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The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Prince George: Learning Resource

A primary source analysis teaching resource about the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic in the Prince George area

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LOCATION: UNBC Prince George
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All publication excerpts available on this page fall under the Copyright Board of Canada's ruling on "insubstantial copying". These excerpts are provided here for educational purposes only. For more information beyond the excerpts, please consult the full work cited.

Works by Mary Ellen Kelm

Kelm analyzes “a series of what she calls ‘flu stories’ that were documented through various media in British Columbia during the epidemic and in subsequent decades. “The official accounts of fatalities recorded in death certificates, the dramatic and occasionally boosterist articles published in the daily press, the oral histories conducted with elderly residents of Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood during the 1970s, and finally, oral and written narrative produced by First Nations people to detail their experience with influenza – these various sources attest to the different ways in which the disease affected diverse groups of British Columbians.”

“Modernity Kelm argues, was marshalled in 1918-19 to explain both the spread of the pandemic, through ‘modern’ lines of communication and ‘modern’ worksites, and the means taken to deal with it – science and medicine. Yet not all flu stories conformed to this narrative: in those told by First Nations people or by Strathcona residents, for instance, modernity was often absent altogether or incorporated into new hybrid forms. The universal influenza storyline was thus tempered by the peculiarities of local circumstance. Moreover, certain British Columbians – Aboriginals, people of Chinese, Japanese, or South Asian descent, religious minorities such as Mennonites and Doukhobors – were viewed by fellow citizens of Anglo-Saxon background as distinctly unmodern, and thus as potential ‘reservoirs’ of disease” (Jones and Fahrni, 2012, 15).

Kelm notes that First Nations communities had death rates at seven times the provincial average during the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. (Jones and Fahrni, 2012, 168)

Kelm notes that the local PG newspaper reported that the Dakelh village of Stoney Creek (Sai’k’uz) was experiencing nearly 100% morbidity. (Prince George Citizen, November 1, 1918)

See Also:

Additional research by Kelm on the impact of the flu epidemic on settler and Indigenous relations in 20th century BC. Mary Ellen Kelm, “British Columbia First Nations and Influenza pandemic of 1918-19,” BC Studies no. 122 (Summer 1999): 23.

Dr. Fred and the Spanish Lady: Fighting the Killer Flu

Suffering in the North

Simultaneously with the Okanagan and Cariboo regions, B.C.'s northern centre in Prince George began its fight against the Spanish Lady. The only town in the region with a hospital, its facilities were almost immediately stretched to the limit. Patients began to arrive from villages in the surrounding area, all seeking the help of the only doctors and nurses available to them. By mid-October cases were being sent to the Connaught Hotel, which had been set up as an emergency isolation hospital. The town was closed down almost immediately as the first 22 cases were confirmed, and within four days there were 69.

The RCMP [sic - actually the BC Provincial Police] took on the job of trying to find missing trappers and checking on anyone living alone or in an isolated location. One officer commented that there were likely draft dodgers from the war hiding in the area, and he feared some of them might be sick or dead and no one would know. RCMP [sic] constables began to arrive with patients from isolated mining camps miles to the north and from Aboriginal families; the latter seemed to suffer much more acutely than others.

The Native population in the northern part of the province, as in the Cariboo, was very badly affected by the flu, and on November 1 the band chief in Fort George died in the first few days of the epidemic.Sub-Chief Joseph Qua was so afraid of the disease that he left the village with his son and daughter to live alone until the danger had passed. He struck a camp several miles up the Fraser River. Some time later, a passerby found all three of them dead in their tent.

In Stewart Lake, 70 Aboriginal people were dead and another 25 were not expected to survive. The Prince George Citizen reported,"The epidemic is still raging and apparently has no mercy for the poor Indian."The Pacific Great Eastern Railway helped by shipping food to homes and settlements, many of them Native encampments, along its route. The total death toll among First Nations is difficult to confirm. The South West Indian Inspectorate, representing 21,567 Natives, reported 714 dead, but the numbers were incomplete, as word had not yet been received from 3,500. Another district agent reported 154 dead from a total of 1,400 in his area.

The Prince George Citizen lauded the town's two doctors, Drs. Lyon and Lazier, who had treated hundreds of men, women, and children from the region. When Dr. Lyon became too ill to continue, Lazier and his nursing staff laboured on, doing as much as they were able. Locally born Chew Wing was the first Chinese man to die in Prince George.

B.C.'s coast, with its ship traffic, was the only area to feel the brunt of the pandemic as badly as eastern B.C. during the first days of October. In fact, the community of Prince Rupert learned the flu was on the way when they read the Prince Rupert News on September 25. The constant arrival of ships from the U.S. brought the illness to B.C.'s major northern port early. In 1918, ships and trains were the major means of transportation, and passenger-ship traffic between San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, Prince Rupert,and Alaskan ports was brisk. It was served largely by two major companies, Canadian Pacific's B.C. Coastal Service and the Grand Trunk Pacific, as well as by several smaller lines that helped to handle heavy traffic between June and October. In 1918 their traffic included the Spanish Lady.

Short of beds, nurses, and general help, the St. John Ambulance Association in Prince Rupert went on the hunt for volunteers. The immigration department found 25 unused beds, and these were immediately put to use in the Borden Street School, which was turned into an isolation hospital. It was instantly filled, and Prince Rupert City Council asked Victoria for help. The city desperately needed five trained nurses and three orderlies, but the minister of health could find no one to send. In a quandary similar to Prince George's, the port city found itself flooded with patients from the hinterland and nearby smaller communities. Every day, fishermen, some near death, tied up at Prince Rupert s docks. One boat contained a whole family—mother, father, and nine children. Eight children survived, left behind as orphans.

Nearby Port Simpson was initially spared from the flu, and the medical missionary there, Dr. PR. Large, offered his services to Prince Rupert, where he felt he could be of more use. He was welcomed and attended to patients in the regular hospital, as well as in the isolation unit on Borden Street. When the school facility was finally closed late in the year, the News lauded "the careful and efficient nursing which had saved several apparently hopeless cases."

Two prominent deaths in Prince Rupert included businessman and alderman R.J.D. Smith and Gus Wick, the popular operator of the local White Lunch restaurant. In another part of town, five Sikh friends worked in the pouring rain to cut five-foot lengths of yellow cedar for the funeral pyre of their fellow lumber worker, Harry Singh, who had died at the emergency hospital. They used coal oil to keep the fire alight in the steady downpour, a lonely group saying farewell to a friend on what seemed a very foreign shore.

Ships of the Consolidated Whaling Company did not return to Prince Rupert until mid-November, avoiding the worst of the pandemic. The fleet reported a catch in 1918 of just one short of 1,000 whales, but fishing that year was generally poor, as many fishermen were ill at the height of the season.

The coastal mining and smelting town of Anyox, 80 miles north of Prince Rupert near the Alaskan border, was a booming centre of activity in 1918, and the constant ship traffic brought the disease to this otherwise isolated community before it reached some interior towns. By October 23 the local doctor had reported 400 cases and 11 deaths. By November 1, the death toll had risen to 44, with 25 dying the preceding day.

News from smaller villages filtered out slowly. At Kitwanga, the Aboriginal "town of totems" on the Skeena River, 16 died during November. Five people were reported dead in New Hazelton, one in Smithers, and five in Telkwa, "not including Indians".

Landscape of the Past: A Brief History of the Prince George Municipal Cemetery

Prince George: Rivers, Railways, and Timber

Meeting Medical Needs

In addition to spiritual and educational work, another Oblate, Father Nicolas Coccola, who arrived in New Caledonia in 1905, also provided rudimentary medical services before a Western-educated doctor arrived in the area.

Since Father Coccola's headquarters were in Fort St. James and he only visited Prince George once a year, during most of the year the pioneers living near Fort George relied on home remedies, the Hudson's Bay factor, and Indian medicines to treat their illnesses. There is a report that a man who had his feet severely burned aboard a stern-wheeler was cured by an Indian healer.

As the population grew, there were many more stories of the hardships suffered by the pioneers at Fort George, who lived 100 miles from the hospital at Quesnel. A 1908 edition of the Fort George Herald tells of the case of "Surveyor O.B.N. Wilkie who now lies in most critical condition in Kamloops Hospital with an abscess of the throat brought on by a case of tonsillitis," and the case of "Engineer Daly of the steamer Chilco, who was obliged to leave here on the last boat for Quesnel to obtain medical attention for a case of blood poisoning."

In March 1910 John Houston, publisher of the area's first newspaper, died of pneumonia while friends were pulling him to Quesnel over the Blackwater Trail on a toboggan.

A small log hospital was built in South Fort George in 1911. It was used by the area's first Western-educated doctor, Dr. L.B. Lazier, and registered nurse, Miss B.A. Fry.

It was replaced later that year by a two-storey frame building on the west side of Central street between Fifth and Third avenues. By that time Dr. Hugh McSorley, Dr. W. Cecil Swenerton, and later that year, Dr. Carl Ewert had arrived to provide medical care to the community.

A Hospital Auxiliary was formed in 1910 with Mrs. James Cowie, the wife of a Hudson's Bay factor, as its first president. The auxiliary raised funds by holding teas and hot dog sales and providing catering services for local events. The money was used to purchase drapes, bed linens, and other supplies for the private nursing hospitals being opened in the three adjacent townsites [Prince George, Central Fort George, South Fort George]. In August 1913 a nurse identified only as Miss Kellett announced she was prepared to provide nursing care for private patients either in her own home on Central Avenue or at the home of the patient. In Prince George Miss F.M. Maundrell operated a private nursing hospital in the building which now stands at 1584 Eighth Avenue. A three-bed private hospital was also reported to have been opened in South Fort George.

In 1912 another hospital was built by the railway construction company of Foley, Welch and Stewart on the south bank of the Nechako River in the area now occupied by Cottonwood Island Park. Dr. W.A. Richardson, who had been hired to provide medical care for the railway employees, also attended to te medical needs of the residents of nearby communities.

The inadequacy of the hospitals in the area became apparent during the flu epidemic of 1918 when schools and hotels were turned into emergency hospitals. This resulted in a call for a larger hospital for Prince George, and a Hospital Society was incorporated later that year. In May 1919 the society had a 30-bed hospital built near the present-day site of Simon Fraser Hospital. It was called Pine Manor...