Then and Now: Williamstown’s Emergency Influenza Hospital

In October 1918, the Williams Valley Hospital in Williamstown, Pennsylvania sheltered influenza victims as the deadly disease swept across the Coal Region. When that small facility was overwhelmed by hundreds of dangerously sick citizens, an emergency tent hospital was established less than a block away in the schoolyard of the town’s high school.

Today, the Williams Valley Hospital is a private home. And the schoolyard is now a parking lot beside an empty building that recently housed a bank [2020 update: now home Williamstown’s VFW Post]. Almost nothing remains to tell the drama that took place in these two locations more than a century ago.

Hospital 1
The building that once housed the Williams Valley Hospital, which opened in September 1918.
The Williams Valley Hospital in the 1920s or 1930s
Hospital 2
This parking lot contained the schoolyard that was turned into a makeshift emergency hospital in October 1918.
School 2
A photograph from Williamstown – My Hometown showing the school in some disrepair before it was torn down to construct the bank.
The school in its original condition in a photograph from the late 19th or early 20th century.

When influenza swept into Williams Valley with a parade hawking Liberty Loans to support the American war effort in October 1918, the citizens began taking the sick to the recently established Williams Valley Hospital on East Street. Dr. Harry A. Shaeffer had established the small hospital in September 1918 to care for the area’s sick and injured. The outbreak of influenza quickly occupied every bed in the hospital.

On October 9, the U.S. Army sent tents to establish an emergency hospital in the schoolyard next to the public school on Vine Street. On October 16, the emergency hospital began taking patients.

“Influenza epidemic is still on the increase in town. Strict measures have been adopted to check the disease,” wrote the Harrisburg Telegraph on October 18. “Dr. Shaeffer’s hospital has been rapidly filled with patients and the authorities turned the high school into a temporary hospital. Tents have also been erected nearby to care for the patients. All cases as reported are hurried to these points.”

In total, Williamstown recorded hundreds of cases of influenza and pneumonia in October and November 1918. The community recorded 42 deaths, many of which took place in the emergency hospital established at the school.

Yet, just as in most other places across America that were stricken by influenza in 1918, there are few traces of the devastation caused by disease at the conclusion of World War I. Williamstown is no exception.

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