Times of Plague: Shamokin and the 1918 Spanish Flu

In Search of Old Shamokin, May 2020 edition

Emergency hospital at the Edgewood Park pavilion, 1918 (Larry Deklinski’s Thomas Photography collection)

In the midst of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves in a period of challenges unprecedented in our lifetimes. Even in areas comparatively spared from the spread of the virus, the effects of the pandemic are keenly felt in the prolonged closures, restrictions, and quarantines which extend to every corner of the nation, including Shamokin. But history reminds us that this is not the first time our community has experienced—and survived—the ravages of plague.

In particular, the effects on our area of the current virus are mild in comparison to the Spanish influenza of 1918. The virus, which reached its peak in the United States in the fall of 1918, brought about a pandemic with a death toll of at least 500,000 nationally and millions more worldwide.

In the coal region, many of the same measures we have become intimately familiar with today were implemented to combat the spread of the flu. Businesses and even churches were shuttered, congregating was outlawed, and forms of “social distancing”—although the term did not exist—were being employed. Unlike today, however, the flu of 1918 spread quickly and virulently throughout the coal region. According to accounts of the time, Shamokin was one of the hardest hit communities in the area. While it is difficult to give an exact tally of the number of cases and some degree of variation is to be expected in news reports, one October 12 article reported 2,500 cases in Shamokin. Less than one week later, a Milton newspaper reported 5,300 cases in the borough.

“‘Keep away from Shamokin,’ was the warning emanating from that stricken city yesterday morning,” wrote the Miltonian on October 17, adding, “Deaths are occurring hourly. The situation has grown so alarming that it is rapidly getting beyond the control of the handful of available physicians.”

One such physician was Dr. John H. Vastine, whose son, Robert “Dr. Bob” Vastine, shared his father’s recollections of the pandemic in a 1977 News-Item interview. Vastine described the practice of districting, which divided the city into numbered sections and assigned individual physicians to each area.

“Our home was the central office for all medical calls,” Vastine said. “Mother was busy day and night receiving calls and dispatching physicians to the dozens of new cases reported daily.”

Conditions became so dire that the dancing pavilion at Shamokin’s famed Edgewood Park, the scene of blissful summer recreation just months prior, was converted into an emergency hospital. In addition to the closures of businesses and gathering places, the State Department of Health on October 5 issued an order closing all churches, overruling an order from the Shamokin Board of Health which had permitted church services to continue.

Although there were only around 20 physicians in the city, outside help came to assist Shamokin in her time of need, with senior medical students from Philadelphia and 27 army doctors ministering to the victims, and six state troopers assigned to assist the Shamokin influenza committee. The press also reported particular assistance rendered by the major coal corporations, even as the coal industry felt the economic impact of the epidemic. Coal output in the Shamokin area was said to be down by 50 percent.

The Mount Carmel Item of October 17 reported that the flu was “on the wane” in Shamokin and cases were breaking out at a slower rate. Nonetheless, 30 deaths had been reported overnight. As of October 25, the death toll in Shamokin was reported as 391.

The outbreak was relatively short-lived. By the end of October, despite occasional new cases and continued reports of deaths, the worst was over. Quarantines began to be lifted in early November, starting with local church services and then the easing of restrictions on hospital visitors. Throughout the population was a sense of urgency to resume daily life. By November 8, the state of Pennsylvania had lifted the general quarantine, theaters and saloons were reopening, and citizens of the Shamokin area were turning out in droves to attend impromptu celebrations at the news of a forthcoming armistice which would bring World War I to a close.

An advertisement for a Mount Carmel hall summed up the feeling in the community: “The war is over, the ‘flu’ gone, America has won, why not dance[?]”

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