BAR HARBOR — Residents woke up on Oct. 5, 1918 to read the headline in the Bar Harbor Times that their town had closed.
“TOWN CLOSED TO PREVENT EPIDEMIC,” the headline proclaimed. The epidemic was the rapid spread of a deadly virus known as the grippe or Spanish influenza. Though called “Spanish,” it was a worldwide pandemic.
According to the newspaper report, the closure affected “schools, theatres, lodges, libraries, dance halls and churches.” The YMCA and YWCA remained open but were “prohibited from holding any gatherings.” This was all on the order of the town’s Board of Health, “believing that it is far better to apply the proverbial ounce of prevention now than a pound of cure later,” the article surmised.
Bar Harbor was not yet hard hit by the pandemic like other towns and cities that had enacted similar measures. Portland had reported about 300 cases of influenza when they closed their schools, theaters, and public gatherings from funerals to parades, according to a historical study by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
But the epidemic was on the doorstep, and Bar Harbor health officials knew it. The closure of dance halls made room for the opening of an emergency hospital when Bar Harbor Hospital was full, which happened within a week.
“The hall in the Odd Fellows’ building, which was converted into an emergency hospital, [is] completely filled with patients,” the Bar Harbor Times reported on Oct. 12. Most of the patients in the 37-bed temporary facility were from the naval reserve station in Otter Creek, site of the international radio station in operation during the Great War.
Nurses were in short supply in Bar Harbor, as in all Maine towns. The Great War (later renamed World War I) had called many nurses to service in army camps and hospitals both at home and abroad. The influenza pandemic stretched the thin workforce even thinner, as more young women left home to assist in hard-hit areas in southern Maine and Massachusetts.
The patients at the Odd Fellows’ building were cared for by “many local [married] women who have previously had nurse’s training” and have “been summoned” from their own homes and families to take care of the sick. The makeshift emergency hospital was one of 22 emergency facilities set up throughout the state to treat influenza patients.
As reported in the Oct. 26 newspaper, the nurse in charge at the Odd Fellows’ hospital was “Mrs. Fred Higgins, who before coming to Bar Harbor was a trained nurse in Philadelphia.” Even members of the summer community helped out by sending ice cream and home-made broth to the patients.
On Nov. 2, the newspaper reported that out of the 130 cases of influenza recorded in the town, there were only four fatalities, “all of which occurred among nonresidents,” the author added. “It is doubtful if a better record was made in any other town.” Public buildings reopened in Bar Harbor that Saturday, churches on Sunday, and schools on Monday.
According to DHHS historical records, October 1918 was the deadliest month in the influenza pandemic in Maine, with approximately 2,500 people dying.
Swan’s Island had 260 reported cases and 10 deaths that month, out of a population of only 800, according to DHHS historical records. The one doctor on the island, Dr. Gage, had been assigned elsewhere on government duty, but requested leave to return to the island.
Aroostook County to the north had the highest recorded death rate in Maine, followed by Cumberland County to the south.
In November a vaccine was developed and distributed by the State Department of Health and administered to 8,000 people. According to the State Commissioner of Health Dr. L.D. Bristol, the influenza epidemic in Maine had “practically disappeared.”
Even after this declaration, the virus was still around. Bar Harbor elementary schools were closed again in November following an outbreak, for which the students lost their Christmas vacation.
Southwest Harbor had a mild outbreak in December. “Several cases of influenza have broken out here very suddenly, chiefly among the students of the high school, resulting in the closing of the schools and all other places of public assembling,” wrote a Southwest Harbor correspondent in the December 21 issue of the Bar Harbor Times. “Except for a very few cases in November, Southwest Harbor has been quite free from the epidemic, and as nearly all affected are beginning to recover, it is hoped that the disease will soon be under control.”
For months afterwards, the newspaper continued to be full of columns and obituaries highlighting local people who were ill from, or had died, from the disease. Bertie Stanley of Islesford became “seriously ill with pneumonia,” a complication of influenza, and left the island for treatment at Bar Harbor Hospital. Zelda Saunders died in Newburyport, Mass. while training to be a nurse. Frances Donovan, a Red Cross nurse serving in Camp Dix, N.J., died of pneumonia there. Mrs. Maud Hazel Lawford died in December in Bar Harbor, leaving behind three young children.
In a follow-up article printed Feb. 8, 1922, the Bar Harbor Times reported that the influenza outbreak overall “slew 4,713 persons in Maine.”
The Department of Health and Human Services notes that as a result of the pandemic, laws were passed to teach personal hygiene and physical education in Maine schools. The Department of Health’s budget more than doubled.