How Duluth handled the 1918 flu epidemic

[Published March 16, 2020] As Duluth and the rest of the world deals with the corona virus pandemic—and here at Zenith City Press I prepare to cancel or reschedule upcoming events related to Duluth: An Urban Biography—I thought it would be a good time to remind my fellow Duluthians that we have been through something like this before, just not in our lifetime. And it was much worse.

In 1918 the Spanish Flu (H1N1) swept across the planet. According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 500 million people  became ill and 50 million of them died, including about 675,000 in the U.S. Nearly 43,000 of those were U.S. servicemen who had enlisted or were drafted to fight in the war in Europe. Over 300 were Duluthians.

With the Spanish Flu, according to the CDC, “mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older.” Further, “with no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections…control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings.”

By October 11, 1918, 27 cases had been reported in the Zenith City. The next day Public Safety Commissioner Bernard Silberstein announced that Duluth’s city council had passed an emergency ordinance forcing the closure of “all public buildings, churches, schools and theaters” for six weeks.

Public libraries, pool halls, fraternal lodges, the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A., and other gathering places were also forcibly closed. (Saloons had already been closed, as Duluth went dry in July 1917.) “Parties and private affairs of any kind” were also banned. Funerals were limited to members of the deceased’s immediate family.

Those caught violating the order could be fined up to $1,000 (over $17,000 in today’s dollars) or imprisoned in the county jail or work farm for up to 85 days. Meanwhile, the Moose Lodge in West Duluth, the downtown Camel’s Lodge and  Shrine Auditorium—built in 1896 as the Third Regiment Armory— were pressed into service to house the sick.

Officials hoped they could lift the ban after a week to ten days and were concerned it might last an entire month. It lasted longer, until November 25—about seven weeks after it was put in place.

During its peak between October 1918 and January 1919, the flu claimed the lives of 325 Duluthians—and we were lucky. Silberstein explained to reporters that the city’s per capita death rate sat well below the national average. “If we had the same percentage as in some eastern cities,” Silberstein told newspapers, “more than 700 deaths would have resulted.”

And let’s not forget that the very day those closures were announced—October 12, 1918—sparks from railroad cars erupted into flames near Cloquet, setting off the fires of 1918, which killed 453 people in the region, including 85 in Duluth and the immediately surrounding area. Also, by October 1918, 55 Duluth soldiers, along with nurse Lydia Whiteside, had lost their lives to the war.

So please practice social distancing, wash your hands, stop touching your face, and, if you’re like me, take a little solace in the fact that we’re dealing with this in 2020, not 1920.