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Napa has known a pandemic before: Looking back at 1918's deadly Spanish flu

Napa has known a pandemic before: Looking back at 1918's deadly Spanish flu

From the Complete coronavirus coverage from the Napa Valley Register, St. Helena Star, and The Weekly Calistogan series

Napans ordered to wear gauze masks, public indoor funerals banned, the City Council no longer meeting and schools, churches, theaters and other gathering places shuttered.

This isn’t a prediction of the city of Napa’s future with COVID-19. Rather, it’s a look back to 1918, when the city grappled with Spanish influenza, a different type of pandemic and one of the deadliest in human history.

Napa of 1918 might seem like another world. The city had only about 6,500 residents, concentrated in the downtown area. Rather than being immersed in 24-hour news coverage only a smartphone away, people had the daily rhythms of newspapers.

“Yes, it was different, but at the same time, no,” local historian Rebecca Yerger said. “People were concerned. There was probably a sense of panic, but the media didn’t (sensationalize) it. They wanted people to stay calm.”

Napans of that era were tested and came through the fire, though not without paying a price. A number of local people died of a flu that often affected the young and healthy.

“Until it strikes home, you don’t realize how bad it is,” Yerger said. “When it arrived in Napa County, it became quite a reality.”

A growing threatWorld War I took up many of the Napa Daily Journal headlines in 1918, with about 1.9 million American soldiers serving abroad. On Oct. 2, tucked among the war stories, a disturbing development appeared on the front page.

Napans read about Spanish influenza deaths at East Coast army bases. For Camp Devens, Massachusetts alone, the War Department reported 12,707 cases of the flu with 1,860 cases of pneumonia and 593 deaths, a death rate of 4.7 percent that could grow.

Ominous stuff. But all of this was happening a few thousand miles away in an age with much less travel.

A small item halfway down the front page of the Oct. 18 paper hit closer to home. The Veterans Home of California at Yountville was quarantined because of eight Spanish influenza cases, with “many more” developing.

No screaming headlines. That trait would continue with subsequent Spanish influenza coverage in the Napa Daily Journal.

“It was very factual,” Yerger said. “It wasn’t, ‘Hey, the sky is falling’ type of things.”

Did the paper underplay the threat to public health? Author John Barry in his 2004 book “The Great Influenza” said terror was afoot in the United States in 1918, as people saw others dying, with the youngest and strongest among the vulnerable.

“The media and public officials helped create that terror – not by exaggerating the disease, but by minimizing it, by trying to reassure,” Barry wrote.

Whether Napans let their imaginations run wild amid low-key reporting is hard to tell. The Napa Daily Journal didn’t interview the person-on-the-street, so a century later, it’s hard to gauge the degree of local panic.

“People are people. There was going to be a panic,” Yerger said.

The Oct. 19 paper told Napans that the flu was prevalent in California, though less virulent than on the East Coast. People with inflamed, watery eyes, runny noses, headaches and muscular pain should stay in bed with warm blankets and open the windows, it advised.

“Take medicine to open the bowels freely,” the paper advised. “Take some nourishing food such as milk, egg-and-milk or broth every four hours. Stay in bed until a physician tells you that it is safe to get up.”

Theodore Bell of Napa took all of this seriously. The former county district attorney canceled his speaking tour as a candidate for governor of California because of the Spanish influenza outbreak.

“I would rather lose the governorship than feel that one person’s life or health was endangered through attendance of political gatherings of my friends or supporters,” Bell said.

Bell did indeed lose, receiving 36 percent of the vote as an independent.

The Spanish flu hits homeThen 20-year-old Hollis Pickle died at the family home on Calistoga Avenue in Napa after contracting Spanish influenza and pneumonia. He had been ill a few days. The Napa Daily Journal opted for a small, front-page story in the Oct. 22 paper.

By Oct. 23, Dr. Wilfred Kellogg of the state Board of Health had ordered Californians to wear a gauze mask if they left home with a cold or cough. He urged barbers, dentists and especially pharmacists to wear masks. For that matter, he said everyone should consider wearing a mask indoors and outdoors.

People could make an acceptable mask by folding a clean, closely woven handkerchief and tying the two corners behind the head, Kellogg said.

Even as California grappled with 50,000 influenza cases, Kellogg offered a ray of hope. He said that physicians at the University of California, Berkeley were manufacturing a vaccine that had proven effective on the East Coast. It would be distributed for free.

Meanwhile, all Napa drug stores announced they would remain open on Sundays until the Spanish influenza outbreak had been controlled. They thanked the public for being patient for service “during these trying times.”

A big blow followed. Napa City Clerk Davis Scribner, described as being “big-hearted, genial,” died from the influenza on Oct 29. The newspaper said the death of the 29-year-old “caused a distinct shock to the community.”

Combating the flu with masks Mayor E. J. Drussel on Oct. 29 declared an epidemic and ordered everyone on public streets and in public places and everyone serving the public in stores to wear a mask of at least three thicknesses of cloth.

He was serious. Judge James Palmer threw Abe Erickson and Joe Rodgers into jail for 10 days for failing to wear their flu masks.

People rushed to the Napa Red Cross to get gauze masks. The overwhelmed group told residents to take the gauze and make the masks at home.

Whether the gauze masks used across the nation did any good is another story.

“The masks worn by millions were useless as designed and could not prevent influenza. Only preventing exposure to the virus could,” Barry wrote in “The Great Influenza.”

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend that people who are well use masks to prevent respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19, according to Napa County.

Napa in 1918 had a special ward in a tent, Yerger said. The Fire Department would take a fire engine to where the sick individuals were, put them on stretchers, strap them to the top of the engine and slowly drive them to the ward.

Fire Chief Charles Otterson took it upon himself to make sure those who needed help received it, Yerger said.

With the present COVID-19 outbreak, Napa County Public Health Officer Karen Relucio has described possible strategies to prevent transmission. An example is encouraging high-risk individuals to avoid gatherings.

“It also may mean community mitigation or social distancing strategies that are more community-wide,” Relucio told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The city of Napa imposed its own version of social distancing in 1918 by closing schools, churches and other public gathering places. The Napa City Council stopped meeting, with two members suffering illness of some type.

But the flu didn’t stop a civic celebration on Nov. 11 after Germany surrendered in World War I. The city held a parade, Mayor Drussel hung a German leader in effigy in the courthouse square, firecrackers went off and bands played.

A return to normal lifeBy Nov. 17, the Spanish influenza siege in the city had eased, the Napa Daily Journal reported. The Red Cross hospital prepared to close after three weeks, during which it tended to 54 patients, of whom four died.

But the story didn’t rate the biggest headline in the paper. That honor went to a Farm Bureau hog auction.

With the crisis easing, Drussel around Nov. 20 said that churches, school and theaters would soon reopen. The mask restrictions would be removed, though they would return if the flu broke out again.

November 24 was a day of anticipation for Napans – they could after midnight appear in public without a mask.

“Don’t be careless today, though, keep ‘em down over your chin and up over your nose without fail; it would be an awful comedown to pay the last $5 into the city treasury,” the Napa Daily Journal said.

Residents anticipated a joyful Thanksgiving, with the Spanish influenza on the wane and World War I ending.

“Only a few more hours of patience and off these ‘muzzles’ come!” the paper said.

The area wasn’t completely flu-free. Six new cases soon arose at Napa State Hospital. More people would die in Napa Valley in coming months.

Spanish influenza – which Barry wrote may have originated in Kansas – spread worldwide from 1918-1919. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates it infected 500 million people, or one third of the world’s population. At least 50 million people died.

In the United States, about 675,000 people died, according to the CDC. A unique feature was the high mortality rate in healthy people, including those 20-40 years old.

The death toll in Napa County is unclear. The local newspapers didn’t keep a running tally of death from the Spanish flu. But whatever it was, the epidemic caused pain in a small town.

“It woke up the community that we needed better health service, better health care that would address things like the outbreak of the flu,” Yerger said.

A century later, a much bigger Napa in a more technically advanced world is faced with a different type of health threat, COVID-19. How that will play out remains to be seen.

But advice that Public Health Officer Relucio recently gave seems timeless: Be aware, be prepared and don’t be scared.

Editor’s Note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit

You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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