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Spanish flu in the Copper Country: Isolated but not untouchable

HOUGHTON — During the COVID-19 pandemic, a popular mindset in Copper Country people is “We don’t have any cases. We’re in the U.P. away from it all. We don’t need to be closed because we’re so small and rural.” This can be a tempting idea to run with, but the Copper Country is not entirely untouchable. Marquette County, only a two hour drive away, is fighting COVID-19 right now, but in December 1918, the Copper Country was fighting Spanish Influenza.

In a Dec. 5, 1918 edition of the Daily Mining Gazette, the headline “Influenza epidemic takes large toll of life” was printed. This article was from a New York source, but illustrated what was going on around the nation. The article states, “The Spanish Influenza epidemic which swept this country during the autumn ‘stole’ millions of the best years of life from American manhood and womanhood, Henry Moir, an insurance authority of this city, declared here today.” Insurers around the country scratched their chins at the fact that the Spanish Influenza was affecting younger people, the average age being 25. 25 was the prime of people’s lives. Insurers were prepared to work with 40 to 55 year olds in 1918, not strong twenty-somethings.

The Gazette kept ears to the ground as Spanish Influenza came closer and closer to the Copper Country, and kept in regular touch with local health officials. On Dec. 7, 1918, the Gazette published the article “Increase in number of Influenza cases.” The report stated that the situation was being closely watched by physicians and the health department, and that they had seen 14 new cases in four days in Hancock alone. The flu was “assuming alarming proportions.” In a small, close-knit city like Hancock, 14 new cases would easily double at least, in little time, as at this stage there was no ordered quarantine or distancing measures. The article reads, “All cases are being given the closest attention by the city health department and attending physicians with a view of preventing further spread, if possible.” Though only 14 cases had presented themselves, the Hancock health department was aware of how terrible Spanish Influenza could be, having seen what it had done in 48 much larger cities around the world. The article continues, “However, if new cases continue and the situation warrants a closing order it will be issued without delay.” A smaller city such as Hancock and Houghton could not afford, in way of staff, equipment, and protections, what larger cities could. Even with the small population, health officials knew their small hospitals could very easily be over run if precautions were not placed and kept.

The Gazette of 1918 understood the views of its’ readers, which in this case were much the same as many current views, “‘The influenza cases of a few weeks ago were comparatively mild and more a grippe (common cold or basic flu) than anything else in the majority of instances,’ said the health office yesterday. ‘But , we are confronted with the genuine thing. We need the co-operation of every resident of the city to help prevent a more serious outbreak.'” The health office reported that they had no doubt the Spanish Influenza was brought in from outside the county, “The eastern end of the upper peninsula has been in the grip of a serious epidemic of influenza for several weeks while the Copper Country had comparatively few cases.” The report continues, “Travelingmen and others having occasion to visit the various sections and then come to the Copper Country may possibly have carried the germs.” In 1918 health officials understood the danger of traveling amid epidemic in fear of contracting it and bringing it home, or visitors bringing to to the Copper Country, much in the same way as bringing in invasive insect species on out-of-area firewood.

In a small article, “Open 1919 ‘Flu’ Fight,” the Gazette reported that physicians in Hancock were closely watching medical developments out of Chicago, as Chicago experts expected to see a round two of influenza, because all strains of influenza since 1729 had seen reintroductions. Chicago was correct in their hindsight and foresight, as the world did see two more waves, both the second and third taking more lives than the first.

Some city residents wondered if it was actually a “crowd disease”, but rural farmers and small towns were struck as well. The Philadelphia bonds parade revealed that yes, it was a crowd disease. Contact is contact. The idea of keeping people at work because there was no harm in it was shared by some supervisors in 1918 as well, including a “Mr. Koepel,” who suggested there might actually be “safety in numbers.” Not soon after Mr. Koepel’s idea, picture shows were asked to closed, cities started going into quarantine, and on Dec. 15, Houghton was placed under martial law while Red Cross solicitors went door to door collecting for the Red Cross, “Anyone out and about without a Red Cross card will be asked why,” the provost sergeant in charge of the order stated. Many Houghton residents even offered the solicitors cookies and thanked the provost guard for their service. This was one month after the end of WWI, of course.

According to Mlive.com, there were 920 deaths in Houghton County alone in 1917, with another 1,012 in 1918. In 1918, Michigan recorded 54,617 deaths in 1918.

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