Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Spanish Flu? Cover Your Phone and Don’t Spit
The Spanish influenza is believed to have originated at the front during World War I before sweeping through the Wood River Valley and other communities.
Thursday, March 19, 2020


When the Spanish influenza appeared in Idaho, Wood River Valley residents were forbidden to spit in the streets under threat of fine or even imprisonment.

And those who owned phones were told to cover the mouthpieces during use so germs couldn’t spread through the wires, recounted Mary Lemon Brown in an oral history for the Community Library’s Regional History Department.

There’s no telling where this year’s coronavirus will take Idaho or the United States. It's certainly already been felt in Sun Valley, as the downhill ski season, the Sun Valley Film Festival and a multitude of other events has been cancelled, and five of Idaho's 11 coronavirus cases have been confirmed here.

But, for now, the 1918 Spanish influenza remains the worst epidemic ever to hit the United States, infecting 28 percent of the United State’ 105 million people, and killing between 500,000 and 675,000. It hit a third of the world's population, estimated to have killed as many as 50 million people worldwide--a 2.5 percent mortality rate.

The pandemic is believed to have started in an overcrowded World War I camp and hospital in France in late 1917, possibly from a virus that mutated from birds and migrated to a pig sty there.

A nurse became the first Idahoan to die of it while tending troops in Europe. But It did not reach Idaho, population 431,866, until late September 1918. The first cases were reported in Canyon County. By late October, Boise, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls and Twin Falls were reporting cases.

Challis posted armed guards at city limits to keep hunters and others from entering until Gov. Moses Alexander made them stand down so travelers could use the highway going through town.

The Sandpoint newspaper urged parents to keep their children away from the railway depot as a precaution. Pocatello closed its soda fountains and forbade public gatherings of more than 10.

Twin Falls closed schools, churches and theaters, suspended public meetings and forbade people to loaf in public places. And city workers fumigated public telephones once a day. Even so, the hospital there got as many as a hundred new cases some weeks. And, unlike other pandemics, this one killed young, healthy adults—often in a matter of hours--as their lungs filled with fluid, suffocating them.

As the flu epidemic dawned in the United States, Wood River Valley residents were knitting sweaters and socks and tearing shirts for bandages for the troops. Eighteen local men were serving at the front--more per capita than any other U.S. community. And townspeople were proud to do their part for the war effort.

Wagons took people from Ketchum to dances in Hailey. And those left behind soaked at the Warm Springs Resort hot springs as black singers hired by the resort entertained them.

Sanitation was not up to today’s standards. Ketchum’s water pipes were deteriorating and homeowners had to wrap faucets with rags to filter the water. Still, pieces of wood, small stones and dirt got into the water supply. Mary Lemon Brown even recounted a dead mouse finding its way into her water one day.

On Oct. 9, 1918, the Wood River Daily Times warned of a three-day fever and pains in the head, ears and back. It could transform into pneumonia, inflammation of the ear or meningitis, the newspaper added.

Keep the body well clothed. Burn rags or tissue on which secretions land. Fill a 5-pound lard bucket with water and boil it 24 hours a day, adding a teaspoon of carbolic acid periodically. Gargle Benitol and baking soda and then spray the nose with a solution of it every time someone comes to the door. At night make a plaster of it for the throat.

“And in all cases keep the bowels in good free action,” the newspaper advised.

Keep away from those who cough, sneeze or spit. Keep living rooms well ventilated and gargle salt water. Do not rely on home remedies—call the doctor immediately if you have symptoms as this flu can become serious quickly, other articles advised.

And, if you care for someone who’s ill, wear an apron or gown that you can remove when you’re not in the room of the ill person.

As with today, misinformation circulated. A Denver doctor, for instance, reported that smokers were in no more danger than non-smokers because several hospital workers who did not smoke had become infected but the smoker had not.

As the flu became more serious, the Hereford bull sale slated for valley ranchers was postponed and a United Way food drive cancelled. Wood River Valley students who were attending what was then called Idaho University were required to wear masks indoors under penalty of court martial if they were found without.

There was a noticeable lack of children on the streets around Hailey. But groups of grownups still congregated--some discussing how to keep their horses from the flu. Mailmen wore masks, even though they were reported as being ineffective in preventing the spread of disease.

“When it hit, people didn’t know what it was—they called it consumption,” said Mary Tyson, who oversees the Regional History Department.

Despite a tight lid on public and private gatherings in Carey, infection spread. At least 20 cases were reported there. Even Dr. Snyder, the only physician in the community, contracted it.

“It should last until May or June when the sun’s heat should kill the germs,” the Wood River Daily Times reported.

During nine weeks ending Nov. 16, 1918, the United States recorded 129,768 deaths due to the flu –more than the losses it incurred in World War I. With a shortage of caskets on the East Coast, the dead were left in gutters.

Overseas, the United States lost more military personnel—63,114—to disease than to combat (53,402), Geegee Lowe noted.

The Wood River Valley was still reeling from the deaths of 17 men who had suffocated in an avalanche that struck their bunkhouse near the Triumph mine the year before. Newspaper reports attributing local deaths to the flu are difficult to find, although one small story noted that a pharmacist who used to live in the Wood River Valley had died in Malad.

Other rural towns were hit particularly hard. Paris in southeastern Idaho suffered a 50 percent mortality rate. Half of the population of Nez Perce in northern Idaho, population 677, got it; 18 died. In Franklin County 1,300 of the county’s 7,500 residents were sickened; 31 died.

The influenza also swept through the state’s reservations as Native Americans suffered disproportionately. From Oct. 1, 1918, through March 31, 1919, there were 73,651 reported cases of the flu among a national Indian population of 304,854 There were 6,270 deaths--8.5 percent of those infected died.

In Idaho 650 of 4,208 Indians were infected. Seventy-five died—an 11.5 percent mortality rate.

When Katie Alloway and Geegee Lowe combed a register of Wood River Valley funerals, they found six deaths attributed to pneumonia between April 16 and Aug. 28, 1919. One person succumbed to spotted fever. Four more succumbed to pneumonia between Dec. 26 1919 and March 2, 1920, after the disease had reportedly run its course.

Those who have perused the headstones in the Hailey Cemetery have seen a few that mention the Spanish flu. And it’s easy to confer the children who died by looking at the dates on their headstones, added Alloway.

As suddenly as the disease appeared, it vanished. In Idaho, as elsewhere, the disease simply ran its course, disappearing during the summer of 1919.


The first pandemic to hit the United States after colonists arrived traveled here in 1647 from Spain.

A pandemic from the Orient hit North America in 1889 and 1890.

The Asian flu was detected in Asia in February 1957. By August, shortly after it arrived in the United States, the world had a vaccine. Forty-nine Idahoans lost their lives out of 70,000 in the United States and one million to two million worldwide.

The Hong Kong Flu struck in 1968 and 1969, killing 61 Idahoans and 34,000 Americans. The Swine Flu garnered headlines in 1976 and the Russian Flu in 1977. The Avian or Bird Flu struck in 1997 and 1999.


Some researchers have detected coronavirus in the air for up to three hours. Viable virus has been determined to remain on cardboard for 24 hours and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel.



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