March 11, 2020 was a tumultuous day here in Seattle, WA, the nation’s epicenter for COVID19. At 9:30 AM Pacific time, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus to be a global pandemic. At 11 AM, Governor Inslee took steps towards viral containment in three counties in Washington State by banning groups of more than 250 people from assembling; encouraging schools to develop contingency plans; reminding people to wash their hands and practice social distancing. Those of us over the age of 60 or with underlying medical conditions are following recommendations to hunker down at home.
Wish us luck…
History is full of stories about cities that sequestered themselves during times of plague. In recent history, one of those cities was Gunnison, Colorado, which “declared a quarantine against all the world” during the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918.
My grandmother’s family lived in Gunnison – my grandmother recounts having smallpox there in 1917. The following year, the family moved to nearby Jack’s Cabin, (which her notes record as Jack’O Cabin Valley). I don’t know if the intention was to protect the family by moving to an isolated area in the county, or if her father was simply following an offer of work on Jim Spann’s farm. My grandmother was 10 years old and may not have even been aware of the pandemic, in spite of the Spann family being quarantined after they visited Denver for Thanksgiving in November 1918. According to the Gunnison County Times, Mrs. Laurel Spann [possibly Bill’s wife] later succumbed, and is thought to be the first flu-related death in Gunnison County that year.
Gunnison sat at a highway junction and train stop between Denver and other major Colorado cities, which put them at heightened risk [not unlike Seattle, WA being a major port for both air and sea travel]. At a time when many nearby towns suffered consequences through their inaction, Gunnison’s early containment measures via “protective sequestration” resulted in zero deaths during the first wave of the pandemic. The Guardian News, US edition, published an excellent story which you can read here.
This article from the Gunnison Country Times recounts that the pandemic hit the US in January 1918, and by October there were 78 deaths in Denver, and 9,000 reported cases throughout Colorado. On October 18th, Gunnison city officials closed schools and churches, and banned both public and private gatherings. On November 1st, they quarantined the entire town, erecting barricades on roads, sequestering visitors, and arresting violators for the next four months. Nearby towns took similar actions but not soon enough. The town of Silverton – thinking it had no cases – took no action at all, and between October – December 1918, suffered 125 deaths and 833 reported cases.
As a result of Gunnison’s isolation, deaths and illnesses were minimal and occurred only after a second wave of flu hit, after city officials lifted the quarantine in mid -February 1919. That action resulted in 58 reported cases and only a handful of deaths. Statewide, nearly 8,000 people died out of 49,000 reported cases.
Gunnison served as partial inspiration for the novel “The Last Town on Earth” by Thomas Mullen, which coincidentally, is set in my home state of Washington.
My grandmother and her family survived the pandemic, and remained at Jacks Cabin until about 1924, when they moved back to Gunnison so she and her sister could attend high school.