Chaos reigned in Schuylkill County as the Spanish influenza epidemic raged in October 1918. Nearly all public spaces – schools, stores, theaters – were shuttered and a pall of death came over the southern Coal Region. In the county seat at Pottsville, several emergency hospitals were established to care for more than 1,500 cases of influenza by October 18.
In the surrounding towns of Minersville, Port Carbon, and St. Clair, the toll taken by influenza was much higher. More than 2,000 people were ill at Minersville and deaths were being reported in each of the surrounding towns nearly every hour. A shortage of doctors became keenly felt, as many young physicians had joined the military and were serving either at Army bases across the United States or near the front lines in Europe.
Newspaper editions from across the county were filled with death notices and obituaries as the flu took hold.
For residents at Pottsville, the sight of ambulances carrying patients to emergency hospitals and funeral processions ushering the dead to the city’s cemeteries became disturbingly commonplace. As the epidemic worsened, a writer for the town’s principal newspaper, the Republican, took pen in hand and wrote of the disturbing images taking place just outside the doors of the newspaper’s office.
May These Sights Soon Cease
Usually living along the principal street of our inland city has had the pleasing advantage of being in close touch with the interesting happenings of the community, and a minute acquaintance with all that goes on, but those of our citizens who have hitherto enjoyed their living along Centre Street and also Market, because of this and other special benefits accruing there from, are so mightily affected by the many constant harrowing scenes in connection with the influenza deaths with the ambulances and hearses forming an almost constant stream of sad journeyings, to and fro, that some of them say it is fast becoming unbearable, that they do not look out front anymore and do not go on the street more frequently than that are compelled to do by imperative duty.
These streets are the highways to the leading cemeteries, and the route to the hospitals from all sections, and it is no exaggeration when the citizens say that there is an almost continuous stream of vehicles passing by with the sick and the dead.
But the most depressing sights are those witnessed in the immediate vicinity of the hospitals and the cemeteries where there is frequent congestion and delay, that gets quickly on the nerves of the willing and unwilling observers, but such events are unavoidable, though, they be so greatly harassing, as the arrivals must wait their turn for attention.
The mere taking of so many caskets and outer box coverings through the principal streets is a sight never to be forgotten, and we hope never to be repeated.
Surely sorrow and woe, in many forms, stalk almost unceasingly in our midst, and we can only hope that the end is in sight, and sights soon will cease.
The epidemic continued through the remainder of October, before petering out in November 1918. By the time it was over, hundreds were dead in Schuylkill County and more than 3,000 children were left orphaned. County residents, like millions of others around the country and across the globe, were left to put the pieces of their lives back together in the aftermath of the deadliest disease outbreak in human history.
Featured Image: The front page of the Pottsville Republican on October 15, 1918.