1919 flu pandemic in Bristol Bay remembered

Dec. 4 event will include exhibit, conversation and free flu shots

An event and photo exhibit commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic in Bristol Bay is set for Dec. 3 at the Alaska Humanities Forum in Anchorage.

Speakers will include Katie Ringsmuth, executive director of the NN Cannery History Project; Tim Troll, history advisor to the project and executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust; and artist Andrew Abyo.

The exhibit itself is on display through Dec. 4 at the offices of the Humanities Forum, at 421 W First Ave., Suite 200, in Anchorage. The Dec. 3 event, from 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. is free and open to the public, but those planning to attend must RSVP Simonetta Mignano at the Alaska Humanities Forum at smignano@akhf.org

Free flu shots will be provided by staff of Alaska Regional Hospital.

The first wave of the pandemic hit the Southeast Panhandle of Alaska in the fall of 1918, and wreaked havoc on the Seward Peninsula, but stopped as winter came, Troll recalled in articles on the centennial of the pandemic published earlier this year in the Anchorage Daily News.

When the Star Fleet of the Alaska Packers Association arrived from San Francisco in Bristol Bay in the spring of 1919, they encountered desperation and death in the second wave of the Spanish flu. Areas impacted included the villages of Kanakanak, Dillingham and Choggiung, and the canneries at Kvichak, Naknek and Ugashik. 

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APA cannery crews pitched in to provide medical care, comfort the dying, build coffins, bury the dead and to feed, clothe and house orphans. When asked later to submit a bill for reimbursement of for aid, Troll noted, APA President Henry Fortman declined the offer, saying in part that “we felt ourselves well paid by the knowledge that we were able to relieve the suffering and that our employees carried out the spirit and the wishes of the Alaska Packers Association.”

While the H1N1 variant of the flu spared the young, some historians believe as much as 40 percent of the adult population of Bristol Bay died of the flu, Troll wrote.

While all those orphaned by the pandemic have now passed on, the legacy of that disease has not vanished ad the ancestry of many families today begins with the orphans of Bristol Bay’s most devastating year, he said.

The exhibit includes photos from the APA collection in Juneau and the private collection of the family of Dr. Linus French, the doctor at Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham who cared for the children, despite being sick with the flu himself. French was assisted by nurses Mayme Conley and Rhoda Ray, who worked day and night to care for and cook food for the patients.

Support for the exhibit comes from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust.

Learn more about the NN Cannery History Project online at nncanneryproject.com.