A Few, Mad, Fatal Weeks

The hospital on Fifth Avenue, just expanded in 1913, was quickly overwhelmed by the influenza epidemic. A lingering revolt of nurses against the matron over a “general unpleasant atmosphere” quickly subsided. A parsimonious City Council authorized $5,000—the entire annual amount for the hospital, not usually paid in full unless the city collected 100% of its taxes.

Surely the suffering was almost over. The cost had been so high. Thousands of young men had come for jobs, then escaped into the army when the war came along just as the railway dream collapsed. Those boys had become four years of casualty reports in the local newspapers. It was a town of widows and fatherless families, with far more war dead than the few names eventually carved into the local cenotaph.

But it was almost over. Then, surely, the economy would boom, and Prince Rupert would finally grow bigger than Vancouver. It was meant to be.

At first the new threat sweeping across the continent was barely noticed. In early October 1918, the Board of Health published a newspaper notice about preventing influenza. On October 9 the first case was admitted to the hospital. Five days later the hospital overflowed, the number of cases still grew, and there was panicked response.

Volunteers crossed the harbour and stripped the quarantine hospital of nine beds and all bedding, then brought them back and jammed them into spare corners of the hospital.

The Police Commission turned over its supply of seized liquor to doctors—a hopeful rumour had it that booze would cure the influenza. More importantly the women of the community—organized and empowered by both the ongoing shortage of manpower and the great success of the Red Cross and other local initiatives to support the war effort—turned out as volunteer nurses. The first two, on duty October 16, were school teachers and members of the St. John’s Ambulance.

Mayor Thomas McClymont shut down the schools and movie houses, pool rooms and cabarets, the church services, concerts, and every other potential public gathering.

Then came the first deaths, on October 17—a city worker, and a miner down from the Atlin District. Four more died the next day.

On the evening of the 18th a joint meeting of City Council, the Hospital Board and the Medical Association designated Borden Street School as an auxiliary hospital. The Hospital Board ordered more beds, the Immigration Department turned over the 25 they had, and the provincial health officer shot off a telegram begging for more nurses and orderlies. A call went out to the community, asking for the loan of any spare beds. “There are numerous cases in the city where whole households have been laid up,” reported Henry Pullen, the new editor at the Daily News, “and there is no one left to attend them.”

More and more patients flooded in—by the 18th there had been 18 patients just from arriving coastal steamers. The Indian Agent brought in case after case, mostly from Metlakatla and Tuck Inlet Cannery, and carried them to the emergency hospital in the Salvation Army Hall. Volunteers spent the weekend collecting beds and setting them up at Borden Street and improvising a makeshift kitchen.

The Salvation Army Hall, seen here in later years, was quickly converted to a First Nations hospital in mid-October 1918. The matron, Captain Hanson, was herself afflicted before month’s end, though the school teacher from Metlakatla stepped into her shoes.

Salvation Army Hall, seen here in later years, was quickly converted to a First Nations hospital in mid-October 1918. The matron, Captain Hanson, was herself afflicted before month’s end, though the school teacher from Metlakatla stepped into her shoes.[/caption]

The Salvation Army Hall, seen here in later years, was quickly converted to a First Nations hospital in mid-October 1918. The matron, Captain Hanson, was herself afflicted before month’s end, though the school teacher from Metlakatla stepped into her shoes.[/caption]

Gossip made it all worse. “If the rumors current on the street are to be believed,” Pullen wrote on October 22, “nearly every prominent man in the city is now at the undertaker’s waiting internment. Rumor has dozens of people dying, thousands ill, conditions simply unbelievable. Every story is exaggerated in the telling and every time it is repeated it grows.”

No exaggeration was necessary. He wrote that on the day the entire Queen Charlotte Islands were quarantined.

The epidemic was no respecter of age, race, or social status. Aurilla Dyer was 52 years old; Camillas McKinnon was 18 years old and just out of high school. She died on same day as Alderman Robert Smith—proprietor of the plumbing business of Smith & Mallett, a Mason, and a member of the Board of Trade, Prince Rupert Club, St. Andrew’s Society, and the Sons of Canada. The robust Captain Sinclair of the Cold Storage halibut steamer Chief Zibassa was dead. The community’s ten Indo-Canadians, all of whom worked at the sawmill in Seal Cove, sought council permission to cremate their countryman Harry Singh.

The newspapers couldn’t keep up with the names, and soon shifted to eulogizing only deaths among the merchant class.

No help came. No nurses or orderlies could be spared anywhere. Residents were asked to use the telephone system only when necessary. More volunteers were needed—especially at Borden Street, where there were more cases than at the hospital. By the 24th the strain was showing on the volunteers—some of the women had been working 12-hour days since the first call for help. A sanitary inspector was named, who began going house-to-house in search of victims too ill to seek help.

Orme’s Drug Store was run by volunteers. Angus Ripley, the new chief assistant, was dead on the 20th, and Stevens and Orme were incapacitated. Two volunteer helpers, G.L. Thompson and G.W. Nickerson, were bedridden by October 26. “With the whole community practically suffering,” Pullen reported, “and the demand for drugs and antidotes for influenza at its highest point this week, the volunteer druggists have had a very busy time, and have risen to the occasion nobly.”

Any potential remedy seemed worth a try. Fruit-a-tives, which had been advertised locally for some time, was now pumped as having “the power to resist this disease.” So was Kennedy’s Tonic Port, “containing Chinchona Tree Bark from which Quinine is extracted.”

The deaths went on and on. Swedes, Danes, Serbians, Italians. George “Brownie” McCarty was foreman at Pacific Cartage. Daniel McKay was a 37-year-old Scottish employee of the GTP. Lost were the skipper of the halibut steamer Andrew Kelly, the manager of the Westholme Opera House, the invaluable Jack Morrison from the telephone company.

There were deaths that would have tragic consequences—Tharsyle Oullette was given a funeral at the Catholic Church on November 12. Her death would send her husband, the most famous keeper at Lucy Island Lighthouse, into madness that would consume his life and destroy their family.

Perhaps the strangest death of all was that of 21-year-old Joseph Woosnan on November 2. Woosnan had been steward on the coastal steamer Princess Sophia on her final trip north, and had been put ashore at Prince Rupert. After the Sophia was lost, with all hands, on Vanderbilt Reef, Woosnan had congratulated himself on being the sole survivor.

“It seems as if the whole ship’s complement of the Sophia was fated for destruction,” Pullen wrote.

Then it was over. On November 11 Borden Street School was closed as an auxiliary, its remaining patients transferred over to the hospital. November 18 the schools re-opened, and on November 23 the city returned to business. The Westholme opened with the “spectacular secret service drama, ‘The Spy,’” along with a two-reel comedy, although it was necessary to point out that “the building has been well disinfected and will be kept well ventilated.”

There’s never been a proper count of the dead. Dozens of residents died, and more from the steamers and the outlying camps. The Tsimshian were hammered. As Mary-Ellen Kelm pointed out in her 1999 study of the pandemic among the First Nations in BC, there were huge discrepancies in the number of deaths officially reported—“the reason for this faulty reporting,” she wrote, “may simply be a symptom of a larger indifference to First Nations issues, or it may have been an attempt to keep the true impact of this epidemic out of the hands of government critics.” Her conclusion, however, was that mortality was about nine times higher among B.C. First Nations—no doubt accelerated when the people returned from the canneries. On October 29 the Daily News estimated 200 cases among the Tsimshian in just the immediate locale—98 of them at Tuck Inlet Cannery.

It was even worse elsewhere. It’s been estimated that 92% of the Nisga’a were afflicted, the Gitksan were particularly hard hit, and even small, remote Kitkatla experienced eleven deaths. The deaths came too fast for the victims to even be treated with the full traditional respect.

It was no surprise, as the epidemic wound down in Prince Rupert in early November, that a premature rumour of Armistice on the 7th brought everyone well enough to leave their beds pouring out of their homes. The downtown streets were thick with the smoke of spontaneous fireworks. It was supposed to have been all over before that—instead, for those few mad, fatal weeks, it was as if the war had come to the home front.

1 Comment

  • Carol
    March 23, 2020 12:35 am

    That was very interesting. You have done a lot of research Bruce. Cannot wait to read the book!

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