A story from 1918 reveals chaos as “Spanish flu” raged through Schuylkill County

In October 1918, the influenza pandemic raging across the globe spread to the Coal Region. It took deadly root in the coal mining communities of Schuylkill County.

Influenza 1918
Scenes like this were witnessed in the Coal Region and through America in October 1918 as the influenza pandemic ripped through the United States. (Photograph: Red Cross workers in St. Louis, MO, October 1918; Library of Congress)

Read more Wynning History stories about the 1918 influenza pandemic

As the outbreak spread throughout the county, communities reported thousands of cases of influenza and hundreds of deaths. Amid the chaos, the Pottsville Republican reported the spread of the outbreak and efforts on the part of local, state, and Federal authorities to grapple with the disease. In the following report from October 8, 1918, the Republican described the chaotic scenes from across Schuylkill County and the outbreak’s impact from Tower City to Tamaqua.

With the influenza epidemic in the more serious districts responding to treatment, the situation was expected to reach its high water mark in Minersville and Frackville by tonight and efforts were being made by Senator Penrose and Adjutant General Beary to assign 50 physicians from the Allentown Camp to Schuylkill County to relieve the exhausted physicians in this section and to furnish sufficient help in the districts where the epidemic was raging practically unchecked.

Material relief was afforded Monday night and Tuesday morning when detachments of the state reserve militia hospital forces, under Dr. McConnell of Wilkes-Barre, arrived and the hospital units from Harrisburg started to arrive.

The situation on Tuesday, as outlined by State Inspector Rogers showed that in the city of Pottsville a considerable improvement had been noted. There were few new cases reported and physicians were regaining their normal condition, sufficient to allow the concentration of a number of the local physicians at other points.

The Minersville situation was bad and Dr. Rogers was of the opinion that the epidemic in that town would be at its height by tonight. Dr. Rogers expressed the opinion that the deaths in Minersville would probably reach a maximum of 150, while it was anticipated that the new cases would reach their maximum today. The district had about 1600 cases actually reported this morning.

The situation in Schuylkill Haven and Cressona was reported as getting beyond the control of the medical help in that town and it was the intention of the county inspector to get the emergency hospital at the almshouse in operation as soon as possible. The hospital supplies arrived on Tuesday morning from Harrisburg.

A hospital unit was also received for Maryd and rushed to that section, where Dr. Bankus was practically overwhelmed with work. Dr. Gillette, of the Schuylkill County hospital and trained nurses were rushed to Maryd.

At Tamaqua, where over 1,000 cases were reported, the situation was growing critical and an emergency hospital was opened in the armory at that place.

Ashland and the Mahanoy Valley towns of Gilberton, Mahanoy Plane, and Maizeville were reporting a spread of the disease on Tuesday and aid was being dispatched to that section. Several deaths were reported at Ashland and Dr. Donahue was overcome this morning when his child, who had been seriously ill, died.

Dre. Ruth M. Lance, of Kingston, arrived in Pottsville this morning and on the receipt of the word from Dr. Donahue she was sent to Mahanoy Plane, with instructions to open the Methodist Church at Maizeville as an emergency hospital. Immediate aid was being sent to that town.

Reports from Frackville, on Tuesday morning, showed little improvement in the situation in that town. Several deaths were reported to have occurred and the more serious patients were being brought to the county seat.

The situation in the west end of the county, where the epidemic at Tower City and Tremont was reported raging was also causing alarm. Dr. Rogers who had been ill for the past several days, was sufficiently recovered to be out on Tuesday morning and he immediately went to Minersville and the more seriously affected towns for the purpose of making a survey of the situation. He expects by tonight to have his office at Pottsville made the distribution point of the aid and all the assignments of doctors and nurses will be made from this point. The requisitions for medical supplies will also be filled from Pottsville. County Commissioner W.S. Leib will be in charge of the bureau here with Commissioners’ Clerk T.J. Evans.

The Pottsville armory was opened as an emergency hospital on Tuesday, with Dr. C.M. Householder in charge. The Milliken home was also opened and on the arrival of the reserve militia with a hospital unit of 12 men, and an ambulance the work of bringing the more serious patients to Pottsville was started. Colliery ambulances were requisitioned to assist the Pottsville Hospital and the Second Regiment ambulance and by noon it was expected that the armory would have its 125 beds filled.

Over 60 cases had been brought to the armory from Minersville, Arnots Addition and Frackville up to an early hour this morning. The filling of the Milliken home was planned as soon as the armory resources had been exhausted. Red Cross workers were assisting the militia and trained nurses at the armory. Headquarters were established at Minersville for the cases in that district and the work of aiding those attacked was being systematically worked out.

No expense was being spared in the fight against the epidemic and with hundreds of private cars in use the emergency funds provided by the state health department and the county were being used to bring all the medical supplies possible to this section. All of the towns were notified to report the exhaustion or the exhaustion of the medical supplies as soon as possible and special cars were provided for the work of delivering the supplies.

The Boy Scouts organization of the city was called upon to supply messenger service by Dr. Rogers this morning and the boys were sent to his office for the purpose of taking out orders to the drug stores and the delivering of the smaller packages of supplies to the physicians wherever needed.

No let up in the quarantine was anticipated and it is expected that the restrictions in some of the towns will be augmented, instead of alleviated. Dr. Rogers has issued drastic orders to arrest on sight any violator of the order closing the saloons and amusement places and the order against public funerals and gatherings of any public feature is to be rigidly held to. No exceptions were to be made in any cause and the doctor informed the persons inquiring that any violation was to be immediately reported. All of the police powers of the state will be requisitioned if necessary to keep the quarantine in effect. Several arrests were reported to have been made in a number of the towns.

The regulations against the trolley cars running with closed windows was being obeyed to the letter this morning and the cars were being operated with every window open. The traction company, when the order was issued was requested to use summer cars wherever possible and all of the convertible and semi-convertible cars have been changed from winter to summer designs.

Tales of the situation in the more seriously affected districts are being brought in by the chauffeurs and all manner of praise is being bestowed on the works of the nurses who came in here at the first call.

The manner in which the doctors are keeping on their feet is remarkable and the confining of the epidemic to its original limits is believed to be responsible solely to the work of the physicians who have been on the job day and night. Some idea of the manner in which the epidemic has spread may be obtained from the fact that six children of a Minersville woman, who died from the disease, were brought to Pottsville on Monday evening. The father was killed in the colliery less than six weeks ago.

In the city itself, Capt. Hainley of the American Rescue Workers and eight members of his family are under treatment.

The town of Shenandoah, up to this morning, had less than half a hundred cases reported and with the physicians from that town [serving] the stricken boroughs, the health department was taking every precaution. All public places were ordered closed as were the schools and the police department received orders to keep everybody moving. The stores will only be open in that town from eight to six and every effort is being strained to keep that town from an outbreak.

Despite the best spin applied by the Republican’s journalists and editors, the pandemic’s impact was far from contained. Every community in Schuylkill County experienced an outbreak of influenza. By the time the epidemic suddenly halted at the end of October, thousands lay dead, many in unmarked, mass graves.


Featured Image: Influenza patients in October 1918 (LOC)

We’ve written about the impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic in the following communities:

Tower City, Williamstown, Lykens, Pottsville and inside the Schuylkill County Prison


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