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The Blackest Week: A pandemic comes to Colorado's high country - in 1918

Library of Congress

Author's Note: I was really hoping this piece, excerpted and adapted from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster, would lose its relevance. But as each successive wave of the COVID pandemic crashes down on the globe, and as the politicization of public health grows ever more egregious, it becomes clear this story is as pertinent as ever.

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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, however, 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.

In 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, making life in the trenches even more miserable, and even altering the way the war was fought.

During the first week of October, the death counts climbed as a second, more deadly wave, crashed over the United States. As hundreds died each day in the nation’s cities, the U.S. Public Health Service set out to hire doctors and nurses to deal with the epidemic. It was a difficult task during war time, and may have been too little, too late, anyway. Geographically, the flu moved with terrifying speed and mobility. It hastily made its way across the country, across the oceans, and even to remote villages in Alaska and tiny Pacific islands.

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.

One minute the victim would be sitting down for breakfast, feeling fine. Then, standing up from the breakfast table, he might feel a bit lightheaded, a little twinge of pain in the back, followed soon afterward by a fever and a general sense of fatigue. Maybe he would go to work down at the clothing store, anyway. After all, he had mouths to feed. But by lunch he has become so dizzy that he feels as if he can barely make the three-block walk home. By evening he is bedridden, his lungs filling with fluid, his breathing raspy, his mind haunted by delirium and terrible images. The next day he is retching up a pink bloody froth, but he cannot expel it quickly enough. He is dead by the following morning.

“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. It’s not clear how accurate this statement is. The pages of the newspapers in the spring and summer of 1918 were filled with obituaries for people who had died of “pneumonia,” which seems to have been a catch-all diagnosis at the time, and sometimes used to describe such ailments as silicosis, or miner’s lung, and, perhaps, the Spanish Influenza.

By then the virus was wreaking havoc all over, but the Silverton newspapers — the Miner and the Silverton Standard, which would merge a few years later — seemed fairly blasé about it all. They barely even mentioned the flu in the first two weeks’ editions.

Finally, during the third week, the sickness got some print: Postal workers in Durango were fumigating all of the Silverton-bound mail, because it had been exposed to the virus somewhere between there and Denver. Large public gatherings were banned across the state. Parents were urged to keep their kids home from school if they showed any symptoms. And two soldiers who were training at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which had 120 cases at that point, had perished. The soldiers were part of a group of 250 from Montana that had come to Colorado in September for training.

But the most disturbing news item had nothing to do with the epidemic — at least not on the surface. “Silverton Celebrates,” the headline read, and the accompanying article detailed a town-wide party that had taken place the night before — replete with a bonfire on the main drag, shared bottles of bootleg liquor, dancing, hugging, crying — in defiance of the statewide ban on public gatherings.

Rumor had reached Silverton of the German’s unconditional surrender. They didn’t find out that it was false until it was too late. The next day the Standard sheepishly admitted to falling for the fake news, but praised the celebration, nonetheless, noting, “We had a celebration coming and all San Juan County is better off for her turn out.”

Within days, many of the people who 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.

When reading through the newspapers of the time, one is especially struck by how determined the editors — and the community as a whole — was to move on, to get things back to normal, even to forget the tragedy that had befallen them. In the Nov. 11 edition of the Standard, which brimmed with obituaries, a story noted that mines had suspended operations, not in order to slow the spread, but because the miners had died off or run off to escape the flu.

And then: “While Silverton has been hit very hard in death rate, at the same time our little city has finally checked the disease, and … we are as well off in San Juan County as in any part of the state.”

Before November had ended, as the community celebrated the actual end of the war, the miners were returning to the boarding houses in the high country and to work, the town council allowed taverns and pool halls to open back up, and the classes resumed at the school. Meanwhile, people were still dying, even after the city had “checked” the disease.

As one might expect, the Spanish Flu returned to Silverton for another round, beginning in December. This time local health officials imposed a 48-hour quarantine on anyone coming into town from the outside, and the Sunnyside Mine, which was staffing up again, put a 24-hour quarantine on incoming miners.

Whether it was effective or not is not clear. What is clear is that the Spanish Flu continued to sicken Silvertonians. It also killed them, though at a rate of a few people per week — enough to fill up the obituary pages, but not to warrant headlines — rather than a dozen per day, as was the case in late October and early November.

At least 20 million died globally from the Spanish Flu, and 500,000 or more perished in the United States. Colorado recorded 46,000 cases during the autumn 1918 wave, and some 3,000 deaths, making for a fatality rate of about 6%. It was far higher in Silverton. The Spanish Flu claimed at least 150 San Juan County residents, probably more. It was the hardest hit county in the state, and had one of the highest death rates in the Lower 48. Telluride and Salida and Montrose also experienced a rash of death.

Meanwhile, one Colorado mountain county escaped the worst of the pandemic virtually unscathed. Gunnison physician A.P. Hanson imposed a strict quarantine on the county in late October, which included barricades and armed guards on all incoming highways, and he stubbornly kept it in place for months. Residents could leave, but they couldn’t return without submitting to a quarantine. In February 1919 county officials finally bowed to public pressure and lifted the ban. Within weeks the virus had finally come to Gunnison County; dozens of people were infected and in April a handful of people succumbed to the disease.

After the sickness finally subsided, Silvertonians seemed intent on turning to denial as their collective coping mechanism. After the “worst” and “blackest” weeks had passed, the newspapers focused on the end of the war, on the resumption of mining, on the remarkable fact that the Caledonia Mine had managed to keep producing ore during the worst of it, thanks to a self-imposed quarantine. Then they stopped mentioning the Spanish Flu altogether. The community never came together afterward to hold a memorial service for the dead. Survivors were reticent to talk about it, even decades later, as if forgetting would make it all go away.

In Silverton, though, it is not so easy to forget, because the Hillside Cemetery, located just above town, provides a grim reminder of the disease and the death it brought to this valley.

Go there, to the cemetery. Walk among the graves and look at the dates. Before long you will see a death-date of October 1918. Then you will see another, and another, and another.

On the far side of the cemetery, obscured by dried stalks of grass, you will see the flimsy plaques marking the graves of Joe and Christine Anderson. He died first and she went four days later. Underneath a big tree you will see the Wright stone — mother, daughter, and son killed within a few days of each other.

And near the entrance of the cemetery’s lower road, if you look closely enough, you will see a long, straight indentation in the earth. It was here, during a cold and snowy October a century ago, that so many of Silverton’s sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers were buried in the frozen dirt.

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KSUT publishes selected articles from The Land Desk, a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson. Articles are archived here.

The Land Desk explores news from the Four Corners, Colorado Plateau, and Native and Indigenous lands. Jonathan is a longtime Four Corners-based journalist and author of River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain, and his new book, Sagebrush Empire.

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