PETALUMA’S PAST: Petaluma and the pandemic of 1918

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This column ran last year, and for obvious reasons, has recently returned to the minds of several readers who’v written to ask for a reference to it, so they could read it again. With interest in this story so high, we thought we’d simply run it once more. Here it is)

The first case of the “Spanish Flu” in the United States was identified on March 4, 1918. The victim was an army soldier, barracked in the State of Kansas. By October 31, just eight months later, 21,000 deaths had been reported in the US. It has been called the most deadly pandemic in history. The world panicked, and our country and Petaluma did too. World War I was still raging in Europe, Prohibition was on the table as an issue, as was women’s right to vote.

But such a drastic health catastrophe took precedence.

The year 1918 had started out as a fairly standard “O.K.” year in Petaluma. But fears of impending problems were just under the surface. One question in Petaluma was, what will happen to our 24 saloons, as our powerful Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) campaigned hard against alcohol. Mississippi had just become the first State to go dry.

Another question: What will happen to our local boys as the war progressed?. Our kids were enjoying the very first Tarzan movie here, and we were merrily singing that No. 1 hit stuttering-themed going-to-war song, “K-K-K-Katy.” The Barnes Four-Ring Circus came to town with “1,000 animals and 40 Rib-Tickling Clowns.” And in April, we received word that the US House of Representatives had approved the “Petaluma River Project,” which included widening and deepening the slough, plus the establishment of a turning basin.

The Fed had agreed to spend $82,000.

The egg business was flourishing, of course, and our Western Refrigerating Co. at Lakeville and E. D Streets bragged that they had two “candlers” who could each handle 900 dozen eggs a day, examining every egg for quality. And the Petaluma Shoe Factory was expanding their business here, including installing a new iron roof. That summer, however, our California Woolen Mills, constructed in 1875, burned to the ground within just 20 minutes. The intensity of the fire was blamed upon the large amounts of oil used in the business. The Mill was not to return here.

In May, as a sign of war times, the California Board of Education banned the teaching of the German language in high schools and that spring our Police Chief, Flohr, announced that there would be a mandatory registration of “Alien Enemy Women.” It would apply to “female subjects of the German Empire, age 14 and over,” unless she was married to a US Citizen.

A local German-American was arrested that spring by Chief Flohr for making a “seditious utterance” at a Petaluma saloon. He had opined that “Germany had a right to sink the Lusitania, as she was out of her course,” and that “America should have stayed out of the war.”

Another issue of 1918 was the City turning out all lights for war safety. Our Chamber of Commerce Secretary, Bert Kerrigan (“Chicken City Kerrigan”) suggested that we leave half the street lights burning for safety.

Then, as we headed into fall, the flu pandemic really got going worldwide. In October, Chief Flohr and Mayor Gossage officially cancelled all public gatherings at churches, theaters and schools.” And all employees of banks, stores and hospitals were ordered to wear masks. Even the congregating of boys and girls in parks and streets was forbidden. Quarantines were strictly enforced, by penalty of jail.

On Oct 16, it was announced that 1,100 San Francisco police officers had contracted the flu. By the end of October, over 130,000 cases of flu and 2,600 deaths had been reported in San Francisco alone. Petaluma had over 150 cases and three deaths by then. By the end of November, San Francisco’s Mayor Rolph had ordered masks be worn. The Mayor’s wife was seriously ill at the time. By Thanksgiving, church and temple attendance in Petaluma was at an all-time high, but everyone wore masks.

Fear was rampant.

Petaluma’s No. 1 Citizen, Pioneer John McNear died that year, and his obituary said, “No name is more honored here.” McNear had arrived in 1856 and built one of the largest mercantile businesses in the state. He had brought the Silk Mill, the Shoe Factory, McNear Feed Mill, the electric railroad and the first bank in Sonoma County to Petaluma, and in 1864 he built the largest warehouse in the state, right here. McNear owned 2,500 acres in Marin, including 5 miles of waterfront.

He also built Cypress Hill Cemetery, where he was buried, alongside his wife.

By Christmas, wartime casualties had surpassed 31 million, including 265,000 from the US. The influenza epidemic had by then claimed over 20 million worldwide, and US deaths from flu had exceeded those of the war.

Eventually, world deaths from this flu were over 50 million. Two notable local casualties of the flu were sisters Ruth and Viola Lundholm. When stricken, they had both been nurses, working for the American Red Cross. Mayor Gossage ordered flags flown at half-mast in their honor. On Dec. 6, our W.C.T.U. carefully held its first meeting since April, in the Methodist-Episcopal Church, all still wearing masks.

Our country attempted normalcy during all this turmoil.

WWI was officially over on November 11 of that year and President Wilson sailed for the Paris Peace Conference. That fall, the US House of Representatives was fiercely debating the 19th Amendment, to give women the right to vote, the same season that “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” debuted in the New York Globe newspaper (No, there was no connection). And in war-torn Russia that fall, Bolshevic leader Vladimir Lenin ordered the murders of the entire Romanov Royal Family.

Lastly, on a lighter note, here’s a December 1918 header from the Oakland Tribune, a little tidbit this writer couldn’t resist: “Flu Delirium Blamed For Marriage.” It seems an Oakland woman had sued for annulment on the grounds she had married a man while delirious from the flu. She now had a legal husband who, at the time, happened to be out of town and she had only known the guy a week.

“My mind was a blank,” she said.

The annulment, we’re happy to report, was granted.

(Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of the Petaluma History Museum, and the Petaluma Heritage Homes. Contact him at

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