Allyson Kenning
By Allyson Kenning
January 16th, 2013

There’s always something going around. You know, a bug, a cold, a virus, a flu–a whatever.  In Rossland’s heyday, when living conditions were a little more…er…”rustic” than they are now, and the population ever-growing, one can imagine that there would be the odd outbreak of some kind of disease or nasty illness, and indeed there were three notable epidemics in Rossland’s early days that took a considerable toll on the lives of the town’s citizens. And as we will find out, one particularly horrible epidemic caused a crisis that led to the community coming together as it had never done before.

The first recorded epidemic came in 1895-1896. There was a typhoid outbreak, which was not surprising given that there was no real sanitation infrastructure at the time. People did their business in outhouses that leaked into local creeks, and people drank the water from said creeks. Also, people blamed the Chinese and their preponderance of laundry facilities that used up not only a lot of water, but created a lot of waste water as well.

The city had a health inspector at the time, and the big result of this typhoid incident (apart from people getting sick, of course) was that the Chinese laundries operating north of Columbia Avenue were forced to pick up and move to locations south of Columbia Avenue so that their fouled water didn’t run into the creek that ran through the Centre Star gulch, and so that their waste water ran south to Trail Creek instead (which provided irrigation for some of the Chinese gardens…).  

There isn’t a lot of information available on this epidemic, but there are two others that have some meatier details that have survived the years. In 1927, there was a polio epidemic. It fell during the time Canada had its first significant polio outbreak, in 1927, where 609 Canadians contracted the illness. 182 of those cases were in BC.

The Rossland epidemic followed a significant outbreak of the illness in Trail, where 14 children came down with polio. Incidentally, this followed on the heels of a typhoid outbreak in Trail, which was blamed on Rossland and its polluting of Trail Creek, which led to the Trail portion of the creek being covered completely until it emptied out into the Columbia River. All together, there were 18 cases of typhoid in Trail during the summer of 1927–and one fatality.

Trail’s first three cases of polio were reported in July of 1927, but according to Ron Shearer’s research, no one really paid much attention to this because people were more concerned about the typhoid outbreak. Until a 10 year old boy died of polio in August, that is. The next day, a total of seven cases had been reported. Four days later, on August 16, there were five more cases, and three days later there was another.

By August 24th, fourteen total cases of polio had been reported in Trail, with three fatalities, and the city acted. School hadn’t gone back in yet, but the city “discouraged” public gatherings of children.  Sunday schools were cancelled as were the Labour Day festivities, and the local cinema agreed to prohibit kids under 16 from attending evening shows. They also cancelled matinees. Eventually, by order of the city’s health officer, says Shearer, “all public gatherings were prohibited, beer parlours were closed and the opening of the public schools was postponed.”

The first two of 19 polio cases in Rossland were reported at the end of August, 1927. First struck was a girl of 18 and a boy of 12. The city didn’t waste any time, and immediately banned public gatherings of kids. By September 1, Rossland had seven reported cases and two fatalities. Eventually, after going in fits and starts and thus lasting longer than the Trail epidemic, in November the coast was announced as clear. The start of school had been postponed until the beginning of October, and when all was said and done, six of the 19 cases ended in death.

But it was the Spanish Influenza of 1918, the pandemic that affected 50 million people world-wide and wiped out 3% – 6% of the entire world’s population between 1918 and 1920, that left a more indelible mark on the city of Rossland.

This pestilence arrived in Rossland in the middle of October, 1918, and the first death was on October 25. Housewife Minnie Sanderson, aged 30, has the unfortunate claim to fame of being the first flu fatality in Rossland. In all, 49 people died from influenza that fall.  Schools had to close, public gatherings were forbidden, the mines closed, and even down the hill in Trail the smelter was shut down.

But what was remarkable in a good way about the flu outbreak was how the community came together in a spirit of cooperation like never before, and perhaps like never again. From the owners of the Allan Hotel allowing their building to be used as and ad hoc hospital when Mater Misericordiae became too full, to car owners taxiing around medical staff for home visits, to community kitchens being set up to feed the victims, the caregivers, and families in need. All of these endeavours were staffed by volunteers. Undertakers and gravediggers were overwhelmed, so volunteers were recruited to help tend to the grim task of burying the dead. The city set up a special laundry to keep up a supply of fresh linens, and it recruited health care staff from nearby communities when local staff were overwhelmed.

Since the disease claimed the lives of many breadwinners and parents, there were a lot of families and children in need. This was before the welfare system, so the city introduced a voluntary levy on local businesses and professionals to create a fund to help the needy. The levy was $3 per month “from every business and professional man” and $2 per month from “every working man.” Also, the town’s patriotic fund, which was used to help needy families who had lost men in WWI, was reallocated to help the victims of the flu.

Thank goodness we have things like polio vaccines, sewer systems, and modern medicine to either eliminate or control such illnesses in these modern times, but it’s fascinating to see how people responded to these outbreaks at the time, and it’s heartening to see a small community come together in an emergency situation and cooperate to such an extent. Though it was tried under such tragic circumstances, our little Mountain Kingdom has a long history of caring for our neighbours and a tenacious community spirit.


I would like to gratefully acknowledge the research of Ron Shearer’s as my main source for this article.


1. http://www.healthheritageresearch.com/MCPlague.html
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_influenza

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