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Alpine and the Spanish flu | History Files

 
Series: Coronavirus | Story 111

Last updated 4/16/2020 at 9:45am



Author Mary Daheim sent me an email that her cousin Steve Shelley, who is also an author, sent her a message reminding her that during the Spanish flu in 1918-1919 Alpine, Washington, was the only town in King County where the quarantine did not apply.

First, I should probably talk about the Spanish flu. Spain took the fall because Spain was neutral in World War I, or the Great War as it was called then and for two decades after, and therefore didn’t try to hide that the country was suffering from a major epidemic.

Both the Allied and Central powers muzzled any news about the illness. So the public believed that the flu was Spanish in origin and gave it the name. The Spanish believed it originated in France and called it the “French flu.”

Actually, epidemiological historians think the flu started in the United States. One recently pinned it down to Kentucky, where a young soldier from that state took it with him to his initial base in Kansas.

From there it spread throughout the Army and Navy, and to our allies and enemies and nearly everywhere on the planet. It’s believed to have killed 3% of the world’s population – more American soldiers died of the flu than died of combat wounds. Unlike the usual flu, the Spanish flu was deadliest to younger, healthier individuals.

The flu is believed to have killed as many as 5,000 in Seattle.

The truth is that nobody really knows, because record keeping wasn’t considered important. They brought out their dead and buried them, and nobody tried to keep an accurate count. How different today, where Mercer Island teenager Avi Shiffmann is able to track COVID-19 in real time for all of us.

To reduce the spread of Spanish flu, masks were worn and a general quarantine (we would call that shelter in place/stay at home) was put into effect.

The claim that Steve Shelley made about Alpine may be true. It may have been the only town in King County to not have a general quarantine, but the school did close for four weeks in October and November.

Alpine was, and is, so remote that living there was virtually like sheltering in place all the time. Alpine was, and is, cut off from the rest of King County. The only way to get there was through Snohomish or Chelan counties, by railroad. Most trains didn’t stop in Alpine, so there was no way for contamination to spread.

Their situation was a lot like living in much of Montana or Wyoming today. When your neighbors are five miles away, you aren’t likely to get the flu or COVID-19from them. And I can attest that parts of Montana are that remote.

I visited my second cousin in southeast Montana 15 years ago. The town of Ridge was once nearby, but, like Alpine, it is just a ghost town. Ridge does have a cemetery, which Alpine apparently does not.

My aunt, who died as a child, is buried in the Ridge cemetery, and was the reason for me to visit the site of the old town. Ridge is gone, and my cousin’s nearest neighbors are four or five miles away. I met the neighbors who live four miles to the north. The next neighbor to the south is in Wyoming. I didn’t meet them.

Distance prevents the spread of disease. It also prevents the spread of other things, such as social interaction and the spread of information. Alpine was like that in 1918-1919. The people were dependent on themselves and their neighbors because no on else was close enough to help.

It was like being on a desert island with the passengers from the SS Minnow (look it up, kids), or maybe like being on the moon.

 

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