Spanish flu

Montana was one of the four hardest-hit states by the 1918 Spanish flu.

“Our town is in an awful stew,

And everybody’s feeling blue.

We hardly know just what to do

To overcome the Spanish Flu

— Butte Miner, Oct. 17, 1918

BOZEMAN — In Montana, it started in 1918 with a single case in the little northeastern speck called Scobey.

Before the Spanish Flu had finished ravaging the world in June 1920, killing more than 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States, Montana would see an estimated 5,000 residents perish — about 1 percent of the population.

In fact, Montana was considered one of the four hardest-hit states. The flu came here in three deadly waves, with two milder pandemics sandwiched around the most deadly between August and November.

Much like today, sports felt the impacts in the two years it lingered across the country as World War I wound down.

Across the national landscape, college and high school athletics were either canceled or seasons shortened. A heavyweight boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Battling Levinsky was called off. Hockey’s Stanley Cup was halted when five Montreal Canadiens players became ill. And although Major League Baseball’s season was ending before the brunt of the flu arrived, the spitball was nevertheless outlawed during the World Series.

In Montana, no high school football championship was played in 1918 due to the flu, though play resumed in 1919. Basketball did crown a state champion — Bozeman over Miles City — but that had been in March, before the epidemic had arrived in full force.

And it wasn’t just the high schools affected. Colleges and universities, already considering shutting down football in the fall as a war measure, canceled games as well.

In Montana, the flu’s impacts hit hardest in October.

Under the headline “NO FOOTBALL GAMES”, the Anaconda Standard reported that scheduled games between student army training camps around the state would not be played “until further notice” and that all football training at the camps would be halted as well.

“Lid is down on Anaconda”, was the headline in the Butte Miner on Oct. 11, 1918, above a story saying “All Public Gatherings, Including Picture Shows, Closed Until Further Notice to Prevent Spread of Flu.”

Interestingly, the full-scale Anaconda lockdown didn’t include a football game between Anaconda and Butte high schools at Washoe Park. As county physician J.M. Sligh explained, “While influenza spreads rapidly indoors, in ill-ventilated rooms where people are gathered in any numbers, out in the open air, with perfect ventilation, the chances for infection were slight.”

Like today, many people shrugged off the threat initially. When forced to shut down, Butte’s Rialto Theater laughed off the order in a poem on the final slide of the final show.

But that would change quickly.

Two days later, with the city of Butte under quarantine just four days after the first confirmed cases of the Spanish flu, the Mount St. Charles college football team in Helena was ordered not to travel south to play Central High. In a telegraph, the college cited the flu, which wound up killing more than 1,000 Butte residents – about 2% of its population, most in a six-month span.

In December, the Helena Independent Record reported that Mount St. Charles “lost an opportunity to score prominently for Helena in the athletic world” because of cancellations. The school had games scheduled against Bozeman, Butte School of Mines, St. Thomas and Gonzaga, but all of those programs dropped football for the year.

Mount St. Charles did plan three games against Wesleyan “as a means of development of their soldiers.” The second game was played without spectators due to the flu and the third was to be staged similarly, but Wesleyan failed to show and Mount St. Charles staged an intrasquad scrimmage.

Football wasn’t the only sport affected that fall.

In November, a Butte wrestler challenged Clarence Eklund of Buffalo, Wyoming, to meet anywhere, anytime. But, as The Billings Gazette reported, “Just now such sports are taboo because of the influenza epidemic.”

Many of the ways to combat the Spanish flu are comparable to today’s coronavirus, including shutting down large gatherings. Social distancing and careful hygiene were keys, though one paper reported that gas masks were popular in Lewistown.

There was a strong belief that being outdoors was a remedy.

In October, the Helena YMCA planned a series of outdoor sports “for the duration of the flu.” The gym and other indoor athletic departments at the YMCA remained closed.

Regional parallels are eerily similar to today as well. The first city in the West to be hit hard was Seattle.

“Seattle laughed and was indifferent at first, but when people died like flies the city changed its tune,” the Butte Miner reported on Oct. 19, 1918, under the headline “Spanish Flu is not a joke.”

Ominously, the story continued: “About the only place not closed in Seattle is the cemetery.”

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