My recent column on the Spanish Flu of 1918 outlined its deadly impact on Vallejo and Mare Island. After the column was published, I was able to locate two century-old state reports that have a lot more information about the pandemic, one of the worst in history, including details on influenza-related deaths throughout Solano County.
According to the old California Board of Health reports, the Spanish Flu killed 341 people in Solano County between 1918 and 1920 – more than half of them in the first wave to hit our area, between late September and early December 1918. Another 169 deaths in the 1918-20 period were caused by pneumonia, probably linked to the influenza in most cases. Three-quarters of all the known victims were from Vallejo and Mare Island while the rest were from smaller communities.
After the first cases of Spanish Flu were reported, Mare Island and Vallejo responded by banning large gatherings, barring liberty for sailors in Vallejo, shutting down theaters, dance halls, libraries, schools, churches and other sites used for “public assembly.” Emergency hospitals also were opened and face masks were mandated. Restrictions also were imposed in other towns in the county.
The 1918 flu deaths totaled 163 in the Vallejo area and 53 elsewhere in Solano County. Victims included Marian Turner, a nurse in charge of one of the Navy’s influenza wards on Mare Island; and Adolph Widenmann, member of a well-known Vallejo family. Other victims included Morris Buck of Vacaville and Dan O’Connell of Benicia, prominent farmers in Solano County; and three daughters and one son of Mr. and Mrs. Bert Evins, Dixon farmers.
By early December the crisis seemed to be ending and restrictions were lifted. But a second wave of influenza developed in January 1919 and the restrictions had to be imposed again, lasting in Vallejo until the end of the month. The 1919 total of flu deaths was 35 in Vallejo and 18 in the rest of the county. The victims who died during January included B.F. Griffin, president of the First National Bank of Vallejo – whose daughter-in-law, Mrs. Roscoe Griffin, had died from the virus a few months earlier.
The state Board of Health reports, published in 1921 and 1923, show that the third wave hit in early 1920, with 58 flu deaths in Vallejo and another 14 deaths elsewhere in Solano County. A ban on indoor public meetings and other restrictions were imposed again, remaining in place in Vallejo and on Mare Island until mid-February. A week later, similar restrictions were ordered in Vacaville. The 1920 victims included a Navy doctor, Lt. Edward McColl.
The state reports give a Solano County breakdown only for Vallejo. With a 1918 population of about 14,145, it was well above the 5,000-population cutoff for California towns and cities listed in the documents. Fairfield, Vacaville, Benicia and other communities in Solano County were all under 5,000 residents per town at the time. Their combined population totaled 16,251.
In addition to the total of 341 flu-related deaths in Solano County, the state reports also provide the totals for neighboring counties in the 1918-20 time frame: Marin, 135; Napa, 159; Sonoma, 317; and Contra Costa, 453.
Those numbers were dwarfed by the number of influenza deaths from 1918 to 1920 in the Bay Area’s most populous counties, Alameda with 2,004 and San Francisco with 3,829. The Spanish Flu death total for the entire state of California in the 1918-20 period was 20,801.
Those in the 25-to-34 age group suffered more than any other age group in the state. “In 1917 the average Californian died at the age of 52 years,” the 1921 Board of Health report stated. “In 1918 this dropped to 40.6 years, showing clearly the ravages of influenza among the young.”
“As in all other parts of the country, a feeling of impotence in the face of a rapidly spreading infection on the part of the health officers (in California) was responsible for much confusion and lack of proper utilization of what scanty means of control were available,” the report said. Adding to the problem was “the invocation of many peculiar and useless measures that were intended to check the epidemic,” the report added.
Around the U.S., many doctors prescribed whiskey for people sickened by influenza. Dubious tonics, promising protection or relief from the flu, included Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, Dr. Bell’s Pine Tar Honey, Schenck’s Mandrake Pills, Beecham’s Pills, Pepto-Mangan and Miller’s Antiseptic Snake Oil. There were accounts of mothers telling their children to stuff salt up their noses and wear bags of camphor around their necks. A four-year-old girl from Portland, Ore. was said to have recovered from the flu after her mother dosed her with onion syrup and covered her with raw onions for three days.
“Back in 1918, the basic treatments that were offered were enemas, whiskey, and bloodletting,” Dr. Jeremy Brown, director of emergency care research at the National Institutes of Health, said during a recent CBS interview.
The Spanish Flu killed an estimated 675,000 people in the U.S. and as many as 50 million people worldwide. Now the world is threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, but because of the advances in science Dr. Brown argues that 2020 won’t be another 1918.
“Hospitals as we know them today were quite different,” Brown said. “There were no intensive care doctors who really understand how to treat the very sickest patients. There were no antibiotics to treat any secondary infection. So, it was a very, very different time, and a very different way of practicing medicine back then.”
— Vallejo and other Solano County communities are treasure troves of early-day California history. The “Solano Chronicles” columns, running every other Sunday in the Times-Herald and on my Facebook page, highlight various aspects of that history. Source references are available upon request. If you have local stories or photos to share, email me at email@example.com. You also can send any material care of the Times-Herald, 420 Virginia St.; or the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum, 734 Marin St., Vallejo.
Editor: The Benicia Independent endorses Don Saylor of Davis for Assembly District 4 this November (Don Saylor.org). Lynne Nittler’s letter speaks for me – see below. Another good candidate, Davis Mayor Dan Wolk, has expressed strong concerns about oil train safety and joined with the Davis City Council in opposing crude by rail, but has not risen to the level of diligence, outreach and follow-through that Mr. Saylor has shown on Valero’s proposal (DanWolk.org). Many thanks to both for their efforts. – RS
Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor for California Assembly, District 4
By Lynne Nittler, in her email of May 15, 2016
Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor stands out as an uprail public official committed from early on to stopping the dangerous transport of crude oil through our natural habitat and populated areas. He wasted no time in directing his staff to research and compose a letter insisting that uprail concerns had to be addressed in the EIR. On the draft EIR, Yolo County wrote a second letter detailing the impacts of the unsafe oil trains, and when the response was inadequate, added a third letter response to the revised draft EIR.
Meanwhile, as President of Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), Don Saylor also led the 22 cities and 6 counties of SACOG to respond to the regional threat of oil trains with a series of hard-hitting letters during the EIR process.
His deep concerns even took him to Washington DC where he conferred with our local Congressman John Garamendi on stabilizing crude at the loading site as perhaps the only acceptable method of making the Bakken crude safe to transport by rail.
Don continues to monitor the volatile issue closely, as 500,000 of the 2.4 million SACOG residents live at risk in the blast zone. Most recently, he took time to testify before the Benicia City Council in hopes of convincing them of the enormous impacts to uprail communities and to our state.
We are fortunate to have such a diligent public official. While an independent PAC of outside oil corporations including Valero as well as other PACS have intruded with huge campaign contributions to one candidate for the District 4 Assembly race (including Lake and Napa Counties, most of Yolo County, and part of Colusa, Solano, and Sonoma Counties ), Don Saylor has not been chosen for such outside support.
If elected, we can count on Don to work and vote as he always has for programs that benefit our region. Don Saylor will continue to keep a watchful eye on oil trains if he is elected to the CA Assembly.
By C.W. Nevius and Peter Fimrite , August 6, 2015 12:54 PM
CLEARLAKE, Lake County — The imminent danger from the devastating Rocky Fire in Lake County diminished Thursday and hundreds of residents began to return to their evacuated homes, but Gov. Jerry Brown made clear in a visit to the area that California is still in danger.
Brown traveled to the scorched hillside at Cowboy Camp, just off fire-ravaged Highway 20, and, as helicopters circled nearby, said the fire illustrates that climate change is both real and destructive.
“California is burning,” he said. “What the hell are you going to do about it?
“This is a wake-up call. We have to start coming to our senses. This is not a game of politics. We need to limit our carbon pollution. These are real lives and real people. This problem cannot be solved year by year.”
Nearly 3,600 firefighters have been fighting the fire, which was 45 percent contained Thursday and had burned 69,600 acres. Full containment is expected by late next week, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection began letting roughly 800 of the more than 1,400 people who had been evacuated back into their homes.
Evacuation orders were lifted in the Wilbur Springs area on the northeastern side of the fire, off Highway 20. Only residents with identification will be allowed access to Wilbur Springs Road, near the border between Lake and Colusa counties, Cal Fire officials said. Residents on the south side of the fire, east of Highway 29 to West Jerusalem Valley Road, were also allowed to return home, officials said.
Still more evacuees, forced from their homes in the Spring Valley area, would probably be allowed back Friday morning, officials said.
Highways 16 and 20 remained closed Thursday except for a small portion of Highway 20 at Wilbur Springs, which is accessible only coming from the east off Interstate 5, officials said.
“Weather conditions across California are significantly improved compared to last week,” said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman, who warned that the relief could be just a temporary phenomenon. He said weather forecasters are “expecting changing weather conditions over the next couple of days, with thunder systems moving in across Northern California.”
Red-flag warnings have been issued for dry lightning and gusting winds over the next couple of days, he said.
Brown received a briefing from officials overseeing the blaze, which has been burning for more than a week in Lake County and has spread to Yolo and Colusa counties. Forty-three homes have been destroyed and thousands of others threatened, and hundreds of local residents remained evacuated from their homes Thursday, according to Cal Fire.
While veteran firefighters said their efforts were business as usual, many stressed that this year’s blazes are out of the norm. The persistent drought, extremely hot weather and blustery winds all have the feel of something new and more dangerous.
“We are now in an extreme weather event,” Brown cautioned. “This is not the way these fires usually behave. If it continues year after year, California can literally burn up.”
Brown said he had talked to a resident who said he not only lost his home but also would find it difficult to rebuild because he had no insurance. Apparently, that’s not unusual. Insurance carriers sometimes decline to cover property in the steep, wooded canyons in the area.
The Rocky Fire is so pervasive that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District warned Thursday that smoke from the wildfires might impact areas in Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. Air quality, however, is expected to be in the “good” or “low moderate” categories and is not expected to exceed air quality health standards.
Although climate change can be a hot-button political issue, Brown continues to use the California fires as an object lesson for climate change deniers. This isn’t theory, he said, gesturing to the moonscape scene behind him.
“This is credible enough to change some minds,” he said.
Mark Repetto, a firefighter from Sacramento’s Metro Fire Department, said the fire was a perfect storm of the worst conditions.
“Hot, dry and windy,” Repetto said. “Today is a little cooler, which means the humidity is higher. Monday the humidity was in the teens. That and hot weather pre-heat the fuel. It’s already hot before the fire gets there.”
Surge still possible
Although fire officials predict the Rocky Fire will be fully contained by next week, another hot, windy, low-humidity day could easily spark another fiery surge. Along Highway 20, hot spots still sent up plumes of smoke.
Brown said the worst is yet to come.
“We have people acting like (if the Rocky Fire is contained) it’s the end,” he said. “Unfortunately, we know that historically August and September are worse than July. So fasten your seat belt.”
Over the weekend, Cal Fire reported more than 100 dry-lightning-sparked fires in remote reaches of Northern California. In Humboldt County alone, 75 blazes have burned more than 4,000 acres since July 31, with just 35 percent containment reported Thursday.
The cause of the Rocky Fire has not been determined. Fire officials fear lightning could prompt additional lands to burn and complicate the suppression effort.
Conditions around California are ripe for a lightning fire after four dry years, said Daniel Swain, a Stanford University researcher studying climate.
“Things will ignite even if they get a little water from the storm,” Swain said. “This is a concern over the next 48 hours.”
San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Hamed Aleaziz and Kurtis Alexander contributed to this report. C.W. Nevius and Peter Fimrite are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.