Historian reflects on county efforts to control pandemic

(Editor’s note: Amid concerns about the international impacts of Coronavirus (COVID-19), Gunnison made worldwide news this weekend as the United Kingdom-based news outlet, The Guardian, examined the response of the town during the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago and how it was effective in protecting Gunnison Valley residents.

Locally, Gunnison native and long-time resident Anne Steinbeck told the Times her parents spoke about the Spanish flu when she was growing up, and compared such action taken then to what was possible today.

“I don’t think we could survive (quarantine) like they did then because there aren’t as many people producing their own food as they were then,” Steinbeck said.

Additionally, the Gunnison Valley economy has evolved to be more reliant on tourist activity since 1918, she noted.

As a nod to the past, historian David Primus captured the essence of the efforts employed a century ago in Gunnison County during the “Great Influenza.” Although medicine has come a long way in the last 100 years, we are sharing his article to provide perspective on the efforts to fight an epidemic today.)


Often referred to as the “Spanish flu” — because early cases were in Spain — the first documented cases were in rural Kansas in January of 1918. A Kansas doctor noted the severity of this version of the flu and alerted public health officials. But it wasn’t until the flu began to quickly spread across the world that protective measures were taken. Gunnison is well-known for its success in (almost) eliminating sickness and deaths in the valley. 

The influenza of 1918 was particularly alarming because the death rate of young, healthy people was unusually high — one estimate is that as many as 10 percent of young adults died. The Gunnison News-Champion reported that "…in Telluride [they] allowed a dance and within six days, two beautiful ladies and two of the brightest boys in town were dead."

People across the United States were really frightened. By mid-October, 78 people had died in Denver with 9,000 cases reported statewide. Almost everyone in the town of Sargents had the flu and six people had died — they asked for Red Cross nurses but none were available. Based on these alarming statistics, Colorado Governor Julius Gunter asked local authorities to ban all public gatherings. Many localities ignored his advice and soon came to regret it.

Gunnison, on the other hand, took early and severe precautions. On Oct. 18, with no cases yet in Gunnison, the local Board of Health closed all schools and churches and banned parties and street gatherings. Although a hardship, most people were very supportive; there were reports of the flu in Parlin, Doyleville, Sargents, Montrose and Salida. 


Quarantine implemented

On Nov. 1, with the flu raging around Gunnison, F.P. Hanson, county physician, decided to quarantine the town.

"In order that our lives and those of our families may be better safeguarded, I have caused a strict quarantine to be placed on Gunnison County against the world. Barricades and fences have been erected on all main highways near the county lines; lanterns at night, and signs by day warning autos to go through the county at once or submit to quarantine. Any person may leave the county at his will: None may return except those who will go into voluntary quarantine at a place designated by this office. Any person willfully molesting these barricades or deliberate endeavors to break this quarantine will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law."

At the same time, Crested Butte’s Dr. Rockefeller was appointed to take charge of the quarantine in both towns and the county. Chipeta Hall at Colorado State Normal School (today’s Western Colorado University) was turned into a detention camp for the mandatory 48 hour quarantine. Soon thereafter, Colorado Sen. Sapp and a few others made the mistake of getting off the train in Gunnison arriving from Baldwin. They were immediately interned at Chipeta Hall. Action taken by nearby towns wasn’t as effective. Ouray hired guards to prevent miners from Telluride and Silverton from entering town, but they were too late — Ouray was already infected with 150 cases. Silverton, thinking they were somehow immune as they had no flu in October, took no action. By the end of 1918, 833 cases had been reported with 125 deaths. Silverton’s City Hall was turned into an emergency hospital and bodies were stacked in sheds awaiting burial in spring once the ground thawed.


‘That’s a real quarantine’

Within a few days, outsiders tested Gunnison’s mettle. The News-Champion’s headline summed it up: “Strangers Land in Jail: Insolently break quarantine and are captured.” Two men traveling from Nebraska to Delta had broken through the barricades on Cochetopa Pass, then stopped in Parlin, “expressing their opinions very forcibly while there.” Locals called Dr. Hanson, who called the sheriff. He met the two on the road where they were pretending to have car trouble. The sheriff showed them real car trouble — he disabled their engine and took them to jail.

Throughout November the quarantine seemed to be working. Just before Thanksgiving the News-Champion reported the quarantine would be partially lifted to allow schools to open and people to enjoy churches and movies on Thanksgiving. The strict restriction on outsiders would remain. But due to a recurrence of the flu throughout the state the decision was quickly rescinded. 

Locals were reminded of the severity of the flu when people returned from elsewhere in the state. The Laurel Spann family of Jack’s Cabin had visited Denver and were in quarantine. Soon, Mrs. Spann fell sick and passed away — she was likely Gunnison County’s first death. 

John Tobin, traveling from Pueblo to Montrose, wrote to a friend that "…when his train approached the railway station at Gunnison the conductor entered the coach in which he and many others were riding, and announced that any person who alighted from the train, and even stepped on the platform there would be escorted by an officer to quarantine and there kept until it was made sure there was no influenza germs hanging around, and that the usual method for this procedure was five days. That's real quarantine.”

By mid-January 1919, people were getting restless. Schools had been closed for three months and it was feared students would lose a year. The quarantine was causing severe economic hardship and the flu seemed to be abating. Although officials disagreed about what to do, the decision was made to open the schools, but not lift the quarantine. A doctor at the public schools inspected each student every day and returning students and faculty of the Normal School had to remain in quarantine for two days. 

Finally in late February the quarantine was lifted. But in only a few weeks, flu cases were reported all over the county. At least four people died, most of them in their 20s and 30s. 

Overall, the strict quarantine worked. Gunnison had escaped the worst of the Great Influenza with only 58 cases of the flu and just a few deaths. Statewide, there were more than 49,000 cases and almost 8,000 people died.


(David Primus, Special to the Times)