It’s About Time column: How diseases impacted children in Glenwood’s past
It’s About Time
Like many around the world, the possibility of a new pandemic resulting from the COVID-19 virus has me concerned about what effect the virus will have on people, and especially children.
In order to gain some perspective on how diseases impacted children in the past, I decided to look at burial records from Glenwood’s early days. I chose the period from 1890 to 1910 and focused on the age span of birth to 10 years.
The Frontier Museum is the repository of Glenwood’s mortuary records from five different sources, some of which are repetitive and incomplete. However, combing through our files, I was able to compile the following information.
I caution that these numbers represent much more than statistics, which always fail to show the sorrow each family felt at their loss.
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As a parent of an adult daughter who passed away at much too young an age, I understand how absolutely heart-wrenching it is to live through the pain of everyday life without one’s children.
The result of my research on burial records showed 103 children dying in Glenwood Springs from over 36 causes, ranging from stillbirth to whooping cough. Pneumonia resulted in the highest number of child deaths at 15. Some of the more dreaded ailments, all of which are now unheard of in our everyday lives — cholera, diphtheria and typhoid — totaled 16.
Hirum Bullis, at 3 years, 4 months and 5 days of age, and 11-month-old Florence Genevive were the only children mentioned in the records who succumbed to measles. This seemed surprising to me given that it was a time in history in which the measles vaccination did not yet exist.
During the time frame examined, there were instances of a few rumors of epidemics in Glenwood schools that were just that: rumors. Even today rumors seem to be pervasive any time a number of children start getting sick.
While searching through these mortuary records, I also looked at the Avalanche Echo and Glenwood Post newspapers to see how children fared during the Spanish influenza pandemic, which hit our area the last few months of 1918.
The Saturday Oct. 26, 1918, edition of the Glenwood Post said, “The epidemic of influenza which is raging throughout the country has not thus far been severe in Glenwood Springs … and it is now believed that the crest has been reached and passed.”
Unfortunately, this assertion proved untrue just a few weeks later, with 32 people dying from Oct. 31 to Nov. 27, 1918. Of the 32, only two children, Alma Zadra and Irene Wirth, died of the flu during that period.
One thing noticeably absent from both newspapers as they covered contagious disease topics was the fact that there was no sensationalism, rumor-mongering or spreading of fear in reporting on the 1918 flu epidemic. Or, for that matter, other possible disease outbreaks.
The Avalanche-Echo, Volume X, Number 22, March 24, 1898, edition reported this: “Owing to the diphtheria scare the school closed last Tuesday, but as it was nothing but a scare, school opened again Monday morning.”
If you take time to walk through the Linwood Cemetery you will find only seven graves of children from the time the cemetery was started in 1886 until the last person, Nellie Duffy, was buried there in 1997.
This is in contrast to my visits to many pioneer cemeteries in the West, where children’s tombstones are found in much greater numbers. Indeed, with life expectancy in the U.S. during the 1870s being only 43 years, and almost one in five children dying before reaching the age of 1, it would seem Glenwood was a good, safe place for children to live.
At present, we’re learning that the emerging COVID-19 virus affects older people with pre-existing conditions much more than it does children. The virus is also prevented through standard infection control measures that have stood the test of time: vigorous hand washing, staying home when ill, and covering a cough. It’s my hope that our local community continues to be a safe place for both children and adults to thrive.
Bill Kight is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and writes a monthly column about history. He can be reached at 970-945-4448.
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A special city council meeting has been called to evaluate RFTA bus service in Glenwood Springs during the COVID-19 crisis.