Schools Closed, Meetings Canceled: Canby During the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918

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When Governor Kate Brown ordered statewide school closures last month (which she extended through the remainder of the academic year this week), it was not the first time in Canby history that schools were closed to fight the effects of a global pandemic.

It was actually the second.

It also happened in October 1918, as the world was reeling from the impacts of history’s deadliest epidemic, a strain of H1N1 more commonly known as the Spanish flu.

Schools were closed on Wednesday morning, Oct. 23, 1918, by order of Canby Mayor W.H. Bair, who was acting on instructions from the state health officer Robert E. Holt.

Holt was, in turn, taking his cue from the surgeon general of the United States, who had “directed that all public meetings as well as schools and theatres be closed forthwith to combat the world-wide epidemic of Spanish influenza,” the Canby Herald recorded.

The schools and, particularly, the toilets (maybe they ran out of toilet paper, too?) were to be thoroughly cleaned with formaldehyde and chloride of lime, and fumigated.

Where the disease originated was unknown, but because newspapers in Spain had been the first to cover it, it was dubbed “the Spanish influenza” or “Spanish flu” for short.

The first wave of the 1918 pandemic occurred in the spring and was generally mild. The sick, who experienced such typical flu symptoms as chills, fever and fatigue, usually recovered after several days, and the number of reported deaths was low.

However, a second, highly contagious wave of influenza appeared with a vengeance in the fall of that same year. Victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate.

From the start of the year 1918 to the end, the average life expectancy in America plummeted by a dozen years.

The symptoms started with a fever, like the common cold. Unlike measles or smallpox, there were no outward signs of the infection.

As the sickness intensified, so did the pain. Patients would cough blood and start to turn blue from a lack of oxygen. A lethal type of pneumonia set in and caused an uncontrollable hemorrhaging that filled the lungs, leaving victims to drown in their own blood.

Young children and the elderly were vulnerable, but what was baffling about this new strand of flu virus was how it struck otherwise healthy young men and women in the primes of their lives.

These were the same boys the nation was sending to Europe to fight in World War I, and as such, the disease spread quickly among troops who were housed in barracks and traveled in close quarters.

The first cases of the disease in Canby were reported the same week that the schools were shuttered: two sons of a local man named William Earle were taken ill, ages unknown.

These first two were soon followed by “a large number of new cases” that appeared across the city and Clackamas County and quickly spread.

Though it’s not known if he was the first, one early flu victim in Canby was a young man, Herbert Johnson, who died at the Vancouver Barracks hospital in Washington — where the area’s first cases from the second wave of the pandemic were treated.

Johnson, whose age was not listed in the obituary in The Oregonian died on Nov. 7, 1918, barely three weeks after he had left home to enlist in the military service.

He left behind two brothers, Ernest and Al Johnson. His remains were returned home, where “interment will probably be at Canby,” the obituary read.

There was another recorded death that had happened in Canby even earlier in the pandemic. It was also caused by the flu, albeit in a very different way.

Ernest Perkins, 31, of West Linn, was killed after being struck by a southbound train on the Southern Pacific tracks in Canby one early morning in October 1918. He was on his way to Salem, to attend the funeral of a friend, John Busch, who had died from influenza.

“At the point where the accident occurred, the road parallels the track for some distance, turning sharply at the crossing,” The Oregonian reported. “It is believed that Mr. Perkins was wholly unaware of the train coming behind him.”

The world, it could also be said, was “wholly unaware” of the train coming behind it. The Spanish flu infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people worldwide — 675,000 of them in the U.S.

It was one of the deadliest events in human history.

For a long, brutal fall and winter, the nation suffered. Then, on the morning of March 13, 1919, some good news finally came. The America had returned to port in New York City.

The ship, with the famed 13th Aero Squadron attached to it, had left on Dec. 4, 1917, bound for the battlefields of Europe. Its troops had been engaged in the Meuse–Argonne offensive and the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, and helped see the Allied Powers through to a victorious end.

“We worked behind the lines, but near the front most of the time,” said the squad’s color-sergeant, Stuart McKrea, of Salem (many of the squad’s members were from Oregon). “But there is excitement even at that. At night, we used to hide in shell holes and dugouts, and there were many nights that Fritz came out and bombed us.”

(Fritz, of course, was a WWI-era nickname for German soldiers.)

The Aero’s mission was to engage and clear enemy aircraft from the skies and provide escort to reconnaissance and bombardment squadrons over enemy territory. It also attacked enemy observation balloons, performed close air support and tactical bombing attacks and even provided mechanical support and rescue in the heat of battle.

“When a plane is brought down in No Man’s Land or gets out of order there, we are the boys who go out to fix it,” said Arthur Savage, of Grants Pass. “And let me tell you: Fritz can snipe and shoot some.”

The squad was highly decorated for its service. Following the Nov. 11 Armistice of 1918, it was ordered back to the United States to be demobilized.

The America‘s journey home, however, did not go as planned. In cramped and poorly ventilated conditions, an outbreak of the deadly flu took hold. The virus infected 105 men, at least four of whom died.

The heroic work of Army surgeons, including Lt. W.A. Neill, from Portland, saved countless lives and, eventually, brought the outbreak under control.

The America docked, and its soldiers were transferred to Camp Mills in New Jersey for sanitation quarantine.

On board was a boy from Canby, and two from Oregon City. They had survived the mustard gas of the Argonne and the horrors of Spanish flu.

They were going home.

Photo of the “Canby Castle,” courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

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