100 years ago, a train carrying Spanish flu pulled into Calgary. Within weeks, Alberta was in crisis

While those in the prime of their life were victims of both the war and the flu, the war took young men. Women (mainly volunteer nurses and expecting mothers), Indigenous people, and members of the working class were hardest hit by the influenza.

The influenza claimed nearly as many lives as the First World War, but it's received much less attention

Telephone operators in High River, Alta., wear masks during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. From left to right, Gladys Stephenson, Cora Stephenson, Addie McDonald, Annie Grisdale. (Glenbow Archives)

Exactly one century ago, the Spanish flu was sweeping through Alberta, and Edna Traunweiser felt she had to do something to help.

Her only brother was one of about 6,000 Albertans who had been killed on the front lines of the war. He died in spring 1918.

The 29-year-old Calgarian had some training as a nurse but had yet to graduate. Still, she registered to help ailing soldiers at Sarcee camp hospital, located north of the Elbow River in what's now Signal Hill.

Within one week, she'd contracted the illness. Within two weeks, she had pneumonia, and was buried a day after the war's end.

"It killed nearly as many Canadians as the First World War did," said Janice Dickin, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary. "But when you start looking at histories of the country, they will go on and on and tell you about what happened in the war, but you get one line for the flu epidemic."

While people in the prime of their lives were the main victims of both the war and the flu, the war primarily claimed young men. Women (mainly volunteer nurses and expectant mothers), Indigenous people, and members of the working class were hit hard by influenza.

4,000 Albertans died, 38,000 fell ill

Traunweiser's grave is one of 384 in Calgary, and more than 4,000 across the province, each marking a victim of the Spanish influenza between 1918 and 1920.

Alberta had a population of just about 500,000 at the time. More than 38,000 fell ill — around seven per cent of the population back then.

Those are just the recorded cases — some historians estimate the death toll may be even higher.

This photo, published in the Calgary Herald on Oct. 24, 1918, shows staff at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Calgary wearing masks during the Spanish influenza epidemic. To try and slow the outbreak, the province ruled people must wear masks outside their homes. (Glenbow Archives)

As much as five per cent of the global population is estimated to have died from the flu, far more than the number of people who died in the war.

"[Traunweiser's] death coming so soon after the loss of her brother is an almost insupportable grief to her parents," read an article from the Calgary Herald, reproduced in the Grand Forks Sun in 1918. "The death … will come as a great shock to a large number of friends with whom Miss Traunweiser was very popular."

Historian Harry Sanders visited Traunweiser's grave in Calgary's Union Cemetery on Armistice Day — now known as Remembrance Day — to pay his respects and see if anybody had placed a stone to remember her by.

"You go there, and you can read it's the Traunweiser family plot, but nothing marks her grave," he said.

Edna Traunweiser, who died after contracting the Spanish influenza while working as a volunteer nurse in November 1918, is buried here in her family plot in Calgary's Union Cemetery. (Sarah Rieger/CBC)

The flu, which was a strain of H1N1, first appeared in Alberta a little more than a month before Traunweiser's death.

Troops were being mobilized to join the Siberian Expeditionary Force.

Sick soldiers, returning from the front, encountered healthy ones who were boarding trains headed for Vancouver to depart for Russia.

Train travel enabled the illness to spread across crowded barracks and hospitals in a matter of days, wrote historian Mark Humphries, in a book on the impact of the First World War and the Spanish influenza on Canadians.

The name was a misnomer. Spain wasn't participating in the war, so its press was freer to report details about the number of people impacted by the pandemic than countries that didn't want to let their enemies know exactly how many of their soldiers and citizens were sick or dying, according to the American College of Physicians.

The first train carrying the virus pulled into Calgary at 4 a.m. on Oct. 2, 1918, and 12 soldiers were removed and quarantined at Sarcee camp, Humphries wrote. 

Two days later, the province's health board met for the first time to declare a plan for the developing pandemic.

Women managed the crisis

"Both professional female nurses and volunteers now took the lead role in managing the crisis at the level of home and community," wrote Humphries.

He quotes one nurse, who said, "It is dangerous — undoubtedly. So is overseas service; yet that did not hinder enlisting to any large extent. It would be better to have the flu than to carry through life the uneasy feeling that by your indifference you allowed some other woman to die."

"Particularly at that time disease was women's work, and it still is women's work," Dickin said. "None of that stuff is valued in this culture."

Nurses and teachers working as volunteer nurses during the Spanish flu pandemic at an isolation hospital in Lloydminster in 1918. (Glenbow Archives)

Those struck by the illness were those impacted by the city's rapid urbanization, living in "cramped, slum-like conditions," wrote Sanders in a column about the pandemic.

Many were young mothers, some whose husbands had left for the war.

"If you know the dates of the flu epidemic, you could look in Calgary cemeteries and often you will find a woman and she is buried with a child," said Dickin.

"You just have to assume what that would do to a population of losing young mothers."

By January 1919, the city's children's shelter had filled with dozens of orphans, including six from one family.

First Nations were decimated

If Calgarians were hit hard, those living on reserves were hit harder.

Hobbema — now Maskwacis — was devastated. More than 12 per cent of the population died. 

Humphries wrote that a Royal North-West Mounted Police (now RCMP) investigation at the time found Indian agents were placing First Nations families in quarantine, then refusing to feed them.

Within a few weeks, the government and officials, like Calgary's medical health officer Cecil Mahood, were scrambling to come up with a solution, as makeshift hospitals filled with otherwise healthy people, many aged 20 to 40, who fell rapidly ill.

Public places like schools and theatres were closed in some cities and towns, and hours were restricted.

"Since the flu would inevitably spread, the major efforts of Mahood, his small health department and the many volunteers, were aimed at simple relief of the symptoms, keeping the sufferer comfortable until recovery or death, and to slowing down the spread of the flu as much as possible," wrote Dickin in an article on the pandemic.


"It's horrifying to think of it. These are places that we know and here was a time when you might die, you might drop dead in public as some did," said Sanders.

Calls for female nurses, female drivers to ferry the volunteers on their rounds, and female cooks for soup kitchens to supply quarantined and bedridden patients, were made almost daily in Calgary's paper.

"Men seem to have largely escaped being persuaded, impressed, or shamed into volunteerism. There are several reasons for this, the obvious being that many men were overseas with the army … but another reason existed: the epidemic was seen as a chance for women to do their bit for the war and for civilization," Dickin wrote.

Remembering 'The Spanish Lady' of 1918, 85 years later

20 years ago
Duration 6:09
Residents of a small Alberta town in 2003 recall their deadly brush with influenza in 1918. Aired on CBC's Canada Now on April 10, 2003.

One volunteer nurse — who had no formal training other than a first aid certificate — described the fear as she left Calgary for Drumheller's makeshift hospital.

"Word that I was going to Drumheller spread through the coach. People stood up to get a glimpse of me — but they kept their distance. Their fear of the disease was so great that they wouldn't even pass by my seat to go to the washroom," wrote Gertrude Charters in a 1966 issue of Maclean's magazine, recounting her experience as a young woman in October 1918.

"When we arrived at the school we found 32 men on those low couches. Six men had died in the night … even as a man was dying, another was waiting to occupy his bed."

Masks made mandatory

By the end of October, the province ruled everyone must wear face masks outside their home to stop the spread of the disease, loitering was banned and police were given the authority to quarantine people if deemed necessary.

"There's a well-known photograph taken in Calgary on Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice Day, which was a joyous day in Calgary. And you can see that people are not wearing their masks and authorities … let them get away with it that day," Sanders said.

Calgarians celebrate Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, with a victory parade at city hall. Many in the crowd wore masks, as the Spanish influenza pandemic was sweeping through the city. However, police didn't strongly enforce the rule that everyone must wear masks at public gatherings during the celebration. (Glenbow Archives)

Doctors worked to develop a vaccine, but the science was still in its infancy, and doctors focused on inoculating people against bacteria caused by the flu, instead of the viral H1N1 strain. It would be decades before the country would be able to sequence the vaccine and make it available free of charge to Canadians.

Ineffective as they were, the first doses also came too late — not being distributed until the pandemic was already beginning to peak.

In some cases, the attempt to distribute vaccines hurt more than helped.

"They were so clueless that they were trying to take some of the vaccines to the Inuit populations in the Northwest Territories," said Dickin. "But the same police that were bringing in the vaccine were bringing in the disease."

Schools and other public buildings reopened in December after the Christmas holiday, leading to another wave of the illness sweeping through in 1919. It resurfaced again in 1920.

'A sad postscript'

In 1922, Dr. Mahood's wife Ina died from influenza.

"It's just kind of a sad postscript," said Sanders.

The pandemic had a lasting impact on the country's health care, as it was one of the factors that led to the creation of a federal department of health.

In the 1930s, researchers finally established the pandemic had been caused by a virus and not bacteria, leading to the introduction of the first seasonal flu vaccines, which were introduced in Alberta in 1943. An H1N1 vaccine wasn't released until much later, in 2009. 

Men in Alberta wear masks, likely made of cheesecloth and twine, during the Spanish influenza pandemic. (Library and Archives Canada / PA-025025)

The last major H1N1 pandemic hit Canada in 2009, with more than 1,600 cases in Alberta and 71 deaths. Researchers don't know when the next global pandemic will hit, but it's a common refrain among scientists to say it's a question of "not if, but when" another will hit.

Seasonal flu also continues to be a danger. According to the latest data available from Alberta Health Services, as of Dec. 20, 15 Albertans have died so far this flu season, 741 have been admitted to hospital with lab-confirmed influenza and there are 3,806 recorded cases in total.

By that time, 1,162,696 doses of influenza vaccine had been administered province-wide.

It's a stark difference to a century ago.

"Here, at a time when there are people who won't get their shots or won't even get inoculations for their children, we're talking about a time when the authorities … could arrest you for not wearing a mask in public," said Sanders. 


Sarah Rieger

Former CBC digital reporter

Sarah Rieger worked with the digital team at CBC Calgary from 2017 to 2021. She previously worked at HuffPost Canada.