A lot has changed in Traverse City over the last 91 years, but not the threat of worldwide influenza pandemics.
From 1918-1920, Spanish influenza infected 1 billion people and killed an estimated 25 million to 100 million people worldwide, or 2.5 to 5 percent of the human population.
World War I, in comparison, struck down 20 million. Estimates place the flu death toll in the U.S. at over 675,000 with more than 22 million sickened.
Spanish influenza showed up in Traverse City in 1918 when 14-year-old Smith Bright died in mid-October. By year's end, influenza and pneumonia had killed 34 local residents -- 31 in December alone.
Until then, most state deaths had been in southern Michigan. In October 1918, the state reported 4,332 deaths from flu or pneumonia -- a phenomenal jump from 243 pneumonia deaths in October 1917.
Dr. R.M. Olin, the state's health director, issued orders to health officers across the state to quarantine households and close theaters, churches and non-essential meetings as precautionary measures wherever the flu hit, including Traverse City.
Flu cases cropped up in Cedar, Maple City, Kingsley and Fife Lake. In early December, Olin ordered the local Red Cross to canvass Traverse City households to determine why. The survey indicated three local deaths, 294 current cases and 478 cases of flu in which the victims recovered.
Local residents also weren't taking "proper precautions," canvassers reported. Employees at Traverse City State Hospital -- quarantined because of 30 flu cases -- wore required anti-flu masks at work but repeatedly violated quarantine by slipping them off in the evening to go to public theaters, dance halls and billiard parlors. Local families of flu victims also often allowed visitors from outside into their homes, too.
By mid-December, Dr. E.L. Thirlby authorized city police to send "coughers" home, but the epidemic overwhelmed the city's tiny, inadequate hospital by Christmas. A small emergency hospital was set up in a wing of the Traverse City State Hospital on Dec. 27. A panic appeared to be brewing.
"The influenza and pneumonia situation in Traverse City is not as serious as wild stories now in circulation would indicate," Thirlby told the Record-Eagle.
The 1919 New Year started off with two deaths and Thirlby's Jan. 2 "absolute quarantine" of every home afflicted with influenza or pneumonia.
On Jan. 6, local public health and welfare director, W.M. Coddington, on his last day in public office, closed schools, churches, theaters and all public and non-essential gatherings for an indefinite period.
On Jan. 13, the Record-Eagle reported a "heavy blow" -- six people died in the city that day. Even so, city officials, Thirlby and Coddington's replacement lifted the ban on the next day, though schools remained closed.
That did it for adjoining Leelanau County.
On Jan. 17, Leelanau County announced a strict, voluntary quarantine "to protect itself from the outside," the Record-Eagle reported. Leelanau blamed its outbreak of 200-300 influenza cases on Traverse City, saying all cases had originated in there.
"And we're damned sore about it," one unnamed county official told the newspaper.
As a result, no one could enter Leelanau County from any direction without undergoing a four-day quarantine. All public places, except stores, were closed. Only five customers at a time were allowed in stores for "necessary purposes." State police would make sure it was enforced.
The Record-Eagle also reported that state health officials had been conducting a secret investigation in the Traverse City area. Meanwhile, influenza now had spread to Elk Rapids.
Olin, the state health director, came to Traverse City on Jan. 18 "loaded for bear" to place a quarantine on all of Grand Traverse County. He wanted police enforcement of public and household quarantines and prosecution of any violators. He wanted Thirlby removed and a new health officer appointed. Why, he asked, had local officials and doctors ignored state health recommendations given them on Jan. 2?
Since then, there had been 151 county influenza cases and 64 in Traverse City, no prosecutions of quarantine violators and "pure negligence" in reporting cases.
"You have tried to make a joke of the State Board of Health," Olin said. "Had you followed our instructions you would now have been free of influenza."
He admitted he had no power to close local businesses, but he warned he did have authority to close the city and county.
Before it was all over, Thirlby took responsibility for negligence in reporting the number of cases, but stood by his stance that bans on businesses were ineffective. Olin agreed with him -- if rigid house quarantines were vigorously enforced.
Olin kept Leelanau's quarantine in place but decided not to close Grand Traverse County if city and medical officials agreed to follow strict procedures for house quarantines. They did.
It would take another year, however, before the last reports of Spanish flu vanished. In February 1920, the Provement area in Leelanau County reported 180 cases of influenza. On April 5, Dr. Frank Holdsworth, Grand Traverse health officer, reported 61 families under quarantine and one death.