Impact: The Flu in Smithers

How did the flu come to Smithers?

The Spanish Flu arrived in Smithers around the end of October 1918, likely from passengers on the train. At that time the Grand Trunk Pacific railway was the primary means of transporting goods and people throughout the northwest of British Columbia. Smithers was an important divisional point for trains to stop at, located halfway between the major centres of Prince George and Prince Rupert. A constant flow of both railway workers and passengers guaranteed that the virus would eventually reach Smithers.

At the time of the outbreak, Smithers had been a town for just five years. The population was just over 300, reaching 580 in 1921. Smithers had neither its own doctor, nor a hospital. The nearest doctor, Dr. Horace Wrinch, and hospital were 70km away in Hazelton.

Our understanding of how the flu affected Smithers is primarily based on accounts from local newspapers The Interior News of Smithers, and The Omineca Herald, published in Hazelton.

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The Smithers Public School, which became the town's emergency hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic. (P0630 Bulkley Valley Museum Visual Records Collection)

How did the community react?

With the outbreak of Spanish Flu the local government agent, Stephen Hoskins, converted the Smithers Public School near the intersection of King St. and Second Ave (near Muheim School today) into a temporary emergency hospital during the last week of October. The Interior News reported that “within twenty-four hours Mr. Hoskins, ably assisted by Mr. Lang…Mr. J. S. Kennedy, Mr. C.G. Harvey, and a number of others, had the hospital in good working order”. Mrs. Aycliffe and Miss Short were put in charge. By the evening of October 30th, all of the beds in the emergency hospital were full. 

Dr. Wrinch traveled to Smithers from his offices in Hazelton on October 24th to assess the newly identified cases of Spanish Flu. As the only doctor between Vanderhoof and Terrace at that time, and as acting medical health officer for the Bulkley Valley, Dr. Wrinch was responsible for controlling the spread of the outbreak in the communities he served.

Wrinch implemented bans on public gatherings and social events, including dances, and cancelled school classes and church services. Even the local pool halls were ordered closed. The Interior News considered the situation “well handled” by Dr. Wrinch and the community, but daily life in Smithers was effectively on hold for the time being. 

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Doctor Horace C. Wrinch. (P1461 Bulkley Valley Museum Visual Records Collection)

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The Empress Billiard Parlour was among the businesses shut down during the Spanish flu to slow the spread of the disease. (P5357, Bulkley Valley Museum Visual Records Collection.)

Similarly, an article in Hazelton's Omineca Herald reported a desire to shut down and clean up the railway camps to protect the safety of the workers as well as those who may come into contact with them. “There is an increasing feeling that the railway contractors should ... provide accommodation for flu patients instead of having the men travelling about the country spreading the disease.” 

These social distancing methods proved effective. As the Interior News would state on November 2nd, the fact that a more serious outbreak had not yet occurred was “attributable to the early and utmost precautions taken by everyone." 

As October faded into November, the Spanish Flu continued to work its way through Smithers and the Bulkley Valley. The November 2nd edition of the Interior News reported that the epidemic was “light” overall in Smithers, at least compared to other towns in the province. While many were sick, few were dangerously ill at that point.

Acts of community service lightened the load. Up in Hazelton, William Reid reserved part of the Northern Hotel for flu patients, providing room to those who otherwise would have remained in camps or small shacks. The citizens of Smithers banded together to support the emergency hospital, including working volunteer shifts, and donating cakes, fresh fruit and other food through the local Red Cross. A November 8th Interior News article voiced the patients' gratitude for this generosity, especially as many of them were strangers in town.

These serious times were not without moments of humor. Local prospector C. G. "Peavine" Harvey was apparently "having the time of his young life" (he was over 50) serving as a day nurse, but his night shift coworker, pool hall owner James Kennedy, wasn't thrilled with his chatty ways. "[Harvey] talks the patients into a comatose state by noon," reported the Interior News, "and they only come out of it at night time to keep [Kennedy] on the jump." 

An article written in the Omineca Herald by Rev. R. C. Scott sums up the importance of community cooperation during the epidemic - words which are still relevant today:

"And now the Spanish influenca epidemic throughout the land is teaching us the need for neighbourly compassion ... All that is saving many precious lives is the unselfish service of those who have health and strength. We are fast becoming one great family under the ravages of this disease and the sorrow it causes is being lightened in many cases by the expression of sympathy in helpful service."

- Omineca Herald, October 25th 1918

A later article voiced a similar sentiment:

“Those who have not been afflicted should be very thankful and remember that now is the time to show humanity to the unfortunate … There has been and still is a necessity at home for some of that courage which our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters have shown at the front.”

– Omineca Herald, November 9th 1918

In a piece called "Are We Cowards All?" an anonymous contributor to the Interior News aimed to lift spirits and avert panic by calling for calmness and courage:

"It is unfortunate that we should allow fear to become the controlling emotion at a time when the very utmost in tranquility is called for. Fear is the greatest ally of influenza ... Do not let fear rob you of the ability to apply common sense."

- Interior News, November 2nd 1918

Who were the victims?

Smithers suffered its first casualty when 26-year-old Lieutenant Leslie Peveril Sutcliffe died of flu related pneumonia. The second casualty came about a week later with the death of 22-year-old Glentanna rancher Roman Malkow at the emergency hospital on November 12th.

It is likely that there were also deaths amongst the Indigenous Witsuwit’en people living in town and at communities such as Moricetown (now called Witset). At least 15 people died in nearby Gitxsan communities. Poor data collection and a racist prioritization of white settlers over First Nations people led to many Indigenous deaths being overlooked and ignored by the media, and by history itself.

To learn more about the victims and the flu’s impact upon Indigenous peoples, see the links to your right.

How and when did the Flu end in Smithers?

By the second week of November 1918, the outbreak was coming to an end in Smithers. Dr. Wrinch inspected the emergency hospital on November 14th and found that, while there were still a few patients, no new or serious cases had emerged. He recommended that the remaining patients be treated in their homes, and that the hospital be closed. He also lifted the ban on “places of amusement” that had kept pool halls and related businesses closed since October 24th. However, churches and schools remained closed until the end of November, when the outbreak was finally considered over.

In total, 60 people were treated by Dr. Wrinch in Smithers during the outbreak, with two known deaths. This number does not record any individuals who may have fallen ill but not reported to the hospital. It also does not account for Indigenous peoples living nearby. In a town of just over 300 people, having 60 individuals - 20% of the population - fall ill within three weeks must have felt very alarming.

Still, with the efforts of doctors, nurses, and ordinary citizens, the vast majority of those afflicted were able to recover. Smithers weathered the storm and moved forwards into a new era of improved health care. For more information on how the Spanish Flu led to the creation of Smithers' first hospital, see the 'Aftermath' link to the right.

Newspaper Articles Related to the Flu:

Impact: The Flu in Smithers