by Steve Cottrell
In the spring of 1918 as the war in Europe monopolized the news and local men headed into battle, the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce was busy planning for a big Independence Day celebration. Little did anyone know then that it would become a year of unfathomable tragedy locally as well as internationally.
A century later, 1918 remains the year that took more Nevada City lives through war and pestilence than any other year in the town’s history.
The United States entered World War I in April 1917 and a Nevada City Exemption Board (a draft board of sorts) was charged with the task of ensuring that all eligible men registered. The first five Nevada City men left here on September 6, 1917 –– to be followed by dozens more on a weekly basis.
The men selected for duty would meet at Armory Hall, (where Bonanza Market is located today), listen to one or more local politicians wish them well, then parade down Broad Street and up to the Narrow Gauge Railroad depot on Sacramento Street. There, they would receive a final pep talk and board a train as the town’s brass band played patriotic music.
Most were headed for basic training at American Lake, Washington, soon named Camp Lewis and later Fort Lewis.
Out of respect for the new soldiers, all Broad Street saloons closed from 9 a.m. until noon and all shops from 11 a.m. until noon while the men marched through town waving goodbye to their families and friends.
By June 1918, nearly 100 stars had been sewn onto the large Service Flag atop City Hall –– each representing a Nevada City man in uniform. Soon, there were 120 service stars on the flag, then 150, then 200. In all, Nevada City sent more than 350 men to war.
The first local man to die in battle was 20-year-old Private William Hegarty, who arrived in England in July 1918 and was killed within a month of being sent to the front. When his remains were returned to Nevada City for burial in 1922, all elementary and high school students lined Broad Street and stood at attention as his funeral cortege made its way through town and up to St. Canice Cemetery.
More than a dozen other Nevada City men were killed in WWI and several seriously wounded, but an even greater calamity erupted when the Spanish Influenza pandemic made its way here.
The first known case of the Spanish Flu was an Army cook who contracted the disease March 4, 1918, at Fort Riley, Kansas. It quickly spread east, but there was little sign of the deadly influenza here until summer. By then, more than 250,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines had been infected worldwide, with nearly 11,000 deaths.
The chamber of commerce held its July 4th parade as planned, but that was the last community event of the year. Even Halloween trick-or-treating was cancelled.
On October 22, Red Cross officials reported eight new cases of influenza in Nevada City, with one death, but that number began to grow. By November 11 –– the same day the Armistice was signed, and WWI came to an end –– Nevada City reported an additional 162 cases, with five deaths. Early December brought 120 new cases and eight more deaths.
Mercifully, the Spanish Flu’s local impact lessened toward the end of the year and on January 1, 1919, The Union reported, “With many drawbacks to face, the merchants of Nevada City have stood the ordeal valiantly, confident that the future will more than make up for the past.”
Worldwide, the 1918-19 flu pandemic killed at least 60-70 million people –– likely more. Nationally, at least 650,000 died; nearly 3,000 in San Francisco alone.
In 1918 –– the deadliest year in Nevada City history –– World War I and the Spanish Flu accounted for nearly 40 deaths in a town of barely 1,800 residents.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the photo:
Gauze face masks were a common sight during the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 and mandatory for school students, teachers, postal workers and others who had to deal with the public .