It is important that we understand how we coped in the past with pandemics in order to learn what is important to us as a people and to cope with future disasters. The Spanish Flu or world influenza pandemic of 1918 didn’t devastate Alaska until 1919. See related posts here
There are some written records, but many histories have yet to be written. Fortunately, Raymond L Hudson has recently published a history of the Jesse Lee Home. This was an Alaska orphanage set up, like so many, to care for children orphaned by illnesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jesse Lee Home was originally established in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. See Where can one hear both verses of state song? .
In an editorial, the Anchorage Daily News noted,
The Jesse Lee Home occupies a special place in Alaska history: It is the birthplace of Alaska’s flag. Thirteen-year-old Benny Benson lived at Jesse Lee when he entered a schoolchildren’s contest to design a territorial flag in 1927. His design won, and the first place it flew as Alaska’s official flag was the Jesse Lee Home.
Beyond the Benson connection, the Jesse Lee Home has a special meaning to Alaska Natives. Early in the 20th century, epidemics ravaged many Native areas and left behind many orphans. The Jesse Lee Home, which moved from Unalaska to Seward in 1925, sheltered and raised many of the youngsters left behind.
The chapter is kindly reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. Raymond L. Hudson 2007 Family After All: Alaska’s Jesse Lee Home, Vol. I, Unalaska, 1889-1925. Walnut Creek, CA: Hardscratch Press. ISBN 978-0-9789979-0-8. (www.hardscratchpress.com)
Chapter 30 The Pandemic of 1919
By the time World War I ended with the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, an influenza epidemic had crossed the United States and arrived on the west coast. In two years this pandemic would claim 50 million victims worldwide, including 675,000 Americans. Thousands of revelers in San Francisco wore protective face masks as they danced in the streets to celebrate the peace. Officials in Alaska were understandably worried. At Unalaska the dance halls and pool rooms were closed. Sailors were not allowed ashore.
The winter was stormy, but the general health of the people at Unalaska remained good. By spring, the threat seemed to have passed and life returned to normal. Dr. Newhall made a slightly ironic list of things to be thankful for: the local boys who had served in the war were unharmed; the flu had spared the village; snow was only five feet deep between the two Jesse Lee Home buildings; it was too stormy to dig clams, but plenty of clams were still waiting on the beach; the store was out of white sugar and table salt, but soft coal was only $25 a ton.
As May drew to a close, the weather cleared. The U.S.S. Saturn was in port to service the Navy radio station. Father Khotovitskii returned from visiting one of the outlying villages. Then on Friday, May 23, people began falling ill . The speed with which the flu permeated the village was phenomenal. By Monday the influenza was epidemic, and the commanding officer of the Saturn wired Captain F.E. Dodge on the Coast Guard cutter Unalga anchored in Seredka Bay on Akun Island . As Dodge took the Unalga toward Unalaska, a wire came from Dr. Linus H. French at the Kanakanak Hospital that the entire Bristol Bay region was being ravaged by influenza. On anchoring at Unalaska and inspecting the village, Dodge decided to remain at Unalaska. He wired Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, the governor of Alaska, and Dr. French about his decision.