Spanish Flu wreaked havoc in Tower City in October 1918, killed more than 110 people in three weeks

When influenza swept into Pennsylvania’s Coal Region in the autumn of 1918, it caused utter devastation in tightly-knit towns and villages.

One such mining community sat on the far western edge of Schuylkill County. Tower City and its suburbs of Sheridan, Reinerton, Muir, and Orwin were home to more than 5,000 people in October 1918 when the Spanish flu raced in. What started as a mild outbreak in early October quickly turned deadly and spread widely across the community impacted almost every family.

Tower City View
Tower City, Pennsylvania (Williamstown – My Hometown)

“Spanish influenza is causing much havoc here,” wrote the Harrisburg Telegraph on October 12, 1918. “In this short time seven persons have succumbed to the disease and about fifty persons are at present suffering severe attacks… In some homes as many as six are afflicted at the same time.”

The town’s two physicians were overwhelmed and one fell ill with the disease. The owner’s of Tower City’s “Palace Hall,” a notable local dancing house, turned the building over for use as an emergency hospital.

“The girls employed in the shirt factories went to the hall and with buckets and brooms made it spotlessly clean,” noted one reporter. The building’s available space was quickly filled with the sufferers experiencing intense symptoms – intense aches, fevers, coughing. Victims turned blue as they gradually died from influenza or subsequent pneumonia.

Military authorities in Harrisburg and Allentown sent relief supplies to Tower City in mid-October. First, tents and supplies came, but were quickly followed by doctors in training for service in the U.S. Army at Camp Crane in Allentown. “Several trained nurses arrived to visit and care for the sick in their homes,” noted the Elizabethville Echo on October 24 as they updated their readers about events in Tower City.

By that time, the emergency hospital had taken in between 120 and 140 patients. The town and surrounding area already had a staggering 800 cases of influenza, more than 16% of the community ill from a single disease. The community’s economy came to a screeching halt. Everything was closed for the duration of the outbreak. People rarely left their homes and citizens often refused to assist in the hospital, requiring nurses to come in from outlying communities to nurse the desperately ill.

 

(Above Image: Palace Hall in 2014, courtesy of Google Maps)

In ten days in mid-October, Tower City recorded 41 deaths from influenza and pneumonia. The next week, 45 deaths were recorded. The West Schuylkill Herald, Tower City’s newspaper, recorded the deaths in numerous columns on its front page.

“Among the victims were people prominent in church, civic society and war activity work, whose places will be hard to fill,” wrote the editors on October 25, just before listing each victim who perished during the week of October 17-October 24. The sheer number of victims and the families impacted is stunning.

Deaths

Bertha Viola Keiser, aged 9 years, daughter of Mrs. and the late Henry Keiser, died Oct. 18, at the Emergency Hospital. Burial Oct. 23 in Tower City cemetery.

Oliver C. Reightler, died Oct. 18, at his home on the Adams farm in Clarks Valley. Leaves a widow, nee Wolfe, and 2 children. Burial Oct. 22 in Greenwood.

Harry A. Miller, aged 29 years, son of Alfred Miller, died Oct. 18 at his home at Orwin. Leaves a widow, nee Stutzman. Burial Oct. 22 in Greenwood.

Helen, a 3 year old daughter of Harry Raudenbush and wife of Tower City, died Oct. 18 at the Emergency Hospital. Burial Oct. 21 in Greenwood.

Lloyd Schoffstall, aged 42 years, of Tower City, died October 18, at the Emergency Hospital. Leaves a widow and eight children. Burial Oct. 21 in Greenwood.

Elanor, an 18 month old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hand, died  Oct. 18 at the parents’ home at Sheridan. Burial Oct. 21 in Greenwood.

Miss Cora Stutzman, aged 31 years, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Stutzman, died Oct. 19 at the parents’ home at Orwin. Burial Oct. 21 in the L & R. cemetery at Orwin.

Bertha, aged 5 years, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Andy B., died Oct. 19 at the parents’ home at Sheridan. Burial Oct. 21 in the Greek Catholic cemetery, Lykens.

Charles Grando, aged 30 years of Tower City died Oct. 19 at the Emergency Hospital. Leaves a widow in Austria. Burial Oct. 23 in the Greek Catholic cemetery at Williamstown.

Alice, a one year old child of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Updegrave, died Oct. 19 at the parents’ home. Burial Oct. 21 in Greenwood cemetery.

Elias H. Miller, aged 44 years, died Oct. 19 at his home at Orwin. Leaves a widow and 8 children. Burial Oct. 22 in the U.B. cemetery at Orwin.

William O. Schreiner, aged 43 years, janitor of the Tower City public schools, died Oct. 20 at his home at Tower City. Leaves a widow, nee Barnhardt, and 2 children. Burial Oct. 25 in Greenwood cemetery.

Wm. F. Lemke, Jr., aged 38 years, of Tower City, died Oct. 20 at the Emergency Hospital. Leaves a widow, nee Bush, and 6 small children. Burial Oct. 24 in Greenwood.

Henry Franklin Hand, aged 55 years, former supervisor of Porter Twp., died Oct. 20 at his home at Orwin. Leaves a widow, nee Frantz and 8 children, two of them being in France. Burial Oct. 24 in U.B. cemetery at Orwin.

Edgar T. Doyle, aged 27 years, a well-known barber of Tower City died Oct. 20 at his home. A widow, nee Maher, and one son survive. Burial Oct. 23 in Catholic cemetery, Williamstown.

Alex Cott, aged 30, of Tower City died Oct. 20 at the Emergency Hospital. A widow and 3 children survive. Burial Oct. 21 in Greek Catholic cemetery, Lykens.

Samuel Reiner, aged 26 years, died Oct. 21 at his home in the east end of Tower City. A widow, nee Doyle, and one child survive.

William H. Clouser, aged 29 years, died Oct. 18 at the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Clouser on Colliery Ave. A widow and one child survive. Funeral Oct. 22. Burial in Greenwood cemetery.

Mrs. Mary Clark, nee Workman, aged 48 years, wife of Joseph Clark, postmaster and a well-known merchant of Reinerton, died Oct. 19 at her home at that place after a several months illness of nephritis. The couple had no children. Funeral Oct. 23. Burial in Greenwood.

Miss Anna Kopchop, aged 17 years, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Kopchop, of Sheridan, died Oct. 19 at the Emergency Hospital. Funeral Oct. 25 in the Catholic cemetery, Williamstown.

Miss Eva English, aged 27 years, daughter of E.J. and the late Mrs. English of Tower City, died October 20 at the home of her father. She was an active worker for the Red Cross and rendered valuable aid at the Emergency Hospital. Her father, one brother in the army and one married sister survive. Burial Oct. 23 in Greenwood.

Edward Lewis, aged 23 years, son of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Lewis, died Oct. 20 at the home of his parents at Tower City. He was drummer in the Tower City band. His parents, several brothers and sisters survive. Burial Oct. 25 in Greenwood.

Fred Holden, aged 25 years, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Holden, of Tower City died Oct. 21 at the Emergency Hospital. His parents, several brothers and sisters survive. Funeral Oct. 25. Burial in Greenwood.

Claude Seiler, aged 33 years, of Muir, died Oct. 21 at the Emergency Hospital. He was a son of Richard Seiler of Valley View. A widow and 3 children survive. Buried Oct. 26 at Valley View.

Boyd Kessler, aged 27, died Oct. 21 at his home at Orwin. A widow, nee Bettinger, and two children survive. Burial Oct. 26 at Orwin.

Leroy Klinger, aged 19 years, son of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. P. Klinger of Tower City, died Oct. 21 at his parents’ home. His parents and several brothers and sisters survive. Burial Oct. 24 in Greenwood.

Mrs. Harry Moyer, nee Rettinger, aged 40 years, died Oct. 21 at her home on Wiconisco Ave. Her husband and 10 children, the youngest twins, survive. Burial October 26.

Albert Snyder, aged about 31, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Snyder, Tower City, died Oct. 22 at his home on Colliery Ave. A widow and 4 children survive. Burial Oct. 26 in Greenwood cemetery.

Isaac Nelson, aged 28 years, son of the late John Nelson, married and one child, died Oct. 22 at his home at Orwin. Burial Oct. 26 in U.B. cemetery, Orwin.

Harvey Artz, aged 38 years of Reinerton died Oct. 22 at the Emergency Hospital. His widow, nee Shadle, and 4 children survive. Burial Oct. 26.

Geo. Goodman, aged 48 years, died Oct. 22 at his home at Reinerton. A widow, nee Shadle, survives. Burial Oct. 25 in Greenwood.

A two day old child of Mrs. Wasel Olinich, born in the Emergency Hospital, died Oct. 22. The mother has been in the hospital with pneumonia.

Albert Thompson, aged 31 years, son of Isaac and the late Mrs. Thompson, died Oct. 22 at the Emergency Hospital. A widow, nee Ritzman, and 2 children survive. Burial __.

Tony Valendo, aged 30 years, single, son of Joseph Valendo of Sheridan died Oct. 22 at the Emergency Hospital. Burial Oct. 26 in the Catholic cemetery, Williamstown.

John Mollar, aged 30 years, of Reinerton died Oct. 22 in the Emergency Hospital. A widow and 4 children survive. Burial Oct. __.

Mrs. Clayton Masterson, aged 29 years, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Moyer, died Oct. 22 at the Emergency Hospital. Her husband, also critically ill, and one child survive. Burial Oct ___.

George Belskis, aged 30 years, of Reinerton died Oct. 23 at the Emergency Hospital. A widow and 3 children survive. Burial Oct. ___.

Joseph, an 8 year old son of Anthony Smullen of Reinerton died Oct. 22 at the parents’ home.

Mrs. Geo. Miller, nee Millie Workman, died Oct. 22 at her home at Keffers.

Robert Miller, aged about 26 years, of Tower City, son of Robert Miller and wife, died at the Emergency Hospital Oct. 24th. His widow, nee Maude Adams, survives.

Harry Batdorf, aged about 28 years, of Orwin, died Oct. 24at the Emergency Hospital. A child of Mr. Batdorf’s died about the same time at the parents’ home at Orwin. A widow, nee Miller, and several children survive.

Lynn Kessler, aged about 20 years, son of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Kessler of Orwin, died Oct. 24 at the parents’ home.

Cassie, an 18 month old child, of Wassel Olinick of Reinerton, also a two day old child, died Oct. 23 in the mother’s arms in the Emergency Hospital. The mother and father are critically ill.

In the same issue of the Herald, the editors quoted the military doctors as saying that the epidemic was lifting and they were correct. A comparatively small number of deaths were recorded the following week – 27 victims perished in the last week of October.

During the height of the outbreak, the town’s principal funeral home became overwhelmed by the number of influenza victims. As was the case with numerous funeral directors in Central Pennsylvania in October 1918, John Dreisigacher watched as his establishment filled with corpses awaiting coffins and eventual burial.

“At one time undertaker Dreisigacher had as many as 32 bodies unburied being unable to secure coffins fast enough,” wrote the Herald on November 1.

As October turned to November and the weather turned colder, the epidemic gradually subsided and deaths dwindled. The toll in October 1918 was jaw-dropping. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 118 died of influenza or pneumonia during the outbreak. The total number of cases treated numbered near 1,000.

The desolation and grief caused by the epidemic was unlike anything else seen in Tower City, including many mining disasters and the ongoing war in Europe. For an entire month, influenza held the community in a vice-grip and refused to let up. Every day, mourners traveled to a handful of cemeteries for funerals for influenza victim, young and old.

Yet, somehow these communities found a way to move forward. By early November, news from the front in Europe provided an escape from the horrors at home. On November 11, a ceasefire began on the Western Front. The First World War was over and Tower City celebrated in grand style. A parade nearly a mile long passed through each little village on the outskirts of Tower City as citizens marked the end of a bloody war. And with their parade and their celebrations, the memory of October’s terror and fear faded into history.


Featured Image: Red Cross workers during the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, Library of Congress

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