From our Newsletter 22 years ago…

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The longer we are ‘holed up’, if we listen, the more we hear echos from the Spanish flu. This article was written by Dave Cooper and Anita Jenkins to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Flu arriving in Edmonton…

QUARANTINED: The Spanish Flu Epidemic.

It swept into Alberta, Edmonton and the Highlands as it had spread around the world, a vicious virus which left people so weakened that they contracted pneumonia. In the days before antibiotics and intensive therapy in hospitals, many died.

It was brought to Canada by returning troops just at the end of First World War, and made its way into even the remotest of communities. The flu killed about 21 million people – about 50,000 in Canada. The particular strain showed a perverse tendency to infect the young and the hearty.

Areas of Quebec and Labrador were extremely hard hit, with some villages and native communities nearly wiped out by the disease. 85% of the people of the Beaver Indian reserve in the Peace region died.

As the flu spread, medical facilities and staff were soon overtaxed, and volunteers organized infirmaries in schools and hotels.

George Davis was a young teacher living west of Leduc in 1918 when his father telephoned with news of the epidemic. In the Edmonton Journal’s account on the 75th anniversary of the epidemic, he recounted his conversation with his father Arthur.

“Pack up your things and come home and do it right away. There’s an awful epidemic here and people are dying like flies,” said Arthur, the last mayor Strathcona before amalgamation with Edmonton.

George Davies sent the children home and closed the school. The school trustee he boarded with hitched up a team and wagon and drove him into Leduc where he could get a train into Edmonton.

“Things were really in bad shape. People I knew were sick. Some of them had actually died by that time and everybody knew this was the worst thing that had ever happened to us in Edmonton”

The trustee who drove him became ill and was dead within 4 days.

“That’s about how long it took to kill you. You got it and then got pneumonia and that was the end of you. You either pulled through or you died within 3 days,” he told the Journal.

In the Highlands, one family was hit particularly hard, says resident Helen Carswell Newnham. Eileen Topping, 12, her brother Frank and her mother all died. The funerals were held on 3 successive Saturdays. Brothers Ernie and Victor were called back from the war front because of the tragedy.

Louise Ward Palmer, who grew up in a house at 1125 – 60th Street and now lives in Florida, wrote of the epidemic in her memoirs.

“The flu epidemic arrived in the autumn of 1918, and was devastating. Many families had at least one member sick and some, as we did, all. Hospitals were full and the sick had to be cared for at home. Doctors and nurses made house calls and were so busy I don’t know how they managed.

“I remember Dr. Conn coming to the hose. In some way he secured a nurse for us as all were sick in bed at the same time.

“Eleanor developed spinal meningitis and died November 14 at the age of two years and eleven months. All were very sick in bed so the service was held in the reception hall downstairs. We lay in bed and heard the voices of those participating in the service, but I did not realize what it was all about. This must have been a very difficult time for Mother and Dad.

“Murray, born March 28, 1917, was very sick. A nurse in a starched white uniform made innumerable trips to the bathroom, giving him cool baths to try bring down his fever. She must have succeeded, for Dad always said she saved Murray’s life.”

In October and November, nursing and medical assistance was in extremely short supply.

A volunteer at the temporary Pembina Hall hospital was quoted in The Journal as saying that unless more help arrived, “It will soon be a question of not saving the patients but saving the nurses. Surely, even at the worst part of this wretched war, nurses were never more sorely needed…The nurses who are working now are doing 12 hours at a stretch and at this pressure the human system will fail under the strain.”

Edmonton was not a happy place that fall with all schools, theatres and sports places closed, and people banned from attending meetings.

Women laboured in nursing centres making what were called pneumonia jackets. It was believed people got pneumonia because they were exposed to drafts, so they were given the jackets – thick layers of cotton padding sandwiched in cloth and tied around the neck and back.

New regulations forced people to wear sterilized gauze masks while in public.

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Said George Davies: “Basically, if you went downtown you had to have a mask on…It was your duty to keep the masks sterilized by putting them in boiling water. You had to have several masks so you’d never be short.”

The federal government was so concerned that it even sought to have the First World War victory celebrations moved from November 11 to Dec 1. But that request was defied.

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The Highlands Fights the Spanish Flu 1918-19

kids in flu garbDuring the COVID-19 crisis, in lieu of in-person events, HHS will be publishing material on-line. Last spring, Ken Tingley gave this talk as part of our speaker series. At the time, we had no idea that this talk would be SO applicable! As you read this, we suggest you put yourself in the position of someone living in Edmonton, late in the year 1918. There is no end in sight. After you are done,  think about similarities and differences between then and now. (The first human trials of a COVID 19 vaccine started the week of March 15!)

A hundred years ago the city of Edmonton was hit by the deadly Spanish influenza pandemic.  The Highlands would be thrown into this human tragedy, and would be required to undertake an unusual and disastrous enemy: the flu.

On 30 September 1918 Miss Myrtle Carpenter, sister of W.G. Carpenter, Superintendent of the Edmonton Public School Board, died while treating Spanish influenza patients at Camp Syracuse, New York.  When news of this reached Edmonton, it shocked friends and neighbours, but would be just the first of many city flu victims who would die in the next months.

In early October at least 20,000 cases were reported in US military camps, and 300 in the Royal Air Force camps in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario. News soon followed of the spread of the disease in Vermont and the first cases in the general population of Toronto.

By 13 September 1918, 113,737 cases had already been reported in the United States, where the pandemic had broken out and was rapidly spreading.  Also at the beginning of October the flu hit Montreal and St. John’s military camps. And it was reported that the first cases had reached Alberta on a westbound train in Calgary. In 2 October a trainload of soldiers became infected en route from Quebec City to Vancouver  A telegram warned the Calgary Medical Health Officer, who met the train in the early morning hours and took 15 men into isolation at Sarcee Camp.  However the disease began to spread outside the isolation hospital almost immediately.

The rapid diffusion of the disease hit eastern and central Canada quickly, and the Toronto General Hospital was reported “crowded out” on 7 October.

But no flu cases had hit Edmonton by 10 October.  The following day the Alberta Board of Health released a bulletin to doctors regarding flu symptoms.  Provincial nurses were recalled to Edmonton to be trained for the coming challenge. Many doctors and medical staff were still overseas treating the wartime casualties there.  Much of the work in meeting the challenge would be met by Edmonton women volunteers, who saw this duty as doing their bit for the war.  Most of the men involved contributed in organization and moving supplies; men’s work.  Women still were viewed as providing care-giving, provision of meals, and other traditional “maternal” duties.

Dr. W.A. Smith was one local doctor who would rise to the challenge.  He served the nearby packing plants and coal mines, although his office was located downtown.  He made regular house calls during the Spanish flu outbreak, and was especially vigilant of children quarantined with diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, and other diseases emerging among the weakened population.  He would open his door for night emergencies, and was beloved by his patients.  He was Conservative MLA 1930-1935.


Influenza and pneumonia also were declared “notifiable diseases” on 10 October. Alarming accounts of the rapid spread of flu in the US, Ontario and the Canadian West Coast became common in the newspapers.  By 17 October the local newspapers were full of Spanish flu news.  Although there still were no Edmonton cases reported, most people feared the coming pandemic.  Despite the panic in some ranks of citizens, there were complaints of a certain complacency as well, but most felt the disease closing in on them from the south, east and west.  Twenty cases were reported in Taber, while many St. John Ambulance Brigade volunteers came forward across the province.

The following day the Board of Health decided that it would close schools, churches and theatres on 18 October. Ninety new cases were reported in Lethbridge on this date.

The flu hit Edmonton heavily at this time, with 41 cases reported by 19 October; 17 patients were being quarantined and assisted in Athabasca Hall at the University of Alberta.  Volunteer Auxiliary (VAD) nurses were issued uniforms. There was some initial confusion about what really constituted influenza; some doctors even denied that they were dealing with “true cases” of flu.  They felt it much more in common with grippe or ordinary influenza, with which most people were long familiar.  Its rapid and deadly contagion had not yet become as widespread in the city.  Some patients had a mild form, and rushed back to work too soon; a secondary wave hit the city when these weakened victims suffered a relapse.  Spanish flu did not even require quarantine until 16 October when Sections 22 and 23 of the Health Act were amended to add this disease.

Advertisements began to appear touting patent medicines, with a population beginning to panic, and medical personnel admitting lack of knowledge on the cause or treatments for flu. An editorial in the Edmonton Morning Bulletin observed in late October: “It is a fact that there is a great deal of groping in the dark, both as to preventative and remedial measures.”  Fruit-a-tives put out their first ads in Edmonton, promising its power to help users to resist the disease.  Another ad urged people to “Prevent the ‘Flu’ by wearing Dr. Chase’s Menthol Bag.”

These bags are pinned on the chest outside of the underwear, and the heat from the body causes the menthol fumes to rise and mingle with air you breathe, thereby killing the germs….

Larvine, available at Alberta Taxidermy Company, also was advertised to treat the flu.  On 1 November J.J. Murray and Company recommended that warm formaldehyde be left on kitchen stoves as a preventative.

By 21 October there were over a hundred reported confirmed flu cases in the city, not counting many who did not wish to report.  Many Edmontonians were reported wearing masks by this time, especially on streetcars, trains and at public places downtown.  A severe nursing shortage was by now limiting treatment.  “The first of many “How to Make a Mask” public service ads appeared, and the city sent out folders on this subject to residents in the Highlands and other residential areas. By order of the Alberta Minister of Health, masks were required on public transport as of 24 October.  All Albertans had to wear masks whenever outside their homes after 26 October.  Many made their own gauze masks, and Kay’s were manufacturing them in Edmonton for a dime each. Soon people were being fined for not wearing masks.

By 24 October Pembina Hall was also operating as a flu hospital, as was the South Hall Hospital on 107th Street opposite the Legislature. Schools were used as nursing stations and nursing residences shortly after.  Highlands School would serve this purpose too, located as it was in one of three districts, including King Edward Park and the Technical School east of 101st Street.

Highlands District No. 6 served a large area in east Edmonton and the “packing plant region….,” east of the Edmonton Exhibition Grounds and the CNR tracks. Mayor H.M.E. Evans admitted that in the face of increasingly overwhelming challenges : “We are throwing the work on the district committees….”

Rev. Arthur W. Coone convened the Highlands committee meeting, and would chair it for the duration of the epidemic.  Rev. Coone was an active Highlands volunteer, serving on the community league, and political committees such as the East Edmonton Municipal Association.  He also advocated for provision of the first church, Highlands Methodist Church, using his influence with W.J. Magrath.  His wife was elected the first president of the Women’s Missionary Society.  For awhile the Coone residence at 6424, would serve as headquarters for the flu resistance, after the school was filled with infected sufferers.


Rev. Frank D. Roxburgh served as committee secretary.  Rev. Roxburgh was pastor at Grierson Presbyterian Church.  On 28 October there were 24 flu cases reported in ten homes in the Highlands.  As the flu spread and entire households were incapacitated through the Highlands, door-to-door care was supplemented by visiting nurses and a central kitchen.

When the Highlands Relief Committee met on 28 October it decided to request that the Highlands School be converted to an isolation hospital and nurses’ residence.   At this time there were 75 reported cases in the Highlands district.  An Edmonton Bulletin editorial endorsed the Highlands Committee, and the city supported the move as well.

On 2 November 21 deaths occurred in Edmonton, the most in one day to that point; another one hundred new cases were reported at this time. Flu suffers taking refuge in hotels began being removed in early November.  But in the Highlands a decline in cases was first reported, with only two new cases in the first week of November.  It was hoped the worst was over.


The Highlands Committee was divided into subcommittees in November 1918, with members and other volunteers visiting homes every day, allowing doctors and nurses to concentrate on the most serious cases. Most of these volunteers were neighbourhood women.  The Highlands Red Cross Circle No. 24 called on local women to contact Mrs. Clarence Smith (63rd Street), to volunteer for support work.  Stores were closed at the order of the provincial government, from 12:30 pm until their normal closing time, to allow more time for volunteer work.

Armistice Day came on 11 November amid the flu epidemic, and some subdued peace celebrations were held.  An estimated 40,000 cases were reported across Alberta at this time. Thanksgiving was postponed by proclamation of Lt. Gov. R.G. Brett on 13 November; instead, it would be held later, on Sunday 1 December 1918.

Rev. Coone reported on the activities of the Highlands Committee on 18 November.  Meetings had been held in the Coone home to free up the school for patient care.  Coone reported how the Highlands had been divided into two territories and six districts early in the crisis.  A complete canvass was made of all flu cases; each district had an appointed captain to organize and implement activities, and the area was patrolled regularly for new cases.  These new cases were reported to the Committee headquarters and aid was sent immediately where it was needed.  The whole district had two district nurses, one for each territory (Miss Lorraine Maguire and Mrs. McFadden were the main ones, with several others in the course of the crisis); they reported twice a day to Coone, as need for food, clothing, and doctor’s care emerged. Miss Van Iderstein of the Highlands was the first nurse to die of the flu in Edmonton.

A food centre was established at the home of Rev. Roxburgh; 25 families regularly contributed food, supplying forty people every day.  “The territory covered was from the flats to the munition factory.”  Soup was sent out each day at noon.  Cars were loaned to deliver baskets of food each evening; Mr. Gimby ran his car constantly for a week.

Members of the Highlands Committee were all prominent men from the Highlands:  Rev. A.W. Coone chair; Rev. Roxbury, secretary; Rev. G.H, Cobbledick; Rev. E.D. Bishop; W.H. Hughes; A.U.G. Bury; R.H. Leitch; E.W. Morehouse: K.W. McKenzie and W.J. Magrath. ADD

By early December the worst of the crisis seemed to have passed.  The University, closed for seven weeks, reopened and the residences were cleared of patients.  On 2 January 1919 city schools reopened despite another resurgence of the flu.  Highlands School was cleared out and fumigated for the students to return.

The Edmonton Morning Bulletin, on 6 January 1919, reported deaths in Alberta were 2,611, with 455 of these in Edmonton.  St. John workers ended their work on 7 January.  Placards were being taken down from infected houses.  Dr. T.H. Whitelaw, Edmonton Medical Health Officer, addressed the Highlands Citizenship Club at the Methodist Church, and estimated about 400 deaths in Edmonton, and about 10,000 total cases, many of which were not reported.  In fact, some people, recognizing that they had flu, did not apply for medical attention; this would lead to quarantine, and it was feared that the household breadwinners and other family members would be prevented from carrying out necessary tasks.  In December 1919 T.H. Whitelaw, the Edmonton Medical Officer, reported in the journal of the Canadian Medical Association, that the number of flu cases reported and quarantined never exceeded 60 per cent.

Another minor outbreak was reported in February, and there was talk of reclosing schools, but this did not happen.  Many felt that the Spanish Flu had finally left the city. People felt that the end of the war and the end of the flu were somehow related.  Although the flu would return intermittently to Alberta communities until the early 1920s, these proved to be less deadly and were written off as the grippe.

Vaccination was not developed early enough to prove effective in fighting the flu.  However Edmonton sent enough to Calgary when it ran out to inoculate 15,000.  Masks were recommended for those using street cars and trains on 25 October 1918.  These rules were often ignored; many carried a mask around their neck so they could quickly pull it up if they saw a constable.  At any rate, you could only use a mask once, then they had to be boiled and dried for them to be effective.  And we see that quarantine was hard to enforce in many cases.  The flu just moved through the neighbourhoods, taking the young and healthy as it went, with little effective control.  It seemed to burn itself out over the next five years or so.

The flu affected society deeply.  In 1919 the federal government established its Department of Health, as did many countries.  Vital statistics were improved to enable evaluation of such crises.  Sanitation systems received a boost from the concerns of the pandemic.  The United Farm Women of Alberta took on these issues.

The Spanish flu killed more directly than were killed in combat and its aftermath during the war.  It hit the entire world except for the Island of Tristan de Cunha.  Some estimate that over half the world population were affected – somewhere around a billion people.   Of these probably around 22 million died.  Canadian sufferers numbered around two million. (1/4 of the population!) Annual Reports of the Alberta Department of Health for 1918 and 1919 indicate that in Alberta 38,000 were afflicted, and over 4000 died. (Alberta population ~ 200,000 people. 20% got the flu, of those, 10%, or 2% of the whole population, died)

In conclusion, the Highlands was typical of the community spirit of Canadians, already exhausted by the war, gathering to help their neighbours when needed.  Their strengths and weaknesses were typical of most of the country.

Additional information:

For comparison: 620,000 Canadians fought in WW1. This is about 1/5 of all adult men, or 8% of the population of 8 million Canadians. 61,000 were killed and 172,000 were wounded. (‘Wounded’ doesn’t count PTSD or ‘Shell Shock’ as it was then known)  0.3% of the Canadian population was killed in WW1, about 1/10 of the number killed by the flu!

(Image from “In Flew Enza: The Spanish Flu Comes to Alberta”, from the Borealis Gallery, as reported by the CBC.)





Postponed in response to COVID-19: John McDougall to present “Community Builders – Edmonton Focused/Globally Connected

1954 PICT1731 6306 111 Ave

John McDougall will present “Community Builders – Edmonton Focused/Globally Connected” as part of the HHS “Speaker Series”, at POSTPONED 7 pm at Highlands Library. John is a 4th generation Edmontonian down 2 branches – he descends from McDougalls and MacKays. He lived his formative years in the Highlands.

John is an engineer. He worked in business for 30 years, taught at the University of Alberta, and led public agencies including the Alberta Research Council, Innovations Canada, and the National Research council. He will discuss his family’s involvement in Edmonton development for the last 140 years. Expect pictures, letters, books, personal items and stories!

Free for members and $5 for non- members

Marlena Wyman opens her exhibit “Sketching History” at the Prince of Wales Armouries


On November 20, 2019, the Prince of Wales Armouries opened their doors to launch a new exhibit on Edmonton’s architectural heritage through the medium of sketching.


Marlena Wyman, Edmonton’s departing Historian Laureate, and members of Urban Sketchers Edmonton showcase the historically unique and significant locations in our city. Working with the Edmonton Historical Board and the Edmonton Heritage Council, Marlena began a project of sketching the history of many important Edmonton buildings and locales (some fated to be demolished), documenting and archiving them for future generations.

“The sketches in the exhibit …”, says Marlena, “highlight the character and detail of heritage architecture and landscape that we often overlook as we pass by in hurried everyday life.” The exhibit is designed to connect us to our history and “discover the stories behind the walls.”


We had the privilege of working with Marlena and Urban Sketchers Edmonton this summer as we gathered at the Owens residence, one of the the most important homes in the Highlands, for a fun afternoon sketch-out.


See amazing sketches of this home, more of the Highlands and the rest of her project at this impressionable new exhibit through December 2020 at the Prince of Wales Armouries Heritage Centre.

Photo credit Ted Smith