; Malcolm Gladwell, “The Dead Zone,” The New Yorker  29 September 1997: 52.

[7] Noal Johnson and Juergen Mueller, “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918-1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76 no. 1 (2002): 105.

[8] Molly Billings, “The influenza of 1918,” June 1997, (20 September 2002)

[9] Carol R. Byerly, “The Politics of Disease and War: infectious disease in the US army during WWI” (Ph.D. diss., University of Colorado, 2001), 111-112.

[10] Stephen J. Leonard, The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Denver and Colorado, Essays in Colorado History no. 9 (Denver, CO: Colorado State Historical Society, 1990), 9.

[11] Silverton Standard, 12 October 1918, vol xxx no. 49, page 2.

[12] Richard Collier, The Plague of the Spanish Lady (Forge Village, MA: Murray Printing Co. 1974), 41. 

[13] Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Other Stories (New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc, 1936), 184. 

[14] Minutes of the Silverton Town Board, 14 October 1918. 

[15] Minutes of the Colorado State Board of Health, 28 October 1918.

[16] Bradford Luckingham, Epidemic in the Southwest, 1918-1919. (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1984), 2.

[17] Silverton Weekly Miner, 11 October 1918, vol 43, no. 14, front page.

[18] Mickey Logan, interview by Allen Nossaman, San Juan County Historical Society, 1 July 1987.

[19] Silverton Weekly Miner 18 October 1918. vol 43 no. 15, front page.

[20] Silverton Weekly Miner 18 October 1918. vol 43 no. 15, front page.

[21] Silverton Standard 19 October 1918, vol xxx no. 50, page 2.

[22] John Marshall and Zeke Zanoni, Mining the Hard Rock (Silverton, CO: Simpler Way Book Co., 1996), 14.

[23]Dorothy Deming, “1918: Reliving the great Epidemic.” American Journal of Nursing 57 no. 10 (1957): 1309 

[24] A.A. Hoehling, The Great Epidemic – When the Spanish Influenza Struck (Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1961), 74. 

[25] Silverton Standard 2 November 1918, vol xxx no. 52,  page 3. 

[26] Duane Smith, A Rocky Mountain Boom Town (Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1980), 103. 

[27] Gerald Swanson, interview by author, 21 September 2002. 

[28] Leonard, 9. 

[29] Mary Ann Olsen, The Silverton Story (Cortez, CO: Beaber Printing Co., 1962), 23-24. 

[30] Hoehling, 74. 

[31] Silverton Standard 26 October 1918, vol xxx no. 51, front page. 

[32] Silverton Weekly Miner 1 Nov 1918, vol 43 no. 17, front page. 

[33] Silverton Weekly Miner 1 Nov 1918, vol 43 no. 17, front page.

[34] Silverton Weekly Miner 25 October 1918, vol 43 no. 16, front page. 

[35] Silverton Weekly Miner 15 November 1918,  vol 43 no. 19, front page.

[36] Silverton Standard, 9 November 1918, vol xxxi no. 1, front page. 

[37] Silverton Standard, 16 November 1918, vol xxxi no. 2. 

[38] Silverton Weekly Miner, 6 December 1918, vol 43 no. 22, front page. 

[39] Durango Evening Herald 24 October 1918 vol 34 no. 312.

[40] Silverton Weekly Miner 15 November 1918 vol 43 no. 19.

[41] Richard Collier, The Plague of the Spanish Lady. Forge Village, MA: Murray Printing Co.,1974), 41-42. 

[42] Dorothe Jackson Thompson, “Silverton Reflections” (Silverton: San Juan County Historical Society, 1979), 13. 

[43] Iezzoni, 153.

[44] Gerald F. Pyle, The Diffusion of Influenza: Patterns and Paradigms (Tatowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986), 51.;  J.J. Keegan, “The Prevailing Pandemic of Influenza” Journal of American Medical Assoc. 71 no. 3 (28 September 1918): 1051.

[45] Silverton Weekly Miner 25 October 1918 vol 43 no. 16, page 2. 

[46] Mickey Logan, interview by Allen Nossaman, San Juan County Historical Society, 1 July 1987. 

[47] Gladwell, 55. Pyle, 41. 

[48] Gladwell, 55.

[49] Keegan, 1051.

[50] Iezzoni, 71.

[51] Collier, 56.

[52] Jack Fincher, “America’s Deadly Rendezvous with the ‘Spanish Lady” Smithsonian 19 no. 10 (1989): 143 

[53] Minutes of the Colorado Board of Health, 27 December 1918. 

[54] Gerald Swanson, interview by author, 21 September 2002 

[55] Thompson, 12. 

[56] Silverton Standard 4 January 1919, vol xxxi no. 7 

[57] Silverton Standard 4 January 1919, vol xxxi no. 7.

[58] Silverton Standard 23 November 1918, vol xxxi no. 3, front page.

[59] Durango Evening Herald, 21 October 1918, vol 34 no. 309, page 4.

[60] Durango Evening Herald, 21 October 1918, vol 34 no. 309, page 4.

[61] Durango Evening Herald, 23 October 1918,vol 34 no. 311.

[62] Silverton Standard 30 November 1918 vol xxxi no. 4.

[63] Fincher, 143.

[64] Silverton Weekly Miner, 25 October 1918, vol 43 no. 16.

[65] Silverton Weekly Miner, 1 November 1918, vol 43 no. 17. 

[66] Gerald Swanson, interview by author, 21 September 2002. 

[67] Allan G. Bird, Bordellos of Blair Street (Grand Rapids, MI: The Other Shop, 1987), 180.

[68]Bird, 109.

[69] Silverton Standard 2 November 1918,  vol xxx no. 52.

[70] Silverton Weekly Miner, 15 November 1918, vol 43 no. 19. 

[71] Silverton Standard, 2 November 1918, vol xxx no. 52 

[72] Silverton Standard, 16 November 1918, vol xxx no. 54

[73]Louis Wyman, Snowflakes and Quartz (Silverton, CO: San Juan County Book Co., 1977), 37-38.

[74] Freda Carley Peterson, The Story of Hillside Cemetary: Burials 1873-1988 (Oklahoma City, OK: Freda Peterson, 1989), contents.

[75] Thompson, 12 

[76] Silverton Weekly Miner 29 November 1918, vol 43 no. 21.

[77] It is believed that Ben Boyd is the man on whom Louis Wyman based the story “Harry”, related earlier.

[78] Across the Great Divide: San Juan County’s Second Century, a series of interviews sponsored by the Silverton Public Library. Session Two, (15 September, 1976), 9.

[79] Silverton Standard 2 November 1918, vol xxx no. 52.

[80] Silverton Weekly Miner, 25 October 1918, vol 43 no. 16. 

[81] James G. Cole, interview by author, 18 October 2002. 

[82] Marshall, 15. 

[83] Cole interview

[84] Silverton Weekly Miner 6 December 1918, vol 43  no. 22. 

[85] Collier, 304.

[86] Silverton Weekly Miner 29 November 1918, vol 43 no. 21,  page 2. 

[87] Silverton Weekly Miner, 10 January 1919, vol 43 no. 27.

[88] Porter, 208.

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