Alberta and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part 1

January 10, 2018

Author’s Note: This is an important and large topic. For this reason I am presenting it in two parts.


Camp Funston military base in Kansas where first case documented in March 1918. Photo: original US Military now Public Domain

The misery of the Great War ended at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of November 1918. Soldiers from Alberta trickled home with the last of them returning by late 1919. These servicemen wanted to come home and pick up their lives where they left off, but nature had other plans.

If you tour older cemeteries in Alberta you will notice in the period from 1918 to 1920 many graves are of young persons. Once you realize this was the time of the great influenza pandemic, these names shout out the impact to the reader of the inscriptions on the silent stones.

In the summer of 1918 influenza ravaged the world with the Spanish Flu. The society of 1918 had no vaccines for influenza, or any other disease for that matter. Influenza is incurable even in the 21st century. The impact on the Province of Alberta and the world was unimaginable. An estimated 20 to 40 million people died of the Spanish Flu worldwide. People could be healthy in the morning, sick by noon, and deceased by evening.

Health officials named this strain the “Spanish” Flu, not because it originated in that country, but because Spain was neutral during the period 1914 to 1918; better statistics and reports emanated from that country due to lack of censorship. Other countries repressed the true extent of the pandemic to maintain morale during wartime. More people died from the flu than soldiers killed in the war.

Symptoms included, severe headache, high fever; chills, aches, and pains in the back and limbs. The flu caused severe problems breathing because it attacked the lungs. Those who didn’t perish in the first few days died later of complications such as pneumonia. Persons between the ages of 20 and 40 were the most susceptible and the majority of the deaths occurred in this age group. To this day no one knows the reason for this.

In the early 1990’s Canadian scientists located several 1918 flu victims buried in a permafrost cemetery in Norway. Bits of viral RNA from their preserved flesh enabled scientists to reconstruct the virus. Scientists in a Winnipeg lab used tissues from First World War soldiers to restore the virus. All this research occurred in high security medical labs. The goal is to find a vaccine. So far they have been unsuccessful.

Influenza, like the common cold, has no known cure. Advice given by health authorities of the era included, wearing of masks to prevent the spread of the disease. Avoiding public gatherings, and public places like theatres and schools was encouraged. Health officials recommended patients drink lots of water, limit exposure to cold, and get lots of fresh air.

The Spanish Flu came in two distinct waves, first in the summer of 1918, and then the spring of 1919. Remarkably it disappeared as fast as it arrived.

Unknown to them, Canadian soldiers returning home brought the flu virus with them. By the end of the pandemic, an estimated 50,000 Canadians were dead out of a population of about 1,500,00 persons. Some smaller villages were almost wiped out. Alberta had a population of about 500,000 in 1918, over 4,300 Albertans died from the flu. In the United States 675,000 people died from the flu out of a population of around 7,000,000.

The flu terrified the populace of Alberta and the rest of Canada. Almost everyone who went outdoors wore a face mask. In fact on October 25, 1918 the government of Alberta ordered all citizens to wear a mask when they left their homes. Closed communities, like remote villages, were most vulnerable.

Albert Farmers-Sp-flu-alberta-field-PublicDomain

Alberta farmers wearing masks. Photo: Public Domain

Aboriginal communities were some of the hardest hit. The flu decimated the First Nation populations. Their settlements were small and close-knit enabling rapid spread of the disease. Many of them had not been previously exposed to influenza and thus were vulnerable. Medical care did not exist in the settlements, often they were left alone to suffer the ravages.

In Alberta gatherings of more than six people were banned. It was a criminal offence to shake hands. Public areas were closed. These included schools, theatres and any other public buildings or facilities. Throughout Canada hearses filled the streets. Hospitals were overflowing and doctors did not know what to do.

People tried everything and anything to defeat the flu. Some of the more exotic cures were smoked herrings worn around the neck, drinking alcohol, eating garlic, raw onions, drinking mixtures of hot milk, ginger and black pepper. Quarantine was implemented to no avail.

Antibiotics were not available to fight the secondary bacterial pneumonia. This compounded the impact of the flu and many deaths were from complications such as pneumonia.

The reason the Spanish Flu caused rapid death has only recently been explained. It seems this strain of influenza filled the lung tissue with liquid preventing oxygen from reaching the rest of the body.

The question for scientists is, could this happen today? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Science today has technology to develop vaccines for various strains of influenza, but to date they have been unsuccessful in finding a vaccine for the Spanish Flu virus of 1918-1919. Might this virus reappear? There is no reason to think it could not.

Society in 2010 has several advantages over the society of 1918, better hygiene, and the ability, perhaps, to create a specific vaccine for the virus. In addition we have better medical technology and facilities. Lastly, antibiotics are available to battle bacterial complications such as pneumonia.

The impact to Alberta and society in general would be significant. People would still get sick, but it should be possible to minimize fatalities. Health authorities in Alberta and worldwide must remain vigilant.

Further Reading

Wikipedia – Pandemic Influenza History

Alberta in the 20th Century, Volume Four: The Great War and Its Consequences, Chapter Two by Stephani Keer, pp326-341, CanMedia Inc., 1995

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, Gina Kolata, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1999

CBC News Online, 1918 Flu Epidemic, Dan Bjarnason and Robin Rowland, January 16, 2007

Pandemic, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Foundation of Canada, 2009

A City Faces an Epidemic, McGinnis, J.P. Dickin, Alberta History, 24, No.4 (Autumn 1976, p.1-11

Alberta Formed, Alberta Transformed, Vol.2, 1919: A Year of Extraordinary Difficulty, Bright, David, University of Alberta Press, 2006



German Sabotage in WW I: Vanceboro railway bridge bombing

January 3, 2018

L. railway bridge at time, R. Werner Horn and Deputy Ross (on right)

At 1:10 am on the morning of February 2, 1915 a bomb exploded on the Vanceboro railway bridge between the United States and Canada. It shattered most of the windows in structures in the Town of Vanceboro, Maine and St. Croix, New Brunswick.

Where is Vanceboro you may ask and what was its importance? The Town of Vanceboro is located at the headwaters of the St. Croix River which forms the boundary between the State of Maine, USA and the Province of New Brunswick, Canada. It is 111 miles northeast of Bangor, Maine. Originally a logging camp and trading post established in 1871, Vanceboro incorporated as a town on March 4, 1874. Today it’s at the eastern end of Maine Route 6 and has 24 hour customs stations (Canadian and American) to manage the international border crossing. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the town was quite prosperous with railway, lumbering, hunting and fishing being prime employers. There were also industries, a tannery, a wooden ware company. The railway was key as it provided the link to the outside world. The population of 147 as of the 2000 census is small compared to those glory days.

The railway bridge crosses the St. Croix River, the boundary between Canada and the United States. This was an iron railway bridge measuring about 100 feet in length. The opening ceremony in 1871 of the railway line and bridge between Canada and the United States was attended by Governer-General of Canada Lord Lisgar and the President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant.

At the time the Canadian Pacific Railway operated the main link between Saint John, New Brunswick (an ice free port) on the Atlantic Ocean and Montreal and Quebec City. This link was the shortest route connecting the Atlantic port of Saint John to Montreal or Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River. During the winter months it was especially important as the St. Lawrence was usually frozen and didn’t allow shipping access to Montreal or Quebec City.

The United States was neutral during the First World War from 1914 until they entered the war in late 1917. Under the Neutrality Act it was illegal for the railroad to carry war materials or troops through the United States and across this bridge. However, the Maine Central Railroad operator of the line allowed Canadian Pacific to do this. The German embassy in Washington, DC became aware of this practice and protested loudly to no avail. For this reason they wanted the bridge destroyed to cut the link.

When war broke out in 1914 the Germans had staffed the embassy with several spies. The goal was to disrupt port shipments from the US to Britain and its allies. The military attaché at the embassy was Captain Franz von Papen who was in effect the chief spymaster. He directed propaganda and acts of sabotage on American soil during the war.

Werner Horn, a German reserve lieutenant, was not in Germany when war broke out in 1914. He managed a coffee plantation in Moka, Guatemala. He tried twice to return to Germany but both times could get no further than New York City. The British blockade of North Sea ports prevented sailings to Germany. While Horn was in New York City Captain von Papen recruited him to destroy the Vanceboro bridge and thereby stop the trains. He paid Horn $700 US to carry out the attack and provided the explosives.

Horn arrived in Vanceboro December 31, 1914 and stayed at the Exchange Hotel. He was seen hiding the suitcase of explosives in a wood pile outdoors and also scouting out the bridge. At least three Vanceboro residents reported Horn’s suspicious behaviour to the American immigration inspector. He then interviewed Horn at the hotel.  Horn assured him he was a Danish farmer looking to buy land in the area. Horn spent the next few days keeping a low profile and watching the rail line to try to determine the schedule of trains.

February 1, 1915 Horn checked out of the hotel saying he had a train to catch that evening. He went to the bridge sometime after midnight. Horn positioned the suitcase full of explosives on the Canadian side of the bridge. Interrupted by an approaching train he had to reposition the suitcase but again was interrupted. Finally after he was sure the trains had passed he positioned the explosives on a girder. Horn shortened the fuse from 50 minutes to about 3 minutes. Lighting the fuse with a cigar he worked his way back to the hotel through gale force winds and -30 F temperatures. At 1:10 am on the morning of February 2, 1915 the bomb exploded shattering windows in Vanceboro and St. Croix. This woke all the residents who were also now exposed to the frigid winter air.

Horn’s hands were frostbitten. The hotel owner helped him and allowed him to check back in for the night. After the explosion the owner became suspicious and informed the CPR. They closed the bridge and rerouted trains. Inspection was done the next morning. Some beams on the bridge were twisted or bent but otherwise damage was minor. The bridge was out of service for only a few days.

Vanceboro Deputy Sheriff George Ross and two Canadian police officers from McAdam, who crossed the border to help, detained Horn at the hotel.  Horn had changed into is German army uniform to avoid being arrested as a spy. He then surrendered to American authorities. The explosion took place on the Canadian side of the bridge so the Americans could only charge him with mischief at first for breaking windows in Vanceboro.

He was moved to jail in Machias, Maine. Canadian authorities began extradition proceedings. At Machias he was interrogated and signed a confession with a statement-of-facts detailing his act of sabotage.

A federal grand jury in Boston indicted him on March 2, 1915 for transporting explosives on a common carrier (passenger train). This was the most serious charge the US could try him on since the explosion was on the Canadian side of the border. Horn received a sentence of 18 months at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in Georgia.

After he served his sentence he was extradited to Canada in October 1919. Canada tried him for the sabotage and bombing in Court of Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick at Fredericton. Horn was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick. Canadian prison authorities assessed Horn to be insane in July 1921. He was then released and deported to Germany.

Author’s note:
I’ve visited Vanceboro on a couple of occasions. My grandfather operated a taxidermy shop there during the 1920s and 30s in the old tannery. Vanceboro is a quaint little town with a fascinating history and great location. The railroad is not the mainline anymore and it’s not on the main highway. Vanceboro’s website claims it’s “not quite the end of the earth, but occasionally the end can be seen from town.”


Vanceboro today looking north. Railroad bridge is in foreground. Original bridge replaced with new one many years ago. Border crossing is where road crosses river at top. USA on left of river and Canada to the right.

Further reading
Wikipedia, Vanceboro Railway Bombing

Golf at the Olympics: One fan’s view

October 20, 2016

This past summer at the Olympics in Rio golf was a recognized medal sport for the first time since 1904. As a die-hard golfer and golf fan I’d like to give some of the history behind this and my thoughts on golf as an Olympic sport.

The last and only time golf was an Olympic sport was during the 1900 Olympics in Paris, France and the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

First let’s look at Paris in 1900. Men’s and women’s events were held. The men competed in a 36 hole stroke-play tournament and the women in a 9 hole stroke-play tournament. Charles Sanders of the USA won the men’s Gold Medal and Margaret Abbot of the USA the women’s Gold Medal. A total of twenty-two golfers competed from 4 nations.

At St. Louis in 1904 only men competed. No women’s golf events were held. Seventy-seven golfers from just two nations completed, Canada and the United States. Men’s individual events were match play. Team events were held. Three teams of 10 golfers each competed in stroke play. The individual results of each team were totalled to determine the team standings. USA won Gold and Canada Silver. In the individual event the Gold Medal winner was George Lyon, a Canadian. This was the last time the sport of golf was an Olympic event.

At the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009 a vote was held and golf accepted for the Olympics in 2016 in Rio and for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. After that an evaluation will be done by the IOC and golf’s governing bodies to see if it should continue.

The format for the golf events was also determined and will be,

  • 120 golfers, 60 men and 60 women.
  • 72 hole (4 rounds of 18 holes) stroke play tournaments for the men and the women.
  • Official Rules of Golf to be used as on the PGA, European, Asian tours and the LPGA tour.
  • In case of a tie a three-hole play-off will be held to determine the Gold Medal winner. Ties for Silver or Bronze are permitted and medals awarded appropriately.
  • Qualifiers are to be based on World Rankings prior to the Olympics.
  • Top 15 players of each gender automatically qualify, but a limit of 4 golfers per country. Remaining spots to highest ranked players from countries not having two golfers qualified.
  • Guaranteed at least one golfer from the host nation and each geographic region.
  • No cuts in the tournaments after two days as is usual practice. All golfers play all four rounds.

Unfortunately at Rio many of the world’s top golfers both men and women withdrew because of the Zika virus, their schedule or personal reasons. In the end the competition featured 34 nations. In both the men’s and women’s tournaments play-offs weren’t required.

Men’s winners:
Gold – Justin Rose, Great Britain
Silver – Henrik Stensen, Sweden
Bronze – Matt Kucher, USA

Women’s winners:
Inbee Park – Gold, South Korea
Lydia Ko – Silver, New Zealand
ShanShan Feng – Bronze, China

As a fan I managed to watch most of the rounds and the finals in both men’s and women’s. The competition was fierce and close in both cases. Very entertaining. I am biased but I vote a resounding Yes for golf in the Olympics.

February: More than romantic love.

February 1, 2016

Vince Lombardi Trophy awarded to winner of the Super Bowl. Photo: SB Davis, at Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton, OH, Sept. 2015

February the month of romantic love. Sorry but in my opinion just another excuse for card companies, florists and chocolatiers to make money. For me February is a month closer to spring and golf season, not only that but it is the shortest month of the year. Hurry up March and spring.

Planet Earth takes 365 and one quarter of our days to make its transit around the sun. How do we reconcile that odd figure? Every fourth orbit around the sun earthlings make an accounting adjustment. The year 2016 is a Leap Year. Normally February has 28 days but in Leap Years (every fourth year) it has 29 days to facilitate this accounting adjustment.

Those who happen to have been born in a leap year on the 29th day of February get to celebrate a birthday only every four years. Nice way to deceive oneself I think.

The big sports event of February is the National Football League’s Super Bowl. This is a major event this month and this year is the 50th time the game has been played. Football makes this a great month, but then the season is over which is sad. The big games is usually played the first Sunday of the month.

The new Canadian flag was introduced in February 1965 which is another reason to celebrate. The red maple leaf gives us a rallying point and has become the symbol of Canada throughout the world.

Here are some other interesting observances for the month of February.

Month-long observances:
American Heart Month – United States
Black History Month- Canada and United States

International Days:
Lunar New Year – Traditional Chinese Calendar
Chinese New Year – Chinese Calendar

Odd or Unusual observances:
National Wear Red Day – Feb 5th United States
First Saturday – Ice Cream for Breakfast Day (I really like the idea of this one)

National, State or Provincial Holidays:
Second Monday – Family Day – British Columbia, Canada
Third Monday – Family Day – Alberta, Canada
(Note: Family Day is now celebrated in other provinces too)
Third Monday – President’s Day – United States
Last Friday – International Stand Up to Bullying Day

February Symbols:
– flower – violet
– birthstone – amethyst
– zodiac signs – Aquarius (until Feb 18th) and Pisces (Feb 19th on)

So enjoy February whatever your perspective.

The Greatest Generation

November 5, 2015
One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada's war dead lie.

One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada’s war death lie.

On November 11, 2015 it will be 70 years since the end of the Second World War 1939-1945 and over 100 years since the beginning of the Great War 1914-1919.

Tom Brokaw’s  famous book, “The Greatest Generation”, is in my opinion one of the best reads on war and sacrifice. It is a collection of stories from veterans and their wartime experiences. It’s not about generals and strategy, but rather about ordinary people and how they stood up and fought for our freedom against the evil forces seeking to destroy and conquer the world. Although American it applies to all who were of that generation. These people grew up in the Depression of the 1930s and did what had to be done in the 1940s. They made it possible for us to have the society we have today. The following quote from the book says it all

“They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today.”

These men returned from the horrors of war to short-lived celebration and then resumed their lives as best they could. For years they never talked about their experiences. All that changed after fifty years when they realized age was killing them off at a rapid rate. They didn’t want to tell their stories to glamourize war, but so that we would never forget. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to know some older vets who told me of their experiences. It is incredible to see a vet tear up when he remembers a buddy from all those years ago. They remember the friends they lost like it was yesterday such was the horror of it. To all the vets who tell the stories thanks for letting us know what it was really like.

To younger people if you want to know about wars don’t read the accounts of generals and politicians, read the stories of ordinary people, the soldiers who went through the mud, the fire, and the blood. For Canadians there is “Testaments of Honour: Personal Histories of Canada’s War Veterans” by Blake Heathcote which I highly recommend.

Other books to read are Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers” or Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day”. These books are far more interesting and enlightening then some general’s memoirs. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” which revolves around the D-Day landings is one of the most realistic war movies of all time. Director Steven Spielberg screened it for veterans of D-Day to get their input. To a man they liked it, but said it lacked one thing, the smell. They told him the smell of blood, gore, death and cordite from shells was overpowering during the combat. They also told him the noise level pierced them to the very soul. These were the things they still remembered all those years later.

When you attend or watch the Remembrance Day ceremonies and you see all the old vets close your eyes and visualize them as young boys and men in their late teens and early twenties preparing to charge off the landing craft into the hellstorm of machine gun fire and shelling. While you’re contemplating that image ask yourself if you could stand up and do what needed to be done.

People kill people, guns make it easier.

October 3, 2015

Weapons. photo RCMP seizure.

The gun violence and mass killings taking place in the United States shocks us all. It is gut wrenching to read about the victims of this violence. A solution is elusive.

Every time these shootings happen a cry for gun control begins. Better gun control may or may not help. Some argue that guns kill people, others that people kill people. People may kill people, but guns make it far too easy to kill people, and too easy to kill many people. It is too easy to just scream for more gun control.

So what is the answer? First gun control measures are in place in most States now, but it still seems too easy for people with mental problems to obtain these weapons. The problem of gun violence will not be solved overnight. Gun culture is prevalent in American society and has been since the country was founded.

Guns are not inherently bad, but they are deadly weapons that must be treated with respect and not abused. Responsible gun owners know this and they are not the problem. The problem begins when these weapons get into the hands of criminals or disturbed individuals.

Predicting when these events will happen, that is when a disturbed individual will snap and go on a shooting spree, is almost impossible. Gun control laws are only a half measure if some effort is not made to identify and to help individuals with mental illnesses before they strike.

Right now the two sides, the gun lobby and the gun control advocates are just going around in circles with no consensus. The facts as I see them are,
– guns will be part of the American culture forever.
– effective gun control in some form or another is needed.
– mental illness is part of human health concerns.

An attempt must be made to resolve this issue. My suggestion is the formation of a bipartisan Congressional or a Presidential commission on Gun Culture and Gun Control. This commission should be made up of all affected parties, gun owners, gun manufacturers, law enforcement, mental health experts, victim advocates, and legal experts. The mandate should be to investigate all sides of gun ownership and gun violence, what is working and what is not working, summarize their findings, and make recommendations for improvement (changes or new measures).

The primary thing this would accomplish would be to get a national dialogue started on all aspects of this violence. In my opinion the American people must attempt to resolve and mitigate this cancer in their society.

Suffer the little children: The Oklahoma City Bombing 20 years later.

April 19, 2015

Fireman Chris Fields removing infant Baylee Almon (who later died) from destruction. Photo by Charles H. Porter IV. (smaller size than actual photo to conform to Fair Use) Won the Pulitzer Prize for its impact. Loction of actual photo

Just after 9 am on Wednesday April 19, 1995 a massive explosion destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This was a work day and the building was full of office workers just starting their day. The lower level had a daycare centre where employees could leave their children to be looked after while they were at work.

Murrah_Building_-_Aerial.-US Army Corp of Engineers-PublicDoman

Alfred P. Murrah Building after the bombing. Photo by US Army Corps of Engineers.

The bomb killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others. Included in the death toll were 19 children under the age of six. A massive rescue operation took place over the next days to find and help others trapped in the debris of the building.

The explosion destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a 16-block radius. Glass was shattered in 258 other buildings and 86 cars were destroyed. An estimated $652 million dollars damage resulted.

The Oklahoma City Bombing was the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. Timothy McVeigh the mastermind behind the terrible crime was captured within 90 minutes. Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger stopped him for driving without a license plate. The officer arrested him for illegal weapons possession. Investigators used forensic evidence to link him to the attack. Terry Nichols, Michael and Lori Fortier were identified and arrested as accomplices.

The bombers rented a large truck from Ryder, packed it full of explosives and parked it in front of the building. The bomb was timed to detonate just after the start of the work day when the maximum number of people would be in the building.

The bombers were tried and convicted in 1997. The Federal government executed McVeigh by lethal injection on June 11, 2001. Terry Nichols received life in prison without parole. The Fortiers testified against McVeigh and Nichols. Michael got 12 years in prison with Lori receiving immunity for her testimony.

Today the Oklahoma City Memorial sits on the site and annual remembrance services are held on the day. The memorial consists of a chair for each victim. There are 19 small chairs representing the children.

Reading about this event and seeing the pictures I know that evil exists. The victims in this bombing weren’t soldiers, but office workers and children. Innocents going about their everyday routines. Tragically this day they never returned home to their families and friends. The shockwave of the blast still echoes today 20 years later.

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