Traverse City News and Events

The Last Time An Epidemic Hit Traverse City, Leelanau Closed Its Border

By Patrick Sullivan | April 12, 2020

The last time an epidemic hit Traverse City, Leelanau County quarantined itself, with police putting up a blockade at the county line.

It was 1919 when Leelanau officials petitioned the state to quarantine their county after 200 to 300 new cases of flu sprung up in early January. They blamed the outbreak on Traverse City and wanted to sever all ties until the disease went away. That meant in order to travel into Leelanau County, a person had to agree to be detained for four days to show they were flu-free.

The closure underscored the bitterness between the two localities.

“We are satisfied that the disease was brought into Leelanau county from Traverse City and [Grand] Traverse county, and we are damned sore about it,” one Leelanau County official said.

That prompted an editor in Traverse City to accuse Leelanau officials of “passing the buck.” The editor noted: “Some time ago, when the contagion had eased up a bit in Leelanau and was serious in Grand Traverse, there was a big double wedding and dance in the sister county. It was permitted by the health officials. Directly afterward, influenza broke out in that vicinity and spread rapidly.”

The year 1918 would have been a stressful, uncertain and frightening time to be alive even before the dark specter of the flu arose. It began with the United States’ participation in World War I, which quickly ramped up as more soldiers were conscribed, trained, and sent to Europe to fight.

February brought news of the sinking of the Tuscania, sunk by a German torpedo as it carried American troops to Europe. Of the 210 who died, one was Clarence Allen of Traverse City.

But in what might have been a bad omen, many of the region’s first casualties were victims of disease, not war.

In an April 11 headline, “WAR STRIKES LEELANAU AT HOME,” the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported how Emil Priest, a recent recruit, had died of pneumonia at Fort Custer, an army base near Battle Creek. Priest, of Lake Leelanau, was in perfect health just before he died at age 22.

Six days later, the newspaper reported that concerns were growing about the health of soldiers at Fort Custer, which saw 72 new influenza cases in one week. The “medical men,” the newspaper reported, were growing concerned because they had no means to treat the flu and lacked a good understanding of how it spread — or how to stop it.

At the time there were many restrictions (even beyond today’s) intended to conserve resources for the war effort (and eventually fight the epidemic).

In 1918, residents of Traverse City were ordered to observe “meatless Tuesdays” and “wheat-less Wednesdays,” and to severely restrict consumption of sugar. By order of the police chief, Tuesday night parties were banned. Fuel shortages prompted government-mandated limits on business operating hours — restrictions enforced by police.

By the spring of 1918, with the brunt of the flu outbreak still months away, health officers already seemed to be on alert. Army officials issued a warning to soldiers and citizens about, among other things, sneezing. They warned that sneezing spreads respiratory diseases like pneumonia, measles, meningitis, tuberculosis, and influenza. Their message: People should decide not to sneeze.

When the flu season returned in the fall, it returned with a vengeance. What’s considered the second wave of the pandemic is believed to have first appeared at Camp Devens, an Army base near Boston. Soon breakouts surged across the country. At Fort Custer, a conduit for northern Michigan heading to war, 1,000 cases of flu appeared overnight.

On Oct. 8, the Record-Eagle’s front-page headline read “INFLUENZA MAY VISIT THIS CITY,” the story was crowded out by war stories, and likely didn’t registered as a warning equal to the suffering the area’s residents were about to endure.

It wasn’t until Oct. 24 that area’s first flu death — a 14-year-old Buckley boy — was reported. Schools in Buckley were closed, and public gatherings postponed. 

The next day, the son of James Frederick Munson, then the head of Traverse City State Hospital and the namesake of Munson Medical Center, died of the flu in New York at the age of 37.

Two days later, under a notice titled “CITIZENS!” it was announced that pool and billiard halls would be asked to close and that shoppers were asked to “keep moving” while in stores with other people.

Nevertheless, the war continued to overshadow the health concerns at home. While war stories were headlined at the top of the page, in bold capital letters two inches tall and spanning all five columns, flu stories remained small and secondary.

In early December, with roughly 25 people suffering of the flu in Traverse City, the city’s health officer urged citizens to be cautious. But questions arose about whether people — the ill and those taking care of them — were being cautious enough. 

A special wing at the State Hospital had been set up to care for flu patients so that they could be isolated from others.

A review by the Red Cross showed the agency had discovered some disturbing staff behavior. In homes where some flu sufferers lived in quarantine, the rules of quarantine were lax, and some people allowed visitors.

The county’s health officer, Dr. E.L. Thirlby, attended a conference on the flu in Chicago and returned with ideas about how to stanch its spread. Unfortunately, according to the Dec. 14 Record-Eagle, he also learned that “the entire medical profession is in the dark as to proper methods of combating it.”

That said, he reported that he learned about the importance of handwashing, a flu-prevention means still employed today.

Even as two more dead were reported on Dec. 18, it was thought that that grip of the flu might be receding. The next day, Dr. Thirlby said the epidemic was improving, even as residents learned of 59 recent flu deaths in Petoskey.

On Jan. 4, however, the paper reported that the first two days of the new year saw an additional nine flu fatalities, following 34 in December. Those 34 deaths earned Traverse City an unprecedented statistic in 1918, the paper reported: an average two deaths for every birth.
On Jan. 17, the state police announced they were going to protect Leelanau County. The move came after a meeting in Lake Leelanau between state officials and every township health officer and every doctor in the county.

After months of outbreaks throughout the region, it’s hard to imagine how they could have said with straight faces that they believed all of the 200-300 new cases had originated in Traverse City, but that was the rationale for closing the border between the counties: Grand Traverse County had not protected itself, so Leelanau County needed to be protected against Grand Traverse County.

On Jan. 20, state officials announced that they had surveyed residents of Traverse City and discovered there were five times as many flu cases as had been reported to the state.

Dr. Thirlby eventually resigned amid criticism. While he defended the actions he took to ensure that the ailing were in quarantine, he admitted that he had neglected to fully report the conditions in Traverse City to the state.

By early February, cases were waning, and death rates were dropping. It’s unclear what good the quarantine of Leelanau County served. It was lifted Feb. 5 by order of the state board of health.

Photo courtesy of the Influenza Encyclopedia


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