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In wake of flu epidemic a century ago, Alaska's Pilgrim Springs became a ghost town

PILGRIM SPRINGS — On a recent ski trip across the Seward Peninsula of northwest Alaska, I followed a trail along the Pilgrim River broken by five friends. Their path led to a subarctic oasis.

Beyond the blank white of frozen river was a small settlement nestled in 60-foot balsam poplar trees. The cleared fields, old farm equipment, scattered pine trees, and two-story building with a cross on top seemed more Wisconsin than Alaska. The only sound was the whisper of wind through naked branches.

Pilgrim Springs has not always been this quiet. In the last few years, researchers with UAF have drilled there, looking for the hottest spots amid the steaming pools and snowless fields. They and others with private firms and the state are trying to determine if Pilgrim's energy might be a viable source of geothermal power.

This quest, driven in part by high fuel prices 60 miles away in Nome, is not new. The Department of Energy also funded several studies in the late 1970s that resulted in reports of a robust system, which have fueled repeat visits to the site with newer tools to drill holes in different spots.

Economics will dictate whether the Native corporation-owned Pilgrim Springs ever generates power for a community, as Bernie Karl has done at Chena Hot Springs, which he owns and operates. Whether Pilgrim can generate enough electricity to export to Nome, which with 3,800 residents is Western Alaska's second largest town behind Bethel, is the larger question.

Spanish flu epidemic

For now, Pilgrim Springs has a population of two -- a great horned owl sitting on a nest constructed on the church and its mate hooting from the former nuns' quarters. The owls live on an island of forest habitat in the middle of a land with no trees. Both buildings supporting the owls are part of the Catholic mission started there in 1919.

Alaska state historian Michael Kennedy documented the known history when he got Pilgrim Springs on the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1970s. The site has probably attracted people since they squinted at the steaming ground there after crossing the Bering Land Bridge, Kennedy wrote. An orphanage operated there last century after one of the deadliest organisms in the history of mankind invaded the Seward Peninsula.

The 1918 Spanish flu killed millions of people worldwide. It spread to the Seward Peninsula when a passenger carried the virus to Nome on the last steamship of the season. The flu soon spread inland, where Natives with no resistance to the virus had no chance. All the people in the village of York died, as did 72 of 80 in Brevig Mission. All together, more than 1,200 died on the peninsula.

Orphanage open until 1941

The Catholic Diocese of Nome had acquired the Pilgrim Springs homestead in 1917. Officials assigned the dependable Father Bellarmine Lafortune to build and operate what became Our Lady of Lourdes Orphanage.

Lafortune and his crew built 15 structures, most of which still stand. The most impressive is the church, which featured a place of worship on the upper story and a lower floor with a spacious kitchen, housing and offices for all the priests and brothers.

"Because of the thermal heating, it enjoyed flush toilets," Kennedy wrote. "All of the major buildings had inside, cold-water plumbing — a respectable luxury for that part of the world."

The staff at the orphanage — a total of about 20 priests, nuns, brothers and others — "provided home life, religious education and domestic training for an average of 100 orphans annually."

As the years passed and the flu orphans became adults, the ministry closed. In 1941, staff members boarded up the buildings, and the Catholic Church never reopened the mission.

Ned Rozell is a science writer at the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute. Used with permission.