By Jeff Brady
In the spring of 1919, the entire family of William J. Mulvihill came down with the Spanish flu and was quarantined in their home, the historic Victorian with the short steeple at 7th and Alaska Street in Skagway. Now my home, where my wife Dorothy and I raised our children, and where some of them still live.
Fortunately, the Mulvihills and several other quarantined families survived and carried on to live productive lives, but at the time, Skagway was a scary place to be. Depending on the source, there were anywhere between 65 and 78 cases in the community, including three documented deaths from the “dreaded influenza” in Skagway between March 24 and April 16, 1919.
How did this happen? Looking at the history, it’s apparent Skagway let its guard down.
The town survived the beginnings of the worldwide pandemic with no cases in the fall of 1918. Despite fears the disease would spread from inbound steamships or the communities of Juneau and Haines, where a few had died, the flu stayed away.
Skagwayans, as they were called then, already knew how the flu could devastate a community.
The community was first shaken by news from the Lower 48 that one of its favorite sons, Private Vincent “Happy” Dortero, had died in Iowa. Dortero was in the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry from Fort Seward in Haines that was finally being shipped off to war. Supervising Sgt. Albert Bixby reported many became sick on the chilly cross-country train ride, and Dortero died from the flu at the Fort Dodge training camp on October 27, 1918. His body arrived home three weeks later. He was buried in Pioneer Cemetery after a service at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall. The Daily Alaskan newspaper called him Skagway’s first casualty of World War I, just as the war was nearing its end. A headline proclaimed that the flu was subsiding in Seattle with a caveat that “there are so many conflicting stories going around.”
Actually, the flu was just arriving in Alaska, on the start of its second wave. According to a report published in 2018 on the centennial of the pandemic, Spanish influenza hit the territory on a steamship in Nome on October 20, 1918.
“From Nome, the virus spread rapidly across the Seward Peninsula and then throughout Alaska, killing large numbers of people and in some cases wiping out entire villages,” said the report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Section of Health Analytics and Vital Records. More than 80 percent of the 1,113 Alaska deaths were Native Alaskans.
Fifty million died worldwide. The Spanish influenza actually originated in France, but due to wartime restrictions on dispatches from that country, the first reports came from nearby Spain. A victim of its neutrality, Spain’s name was wrongly attached to the disease.
The flu was at Skagway’s doorstep, its port, at the end of October. The ill-fated Princess Sophia was rumored to have a case on board when it docked in town for the last time on October 23, 1918. The Thompson family from Eagle decided not to board, even after their luggage had been loaded. The late Gil Thompson told me his mother’s fear of the disease saved their lives. They avoided both the flu and a ship that would strike Vanderbilt Reef in a blinding snowstorm, killing upwards of 370 passengers and crew. Most victims of that disaster were Yukoners on their way south, but among them was district U.S. Customs Collector John J. Pugh, a former Skagway resident, heading home to Juneau.
The community was saddened by the loss of Pugh and Yukon friends on the Sophia, and the young soldier “Happy” Dortero. A looming threat of disease was also present and health warnings were posted at the railroad-owned dock on October 26. The flu hit Fort Seward in Haines, just 10 miles south of Skagway, and there were two deaths. The state compiled all influenza-caused death certificates from that era. U.S. Army pharmacist Albert Jones died at the Post Hospital on November 9. Haines fisherman Eugene Gallo died at the same hospital 10 days later.
An urgent care notice from territorial Governor Thomas Riggs was soon followed by a quarantine order that went into effect in Skagway in early November for passengers arriving on ships. Disembarking local residents were housed in the “Hospital Annex” next to the White Pass Hospital at 11th and Broadway, while those bound for the Yukon went to a “Best House” at 5th and Main.
In a letter to the Daily Alaskan on November 8, Mr. F. Eliason wrote that he had been “in detention for five days owing to my having arrived on a ship that had touched infected ports.” He went on to thank those in charge. “During my stay there I was treated with uniform kindness and consideration and every comfort was possible. I desire to thank Dr. Gable and his assistants and the Health Department of Skagway and to compliment them on the efficient manner in which they are combating the dread disease and feel confident that by their energetic efforts they will prevent it getting to Skagway.”
Carl Mulvihill, grandson of W. J. Mulvihill, said he doesn’t remember any family stories about the time of the flu, except how they helped provide food for the “Best House” guests. The town was later reimbursed for providing fuel for the house by the Yukon government, in thanks for keeping the disease from spreading to the Yukon, he said.
The Yukon-bound passengers were usually held until the next train. Two steamships would arrive throughout the winter, the SS Mary of the CPR line and the SS Jefferson of the Alaska Steamship line. Rail business was slow with one northbound train a week out of Skagway on Thursdays, and the southbound returning from Whitehorse on Fridays.
Yukon News “History Hunter” columnist Michael Gates recently wrote an article about how the Yukon avoided the pandemic. Gates found stories in the Dawson Daily News about Yukoners being held in Skagway for several days, and this item from December 12, 1918: “There is no flu this side of Fort Seward. It is remarkable that the disease is confined only to the military post there and is not in the town of Haines proper. Skagway has no cases.”
It appeared Skagway had made it through the scare virus-free.
Still, the original November 11 quarantine order for Yukoners moving through Skagway extended into February of the new year, but by then there was pressure to get rid of it. The Whitehorse Star reported that the order was lifted at midnight on February 27: “The decision was arrived at after exhaustive negotiations held by wire between Governor Riggs of Alaska, Commissioner McKenzie of Yukon, Dr. Gable of the health department of Skagway and Dr. W.B. Clarke of the health office of Southern Yukon,” noted the Feb. 28 Star.
That week, according to a Daily Alaskan notice, Dr. Gable began requiring public health examinations for northbound passengers in a waiting room at the rail depot. There was no quarantine and no further check of Skagway arrivals by ship.
On Feb. 28, the Daily Alaskan reported that Skagway soldier Roy Mulvihill, the oldest son who had been in France with the 63rd Coast Artillery at the end of the war, was on his way home. Little did he know that his home would be a different place a month later.
In March 1919, with the weather getting milder, soldiers coming home and Yukoners able to move more freely through the port, Skagwayans were hopeful for a pleasant spring. Most of the townspeople came out for a big St. Patrick’s Day ball at the decorative Elks hall.
Three days later on March 20, the Alaskan on its front page reported “Influenza In A Mild Form Hits Skagway For The First Time.” The article said colds had been reported in several homes that week and the army surgeon had arrived from Fort Seward to assist. He found “some of the cases to be Spanish influenza in a mild form.” He also examined Dr. Gable, who also was suffering “from the same thing.”
Mayor Howard Ashley called an emergency meeting of the town council that afternoon and “it was decided that all homes where people were ill would be strictly quarantined, and that for the time being all places of amusement, churches, lodges and other places where people are accustomed to congregate would be closed.”
An urgent cable was sent by the mayor to Governor Riggs requesting one additional doctor and at least two nurses. Dr. Johnston of Sitka, who had just returned to Alaska from army duty, arrived on the SS Jefferson with two nurses the next day. A temporary Yukon quarantine was put in place in Carcross for any inbound train passengers from Skagway and was later moved to Whitehorse. The quarantines would last for five days. There were conflicting reports initially in the Alaskan about the existence of Yukon cases but the Dawson papers said there were none in the territory. As the Alaskan went to press on March 22, there were an estimated 35 cases in Skagway.
The school was added to a public notice closure list. The Popular Picture Palace advertised that it was going “dark” and a notice in the Alaskan said barber Oscar Selmer was closing his shop to “devote himself to caring for his family, as a number of them are suffering from severe colds and the house is quarantined.” The late Oscar Selmer Jr., a well-known Skagway character through the end of the century, was the baby in that house, born on November 25, 1918.
Death darkened three Skagway homes over the next few weeks. The first was prospector Christian Boshart, 56, who came north with the gold rush and settled in Skagway. For the past few summers he had prospected claims in the Porcupine mining district near Haines. He had a history of lung issues and was one of the first cases in town. He initially treated himself at home but he developed pneumonia and on March 21 entered the White Pass Hospital. He died there on March 24. The Alaskan reported, “The deceased had a most active constitution, but he could not withstand the ravages of the disease.”
The March 25 Dawson Daily News reported that a telegram sent to Gold Commissioner Mackenzie from Skagway Mayor Ashley reported 50 cases of the flu, that all were quarantined and that he “estimates it will require 20 days at least to clear Skagway of the flu, but of course there is nothing positive on that point.”
That same day the Daily Alaskan noted that Dr. Johnston reported Dr. Gable “is doing splendidly and all the rest of the cases are doing well.” Only one new case had been reported: “W.J. Mulvihill developed symptoms, and consequently his home has been quarantined … The train left this morning about an hour late owing to the absence of the chief dispatcher, Mulvihill, who is confined to his house.”
The following day the paper said the whole family was down with the flu and the next day, on the 27th, the municipal election scheduled for April 1 was postponed to May 6. The Star reported that Skagway cases had grown to 65.
Fearing the flu could spread from Skagway, Governor Riggs ordered that all southbound passengers “by steamship, gas boat, aeroplane or other means” were to be first quarantined for five days. They would be housed at the Golden North Hotel and “not allowed to go on the streets or mingle with the town people during that time.” Two additional nurses were sent to Skagway on the gas boat Estebeth. Joining Mrs. McKenzie and Mrs. Boswell were Mrs. Shaw and Miss Grundy, the Alaskan reported, and all hospital patients were reported doing well.
But one man was not well. William “Bill” Bunting, 38, a boilermaker at the railroad shops, had developed symptoms early that week and entered the hospital on Saturday, March 29. The Alaskan reported his death from pneumonia as it was going to press on the 31st. The next day, “Death Loves A Shining Mark” was the headline of a front-page obituary for the well-liked mechanic, two-term member of the common council and member of the Eagles and Masons. He received a private Masonic service conducted by members of the White Pass Lodge. Bunting was originally from England and came to Alaska by way of Chicago. He left a wife, Adele, whom he had married in Washington in 1914, and since that time “there has not been a day’s breach in their constant companionship.”
Northbound train passengers were also quarantined at the Golden North, run by original owners George and Clara Dedman. Among the hotel guests was Dr. N.H. Culbertson, the Yukon’s territorial health officer. He was in constant communication with his Alaska counterparts and superiors in the Yukon. On April 1, after five days of isolation in the hotel, he boarded the No. 1 train for Carcross. He would face further quarantining on the other side of the border and would not reach his Dawson City home via winter stage from Whitehorse until April 14. He told the Dawson Daily News that Dr. Johnston had told him that Skagway had peaked at 78 cases, “quite a number in proportion to the population of the town.”
Amazingly, there were still no cases in the Yukon, and none would arrive. Skagway was sensing the end.
In Skagway, an April 7 headline proclaimed “Flu Situation Now Clearing” and editorialized that the “Flu-bug high jinks” would soon be behind them. The quarantine of the Mulvihill house had been lifted on April 7 and the family was able to celebrate the return of soldier-boy Roy on April 10.
On April 12, the northbound quarantine was lifted by Dr. Johnston, and the southbound quarantine was erased four days later, as the Sitka doctor and four Juneau nurses prepared to leave town. The Alaskan thanked them for the community “for the painstaking attention given to their duties in caring for the residents of the city.”
But on April 16, while one Alaskan headline declared Skagway to be “Free from the Flu,” another said “Death Takes Skagway Child.”
Just days before school would reopen for the rest of her classmates, 14-year-old Eva Adams died at home in the care of her mother, Mary. The father, Charles, a railroad man, was in Whitehorse and had not yet returned on the southbound train, the Alaskan reported. “Death was the result of pneumonia, this child ill but a few days, and in this time the ravages of the disease were too severe for the girl to make a winning fight.” Dr. Gable was back on duty and signed the death certificate.
Eva Adams was laid to rest in a private ceremony two days later at the cemetery, where “a limited number were allowed to attend.” Two days later, the newspaper printed a “Card of Thanks” from Mr. and Mrs. Adams, expressing “sincere thanks to the many friends for the acts of kindness shown during the illness of their daughter Eva.”
Life was almost back to normal, though caution was still urged by Mayor Ashley who said there would be no public dances for 10 days. Fraternal orders were allowed to meet and the local band led by the Selmers got together to practice for the first time in weeks. The town must have approved of the job Ashely was doing; he was re-elected in a landslide on May 6.
School reopened the following week and the Popular Picture Palace advertised it would be showing “The Desert Man” starring William S. Hart that weekend. A Pioneer Dance was to be held Saturday, April 26 at the Elks and was expected to be “the largest of its kind” since there had been no dance since St. Patrick’s Day and “the people are all recovered from the epidemic which occurred immediately afterwards.”
Though it was never stated specifically, Skagway’s luck probably changed during that March 17 dance.
As I sit in the old Mulvihill house, my mind wanders to what it was like then. Quarantined at the home had been W.J., his wife Nellie, both in their 40s, and five children. Harold “Mickey,” 18, had started work as a brakeman on the railroad and Verna was also grown, having just returned from a trip to Whitehorse before the flu arrived. The younger children in the home were Vincent, Gertrude and Donald, ages 15, 12 and 10 respectively.
Years later, Mickey’s son Carl was about their age when as a Boy Scout, he climbed the stairs in the old Arctic Brotherhood Hall and discovered something odd. The A.B. Hall had been city hall at the time of the epidemic, but by the 1950s it hosted scouts and other groups. While rummaging through the attic during a break from a patrol meeting, young Carl found evidence of that difficult time: several placard signs that said simply, “INFLUENZA.” He said there were “lots of them, they probably put them in the windows of homes.”
Memories have faded and descendants of those affected Skagway families that I contacted don’t recall any specific stories passed on from the 1918-19 pandemic.
“I suspect they didn’t talk about it all that much,” Carl said. Perhaps those in the homes didn’t want to remember those years and kept their memories tucked away.
One is left to imagine how Skagwayans passed the time. Was it anything like what Skagwegians are experiencing now during the COVID-19 pandemic?
In the old Mulvihill house parlor, a bookshelf built into the wall holds hundreds of books. Most are what I have collected and read over my 30-plus years living there, but on the top shelf is a row of dusty titles that came with the historic house. Several are romantic titles and mysteries from the early part of the previous century. When I started looking into this story and imagining life in this quarantined house without TV or Wi-Fi or even flush toilets (there was a two-holer in the old shed out back), I returned to that top bookshelf.
This title stood out: How It All Came About by L.T. Meade. I opened it and found it inscribed with the date of its gift, “Xmas 1918,” in pencil. Through a little internet research, I discovered author Meade was a popular author of fiction for young girls. I can imagine this book being a gift for young Gertrude that Christmas, and how she found time to read it while out of school when her family was confined to the home.
Perhaps that is why it was left behind, a subtle reminder for the next time Skagway faced down a disease from afar. May we keep it away from home.
Special thanks to Carl Mulvihill and Valerie Feero Lawson of the Mulvihill family, Stan Selmer of the Selmer family, Yukon historian Michael Gates, Judy Munns of the Skagway Museum, Rebecca Topol and Clint Farr with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and Alaska State Library Historical Collections (1918-19 Daily Alaskan).