GARRY BREWERGJ History ColumnistGrand Junction Grand Living senior magazine

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January 28, 2013
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GJ HISTORY: An unwelcome guest arrives in Mesa County, 1901

There was a time in Mesa County and the country, when illnesses ran wild; the number of deaths from sickness would be considered a plague today. At the end of 1901 to the beginning of 1902 the plague of smallpox came to Mesa County.Smallpox is a disease that died with the host, and had no host but humans. Once it made it self known, it kills the host or leaves a long-lasting immunity in the human body to those who are fortunate enough to survive. It is thought to have likely evolved from a rodent virus about 16,000 years ago.The arrival of smallpox in Europe and Southwestern Asia is less clear. Smallpox is not described in either the Old or New Testaments of the Bible, or in literature of the Greeks and Romans. Scholars agree it is very unlikely such a serious disease would have escaped a description by Hippocrates if it existed in the Mediterranean region. While the Antonine Plague that swept through the Roman Empire in 165-180 AD may have been caused by smallpox, other historians speculate that Arab armies first carried smallpox out of Africa to Southwestern Europe during the seventh and eighth centuries AD.One of the first reported cases of smallpox was of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V, who died about 1157 BC. The disease traveled to the Romans in the second and third centuries AD; to the Chinese by the fourth centuries; and Japan in 730. It crossed the Atlantic in 1519, and smallpox helped Hernan Corts defeat the Aztec Empire.The Aztec captured a black African slave and his master, a Spanish soldier. Both soldier and slave had the disease, and what followed was a plague of smallpox that killed a huge number of Aztecs, thus allowing a small number of Spanish soldiers to overthrow the empire. This African virus of smallpox brought by the slave had evolved into a deadlier strain taking the worse form of the disease to the Europeans and all of the Americas.The British considered using smallpox as a biological warfare agent at the Siege of Fort Pitt during the French and Indian Wars against France and its Native American allies. Although it is not clear whether the actual use of smallpox had official sanction, on June 24, 1763, William Trent, a local trader, wrote: "Out of our regard for them, the besieging Delaware's, we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect." Historians do not agree on whether this effort to broadcast the disease was successful. It has also been alleged that smallpox was used as a weapon against the Americans during the American Revolutionary War.U.S. Presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln all contracted and recovered from the disease. Washington became infected with smallpox on a visit to Barbados in 1751 and his face was scarred. His portraits from then on are painted without showing the smallpox scars on his face. Andrew Jackson developed the illness after being taken prisoner by the British during the American Revolution, and though he recovered, his brother Robert did not. Abraham Lincoln contracted the disease during his presidency, possibly from his son, Tad, and was quarantined shortly after giving the Gettysburg Address in 1863. Those who caught the disease and survived would enjoy lifetime immunity; this helped George Washington later in his life survive when as Commander-in-Chief of the American Army the disease broke out among the ranks during the revolution.SMALLPOX LANDS IN THE GRAND VALLEYAs illnesses of the time, smallpox traveled to an area by roads, trains, ships, any route where people moved back and forth between cities and towns. Around Christmas time in 1901, it is thought to have come by train from Salt Lake City, Utah.It first started in the hotels and boarding houses in the Fruita area. It may have come hidden in costumes and masks, rented from a costume business in Salt Lake City. It was later discovered that the costumes and masks were used by people who had come down with smallpox in Salt Lake City.The first cases of the illness reported were one here in Grand Junction and two in Fruita. The common theme was these folks had all worn the costumes to a ball in Fruita. As the illness spread across the town, the local and state health departments were contacted. A smallpox case soon made its way into Grand Junction by Fruita residents traveling there.This set off alarms all over the county. The health department issued a quarantine order on Dec. 27, 1901, to the Fruita Town Council and the town was officially under quarantine. The concern of the health department was the town council had failed to effectively act to keep the illness contained.The deputy health inspector, Dr. A.G. Taylor of Mesa County, was instructed to order a quarantine of all persons or citizens ill or exposed to smallpox to be kept within the town limits. Also, guards sufficient to prevent the entrance to or exit from the Town of Fruita were to be placed along with signs informing the general public about the epidemic.A ball had been planned in Grand Junction by the Colorado National Guard, Company A. There had been concern about continuing with the ball because of what was happening in Fruita, but with the quarantine in place, the National Guard continued with it ball, named " Bal Masque."During this time, the Mesa County Health Department had requested Dr. McDowell, inspector of the state board of health, to examine the cases in Fruita, and he had found that the costumes and masks worn at the Fruita Ball had not be fumigated and might be carrying smallpox germs. Where had the costumes and masks gone after Fruita?As the ball opened with over 300 people, dressed in costumes and masks, Dr. McDowell showed up and ordered the masquerade ball at the Armory be discontinued. A great deal of arguing ensued as the management of the dance was unwilling to stop the ball. Grand Junction Mayor Joseph M. Sampliner was called by the health department and the mayor issued orders to the police to aid the state health inspector. The mayor said this was a condition of the city health and that no affair of pleasure was to be considered more important over the public health and safety of the citizens.Captain James M. Kennedy of the Colorado National Guard stepped in to support the state health inspector and they announced that the clothing of the costumes and masks the ball participants were wearing might be infected with smallpox and that all persons wearing costumes and masks would not be allowed to participate nor remain in the Armory Hall for the dance. As soon as the people heard this, those wearing costumes and masks quickly removed the stated items. And the ball was allowed to continue.After some initial concern, it was reported it was a splendid ball without the costumes and masks, and the music was excellent. Everyone enjoyed the dancing; in fact at the end of the night, Miss Margaret Brown was named the best waltzer among the ladies and Mr. William Fletcher was the best one among the gentlemen.The organizers of the ball wanted to point out it would not be held responsible for the results for any actions that might happen from the costumes and masks.Fruita remained the hotbed of the outbreak. It was reported the town was in a "state of excitement." Dr. A.G. Taylor, county physician, continued to check on the health of the townspeople. People were buying disinfectants at a high volume at the Red Cross Pharmacy in Grand Junction at 25 cents a bottle. A case or two was reported in Grand Junction, also one in Palisade and 25 cases in Delta. The illness again was following the railroad and highways of Mesa County moving east and south.FRUITA QUARANTINE A SUCCESSWhatever the reason for the smallpox outbreak, it seems the quarantine of Fruita worked. The City Council of Fruita had maintained the strict quarantine of the city through the diligence of its police department, both day and night and saw no new cases after Jan. 2, 1902. The quarantine of the city was lifted and schools were allowed to open.The smallpox outbreak of Christmas 1901, and the New Year of 1902 in Mesa County had finally ended. Residents were now looking forward to the beginning of a new year and optimistic about what else might be coming down the roads and rails to their fair county.The last reported case of smallpox in the world occurred in an outbreak in Birmingham, England, in 1978. A medical photographer, Janet Parker, contracted the disease at the University of Birmingham Medical School and died on Sept. 11, 1978. Today, the reminder of how serious smallpox was can still be seen as a vaccination scar on the upper arms of baby boomers in the United States.So ends the story of the march of smallpox across the world and history.=====================Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at brewer62@bresnan.net.SOURCES & PHOTOS: Museum of Western Colorado, Loyd Files Room; Michael Menard; Bill Buvinger; Wanda Allen; Grand Junction News; Daily Sentinel; the Evening Sun files, History of Smallpox; Mesa County Health Department Records 1893-1918, Plague, Pox and Pestilence, Disease in History; Kenneth F. Kiple; Cortez, Conquest of Mexico by Marshall McClintock.


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The Post Independent Updated Jan 28, 2013 03:55PM Published Jan 28, 2013 03:41PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.