Big Sickness Arrives in Alaska in 1918

The influenza pandemic of 1918 devastated the Native village at Nome.
The influenza pandemic of 1918 devastated the Native village at Nome.

During the spring of 1918, as World War I veterans returned to their home countries, flu spread across the world and sickened many people. By that fall, the virus had mutated and become a mass killer.

It preyed on the young and healthy. A dull headache signaled the beginning. Then came chills so intense that no amount of blankets warmed the body. As the fever climbed, delirium followed. Lungs filled with fluid. Pneumonia took over.

Sometimes it took days. Sometimes hours. But nothing could stop the relentless march toward death for many. And even though Territorial Gov. Thomas Riggs did everything in his power to keep it away from Alaska’s shores, the killer still came.

Juneau’s first reported case came on Oct. 14, and soon it had spread along the coast. Juneau officials advised people not to congregate in groups, which meant staying away from churches, schools, social functions and pool halls.

The panhandle came through the epidemic better than areas farther north and west, because it had services and physicians who set up quarantine areas, emergency hospitals and buried the dead immediately. It also had help from professionals in Seattle and San Francisco.

When passengers from the S.S. Victoria, the last ship of the season from Seattle, docked in Nome, the killer disease enveloped the Seward Peninsula. Before leaving Seattle, the ship’s passengers and crew had been checked by three physicians, separately and independently, to assure that no one who exhibited symptoms would be traveling.

And when the Victoria arrived in Nome on Oct. 20, all those who came ashore were quarantined in the hospital for five days and all freight and mail were fumigated. No one showed any signs of influenza.

But within days, Alaska Natives were sick and dying. Few escaped infection. It became known as the “big sickness,” and in a single eight-day period, 162 had died. Earlier epidemics of smallpox, measles and typhoid fever had instilled a paralyzing fear in Alaska’s Native population.

“They believed in the spirit of death and feared that, if a person died in their home, that spirit would claim them next,” wrote Gay and Laney Salisbury in their book, The Cruelest Miles. A death often caused family members to panic and flee, which helped to spread the diseases.

“Some Eskimos, hounded by superstitious horror, fled from cabin to cabin, infecting increasing numbers with disease and panic. The temperature fell below freezing, and when rescuers broke into cabins from whose chimney came no sign of smoke, they found many, sometimes whole families, who had been too sick to renew their fires and who had frozen to death,” wrote Alfred Crosby in his book, America’s Forgotten Pandemic.

Thousands of people died, leaving many orphans left behind. The Bureau of Education opened orphanages to care for these homeless children, including one at Kanakanak, near Dillingham, and one at White Mountain, near Nome. Rev. Bellarmine LaFortune, a Jesuit priest, also started a private home for children at a hot springs 90 miles east of Nome that had been a getaway for miners in the early 1900s. When the roadhouse and resort at Kruzgamepa Hot Springs burned in 1908, the property was abandoned.

LaFortune named his children’s home Pilgrim Springs. He persuaded Ursaline sisters to join him in the care and nurturing of the orphans, and soon they even had crops of fresh vegetables flourishing near the warm waters.

The home, which included seven buildings on site, became a beloved institution among both Natives and Caucasians in the area, according to Alaska historian Stephen Haycox. By 1925, about 70 children lived at the home.

But when World War II necessitated a military airfield at Nome, many Natives left the hot springs to assist in its construction. The orphanage closed and LaFortune died in Fairbanks in 1947.