COVID-19 – Lessons from the past: the 1918 flu epidemic hit Vallejo in 3 waves

Brendan Riley’s Solano Chronicles: When Vallejo and Mare Island were hit hard by Spanish Flu

Members of the William Topley family, photographed in front of their York Street home in Vallejo, wore masks to avoid getting the Spanish Flu, a deadly pandemic that killed millions of people around the world a century ago. (Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum photo)
Vallejo Times-Herald, by Brendan Riley, April 26, 2020

A century before the coronavirus disease dominated the global consciousness, another deadly virus rampaged across the world. The Spanish Flu of 1918, one of the worst pandemics in history, eventually killed up to 50 million people worldwide. That included an estimated 675,000 Americans.

The influenza, which likely did not originate in Spain despite its name, hit Vallejo and Mare Island in waves, starting in late September 1918 when the first case was reported on the shipyard. Capt. Thomas Snyder, MC, USNR (Ret.), who has published a well-researched analysis of the crisis, says Mare Island was alerted in advance and was ready when a Navy corpsman, returning from leave in Oklahoma, came down with the flu on Sept. 25.

But there was inadequate planning in Vallejo, badly overcrowded due to a large wartime increase in shipyard workers – up to 10,000 new shipyard workers — and Snyder says that made spread of contagion inevitable. The first two civilian cases occurred on Sept. 27.

“Not only had little or no advance planning occurred, but the solitary local hospital, a very small facility, was under quarantine because of a smallpox outbreak there, and doctors were involved in a smallpox vaccination program,” Snyder said.

The Navy’s Mare Island efforts included a tent city that served as an annex to the Naval Hospital, a ban on large gatherings, and no liberty for sailors in Vallejo. The Vallejo City Council voted unanimously on Oct. 8 to shut down theaters, dance halls, libraries, schools, churches and other sites used for “public assembly.”  Face masks were mandated, and another emergency hospital was opened. That was followed by an Oct. 18 order from the California Board of Health to shut down all theaters in the state.

“There is no cause for alarm,” the Vallejo Evening Times stated in an Oct. 9 editorial. “As far as can be learned, no Spanish influenza is prevalent here and the steps taken have been taken merely as a preventative.” But news accounts the next day described a dozen new flu cases.

By the end of the month, more than 1,500 military personnel and nearly 300 shipyard civilians had received care on Mare Island, and the crisis on the shipyard appeared to be over. But problems were getting worse in Vallejo, with several hundred cases of influenza being reported. Navy doctors working in town reported finding sick shipyard workers in rooming houses, where uninfected workers would return at night to share poorly ventilated quarters with them. Some workers and their families were housed in hastily constructed shacks, while others lived in tents set up in backyards of established homes.

To help deal with the crisis, a second emergency hospital was set up in town, in a St. Vincent’s school building. The hospital opened in early November and was packed with patients in a few days. The Vallejo emergency hospitals finally closed in late November as numbers of patients declined. By the end of the year, local newspapers reported that 175 people had died on Mare Island and Vallejo. The shipyard victims included Marian Turner, a nurse in charge of one of the Navy’s influenza wards. In Vallejo, victims included Adolph Widenmann, member of a prominent family whose brother Henry had died in a reported hunting accident only 19 days earlier.

In January 1919 another influenza wave hit. Theaters, schools, libraries, lodges and pool halls closed, and the St. Vincent’s emergency hospital reopened, staffed by nuns and Navy medical personnel. Face masks were again required, but some people — labeled “dangerous slackers” by the Red Cross — refused to wear them. The Vallejo Evening Chronicle reported on Jan. 15 that a local judge’s desk was “piled high with $5 fines” as he politely listened to the stories of violators “and then just as politely ordered: $5 please, next case!”

The 25 flu victims who died during January in Vallejo and on Mare Island 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. Finally, by the end of the month no new influenza cases were being reported. The emergency hospital closed again and the emergency restrictions were canceled.

A third wave of influenza cases hit in early 1920, with 10 flu-related deaths reported on Mare Island and two deaths reported in Vallejo. The victims included a Navy doctor, Lt. Edward McColl. A ban on indoor public meetings, cancellation of a boxing match and other restrictions were imposed, but by mid-February they were lifted. The most devastating phase of the pandemic  was over.

— 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 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.