Coraopolis took measures during the 1918 Spanish Flu, by closing businesses and establishing a hospital.
By Lisa Mullen
Beginning in January 1918, the Spanish Flu epidemic began to take hold around the world with over a third of the world’s population coming down with this new strain of flu. By April 1920 when the epidemic petered out, 500 million people died worldwide with 675,000 deaths occurring here in the United States.
Within the U.S., Pittsburgh had the highest death rate per capita of any major city with 4,500 people dying or one out of every 100 residents.
The Borough of Coraopolis, with its population of nearly 6,000 in 1918, was able to keep its attributable Spanish Flu deaths down to about 75 deaths with 38 of those deaths occurring between Oct. 13 and Nov. 29. That averages out to one death per day during that time period.
How was Coraopolis able to keep their flu deaths down to such a low level, comparatively speaking? It reportedly began with good health management. Coraopolis resident William A. Skinkle was appointed to the position of health officer on the Board of Health. After his appointment, he began by shutting down all public facilities where crowds would gather. This included schools, churches, lodges, bars, theaters and even the local YMCA. At the time, this was considered a very drastic measure to combat the flu.
On the Saturday that businesses were to shut down, Skinkle and other members of the health board began visiting clubs and bars around town to make sure they were complying with the shutdown orders.
At the first bar, Skinkle found two borough councilmembers amidst a full crowd of patrons. The crowd was sent home and the councilmembers were assumed to be there to help make sure shutdown orders were followed.
Skinkle and the board continued to the next location but someone from the first bar had tipped patrons off to the raid and they exited out the back door before they could be caught.
The raid continued into Saturday night ending with Skinkle and the board running into a liquor wholesaler who was selling bottles of liquor and then giving patrons glasses so they could drink in his establishment. This circumvention of the shutdown was brought to a halt after Skinkle wired state health officials who responded that wholesalers must close as well.
As the Spanish flu continued to progress throughout Coraopolis, more room was needed to care for the sick. Residents Horace and Mary Thomas kindly donated the use of their home at 720 Chestnut St. as an emergency hospital. The home held 40 patients with room for multiple doctors and nurses to attend to the sick.
The health board instituted many ideas thought to help stop the spread of the flu. All the streets between and including State Avenue and Main, Chestnut, and Neville streets, were scrubbed down by the volunteer fire department. Water mains were flushed at regular intervals so the water wouldn’t become “stale and offensive.”
The state department also put out the following recommendations: Flu patients should stay isolated from healthy family and friends. “Food and pure air” were essential. Windows in the sick room were to be always open while also keeping the patients warm.
People who hadn’t contracted the flu were recommended to be outside as much as possible to get exercise, sunshine and fresh air to continue to combat the spread of the flu.
Although free inoculations were offered to any resident who wanted one, local newspapers continued to tout cures for the flu including “beaver oil,” “Bulgarian blood tea,” and “sarsaparilla and snake oil.”
Toward the end of October 1918, businesses and churches in Coraopolis were able to reopen with the stipulation they be fumigated and thoroughly cleaned while schools were kept closed for an additional week as an extra precaution.
While there was a lack of health infrastructure and medical knowledge back in 1918, Skinkle and the health board were able to lower the number of deaths by acting quickly to shut down businesses and implementing sanitation and health suggestions.
—Information courtesy Coraopolis Historical Society