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A century ago, Bristol Bay battled the Great Flu at Christmastime

  • Author: Tim Troll
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 28, 2018
  • Published December 28, 2018

Aerial view of Dillingham on Tuesday, August 27, 2013. (BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News)

The weather was mild on Dec. 21, 1918, in Bristol Bay. It had been mild for most of the month — generally between 15 and 30 degrees. The little community of Dillingham and the dozens of Native villages in the surrounding area were hunkered down for the winter. The canneries were dormant, and the great sailing ships of the salmon fleet had all sailed south by the end of August carrying the summer’s pack of sockeye salmon. It had been a decent 1918 fishing season.

At the small government hospital overlooking Nushagak Bay, Dr. Linus Hiram French, his wife Susan and their new daughter, nurses Mary Conley and Rhoda Wray and cook Joe Hiratsuka, were enjoying a respite. There were no patients in the hospital.

Dr. French had been serving as a physician in Southwest Alaska for more than a decade, starting as a cannery doctor in 1908 at the Libby cannery at Koggiung. He became a government doctor in 1911, replacing Dr. Joseph Romig. Dr. French established the hospital at Dillingham in 1913. That institution, Kanakanak Hospital, survives to this day.

Unlike most physicians today, Dr. French made house calls, but these calls often required travel over hundreds of miles by boat, dog or reindeer team. In addition to his duties as doctor, he was also the local justice of the peace, coroner, superintendent of the government reindeer herds and overseer of the schools for a vast, sparsely populated region. He also did most of the maintenance around the hospital. Dr. French was well suited for the job – gregarious, caring and talented. He was the “go-to guy” for almost anything in Bristol Bay.

Dr. French met his wife Susan in 1916 while on sabbatical leave to his hometown in Hamilton, Ohio. He brought her to Alaska in the spring of 1917. Susan was in her twenties, much younger than her doctor husband. With one child and another on the way, Dr. French had already given notice that 1919 would be his last year in Alaska.

Nurses Conley and Ray were graduates of the Providence Nursing School in Seattle. They had served at the hospital for a couple of years.

There had been no word from the world beyond the horizon since the steamer Watson departed Oct. 10. No word was expected again until there was enough snow and a good winter freeze to harden the dog team trail from the Pacific coast. But, the quiet of Dec. 21 was interrupted when word from the “Outside” arrived with a barking dog team from the village of Marshall on the Yukon River. It was not the mail run. Marshall was the nearest wireless station with access to current news and the dog team driver, Bert Green, was dispatched by Territorial Gov. Thomas Riggs to convey a proverbial “good news, bad news" message to Dr. French. The “good” news was the Great War was over, an armistice having been signed a month earlier. The allies had won. The “bad” news was there was an epidemic killing millions of people worldwide and that sickness, called the Spanish Flu, had reached Alaska.

Dr. French was ordered by the governor to immediately institute a general quarantine for the Bristol Bay region. All travel between villages was to be restricted. School and church services were to be suspended. Public meeting and dances were forbidden. Health officers, generally the local teachers, were to be appointed in each village to enforce the quarantine.

The Spanish Flu entered Alaska 100 years ago this year, following the steamship route from Seattle up through the Panhandle and into Prince William Sound. The first cases appeared sometime in the fall. It later came into Nome and the Seward Peninsula at freeze-up, just after the last steamship departed. The rapid spread of the sickness overwhelmed all efforts to control it. A person often died within days, if not hours, after infection. The territory’s meager emergency funds were quickly exhausted, but Gov. Riggs, hoping Congress would later reimburse the territory, authorized officials to continue to treat the sick, bury the dead ($30 per corpse), and care for the growing number of children orphaned by the flu ($10 per month).

When Gov. Riggs later went to Washington, D.C., in January of 1919 to ask Congress for relief, he estimated more than 2,000 deaths across the territory. Most of the deaths and orphaned children were in the Native villages of the Seward Peninsula and the Lower Yukon River. Medical help was stretched in the far corners of Western Alaska. Even the doctor sent by the governor to help coordinate relief died of the flu. The governor described the situation on the Seward Peninsula as “appalling and beyond description.”

As Dr. French and his wife Susan settled into the holidays of 1918, the weather remained mild. While the Spanish Flu was running its deadly course on the other side of the mountains, it was little more than a nuisance in Dillingham. The restrictions the doctor placed on travel had prevented him from hosting his annual Christmas dinner for friends from the community and nearby villages. Dr. French was confident their isolation and the quarantine regulations he instituted would keep everyone safe. It was Christmas, a time to celebrate. All was well in Bristol Bay.

Tim Troll is executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust.

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