“Flew on wings of death to the hills”:Southwestern Virginia reports on the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic

Big Stone Gap Post, 11-13-1918

The Fall of 1918 saw the end of World War I and hundreds of thousands in America dead from a influenza pandemic that was sweeping the globe killing millions worldwide.

More than 600,000 people died over the course of a year in what would be deemed the worst epidemic to hit America. According to the CDC, 20-50 million people worldwide died between 1918-1919 as a result of the flu.  The virus spread quickly, taking an enormous toll on densely populated areas such as Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco.

But what about its impact on small towns?

The Big Stone Gap Post of Big Stone Gap, Virginia and the Clinch Valley News of Tazewell, Virginia published regular updates about the comings and goings of the flu. Roughly 100 miles apart in the southwestern portion of the state, both towns currently boast modest populations of around 4-5,000 residents. As the article below points out, Spanish Flu was considered a “crowd disease” but small towns in Virginia were not spared, with relative isolation making it difficult for the sick to get help.

Big Stone Gap Post, 11-20-1918

From the Big Stone Gap Post, November 20, 1918, nine days after the end of the war:

“It is hardly likely that the general public will ever realize the extent of the suffering and anguish caused by the Spanish Influenza in some of the more remote mountain communities in Virginia where the frightful malady raged with a degree of severity which is difficult to explain.”

As the war was ending, the local and national news seemed equally dominated by reports of influenza cases. World war may have even helped spread to influenza around the globe just as the spread of the flu impacted the war effort at home and abroad.

A list of “Hun arch-criminals” sits next to news of another flu death, juxtaposing the end of one war with a very visible foe against the on-going battle with an invisible enemy virus.

Big Stone Gap Post, 11-13-1918

Clinch Valley News, 11-22-1918

The threat continued through the Fall, dying out quickly that Winter. The flu, like the Great War, tended to take the lives of young adults, and in a way seemed to be an extension of the war, rather than a separate tragedy. Perhaps this fact combined with the abrupt end to the epidemic explains why it seems to be a somewhat forgotten story in our history.

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