Today we are living with the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 100 years ago, it was the Spanish flu pandemic that was wreaking havoc. Then, worldwide, about 500 million people were infected and about 20 million died. As Trevor Goodall (1903-1998) recalls in his memoirs, Alberni and Port Alberni did not escape unscathed.
“Alberni was hit bad with the great influenza epidemic of 1918,” recalled Goodall. “I knew dozens of people who got it. The one I felt so sorry for was A.W. Neill—he was in politics, you know. He had two daughters. Victoria Neill was exactly my age and was with me in school the few months I attended. She got hit with the flu and died in two days.
Dr. Morgan was there at this time. When the flu hit, there were more people living in Port Alberni then there were in old town (Alberni). The hospital was full in nothing flat. But lots of people who lived in old town wouldn’t go to the hospital because it was in Port Alberni. Dr. Morgan had this big house on Margaret Street (where EM Salon is now) and he got two nurses in and got them to set up in his house to look after the flu patients.
Mother got some eucalyptus from Victoria. She would put it in an old sock and we would breathe it deeply and it was strong. You know, we went right through it—Dotsie, Walter and I—and we never got touched by the flu.”
In 1918, business was booming on the West Coast. The war was coming to an end, the boys were coming home and all looked well with the world. Then the Spanish flu hit. On Oct. 16, local paper the Port Alberni News announced, “The Provincial Board of Health declared that all places of assembly are to close. Moving picture theatres, churches, dance halls, and pool halls are closed.”
City council was closed in Alberni. Province-wide public gatherings were banned. Schools in Port Alberni, however, remained open.
Then, as now, not all who succumbed were elderly. Locally, for instance, a 26-year old mother of four, Pearl Dolan, was stricken and died. So did Louis Lorraine, a 36-year old logger. Both died in November 1918. Another victim was Richard Wallis, a 48-year old farmer. These were just three of the many casualties.
It is impossible to state exactly the number of influenza cases locally but it was well over 100. Still, the death rate in the Alberni Valley was considered light in proportion to the number of cases. Nanaimo and larger cities were hit hard, with medical authorities urgently requesting the wearing of gauze masks. In the Valley, the restrictions were removed a month after being enforced as cases lessened. Port Alberni Theatre re-opened with The Hooded Terror, to the delight of many.
On Oct. 8, 1918, Victoria’s Times Colonist summarized the situation well: “Fight it lying down. When the influenza sends its advance agents in the form of pains and aches in the circuit of your joints, make the bed your trenches and dig in.”
Good advice still—it is true that some things change while others remain the same.
Diane Dobson is a director with the Alberni District Historical Society (ADHS). The ADHS is the holder and guardian of much of the Alberni Valley’s history. Located on the premises of the AV Museum, it contains family histories, digital newspapers starting in 1907, school records and much more. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or find Alberni District Historical Society on Facebook.