Parade to raise money for World War I brought deadly influenza to Williams Valley in 1918

“Good music always has an appeal to most people,” wrote a reporter accompanying a Liberty Loan Drive parade through Central Pennsylvania in the early fall of 1918. And in the coal towns of Dauphin County’s Williams Valley, the bands and singers were particularly successful in attracting a crowd.

On the evening of October 2, 1918, more than 3,000 citizens appeared in Lykens to participate in the parade to raise money for the American war effort in Europe. Musicians, wounded soldiers, and a brass band were accompanied in a procession through town by the admiring crowd, intent on observing the spectacle.

“It was an ‘eye-opener’ to the folks at home,” the editor of the Lykens Standard wrote two days later, as money poured into to support the troops. Then the parade packed up and moved onto the next town up the narrow valley – Williamstown. As the parade participants moved and the citizens of Lykens returned to their homes, they unwittingly had participated in the spread of a deadly illness throughout their community. For in that band of musicians, soldiers, and speakers came an invisible, unwelcome visitor – influenza.  In the days that followed the successful Liberty Loan tour, the community heard the first coughs, but couldn’t possibly grasp the horrors they were about to face.

As citizens in Williams Valley began to suffer the first symptoms of influenza, the disease was quickly spreading across the nation and the globe. On the Eastern Seaboard, ships carrying wounded soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe suddenly turned into “death ships” as influenza spread and rapidly killed those onboard with a ferocity never before seen. Those who made it to shore spread the illness to civilians in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Thousands fell ill in a fast moving epidemic that swept westward with every train.

The experience for those living in Williams Valley communities serves as a good representation of what the disease, known as Spanish Influenza, could do to those living in closely packed mining communities like Lykens, Williamstown, Tower City, and the surrounding “patch towns.”

IMG_2899
Dr. H.A. Shaffer

On October 7, five days after the Liberty Loan parade in Lykens, Dr. H.A. Shaffer in Williamstown reported that more than 100 citizens of his town had fallen ill with influenza. The number quickly overwhelmed his “Williams Valley Hospital,” which had opened in the center of Williamstown in September 1918. Several patients had already died. In Lykens, doctors reported more than 125 cases by that early date. Further east, in the Schuylkill County town of Tower City, 200 cases were reported on October 9.

Suddenly, the sheets of the local weekly newspapers were running column after column of death notices.

Lykens Obit

The unrelenting virus spread among the mining communities, forcing the closure of the region’s coal mines. Within a week, the deaths reached into the dozens across Williams Valley. In Tower City, all but one of the town’s doctors fell ill and could no longer see patients. Civic leaders called on the military to assist and, shortly, military doctors and medical students were shipped to the region to shore up the overwhelmed medical staffs.

Schools were closed. Theaters shuttered. Public events cancelled until further notice. People hunkered down and nervously waited for the epidemic to subside. It would take a month filled with horrors, death, and grief before the outbreak slowed. In the nation, October 1918 proved to be the deadliest month in the nation’s history. That would also be true in the towns and villages of the Williams Valley; the month proved unrelenting in its pestilence as the pandemic swarmed around them.

hospital-williamstown
The Williams Valley Hospital opened in September 1918. By October, it was overwhelmed by hundreds of patients.

The Liberty Loan Drive that traveled the Pennsylvania countryside in early October 1918 stopped in its tracks after its visit to Williams Valley. Those who survived returned to their homes and watched as the influenza spread and pestilence reigned over America.


Stay tuned to Wynning History throughout 2018 for more on the First World War and the Spanish Flu outbreak. 

Featured image: A parade in Williamstown, Pennsylvania (Williamstown – My Hometown)

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