Montreal

Archeologists dig up history of men lost to Spanish Flu in Matapédia, Que.

Researchers have been working to unearth the history of a 1918 lumberjack lodge in Matapédia. The work is the first archeological assessment of the site, where 100 years ago, nine lumberjacks died of Spanish flu within a two week period.

Researchers explore Spanish flu camp where 9 lumberjacks died in 1918

One of the site's tombstones, placed there to commemorate the nine lumberjacks who died from Spanish flu in 1918. (Billy Rioux)

For more than 40 years, amateur historian Roger Delaunais has been taking care of a remote grave site in rural Matapédia in the Gaspé region. 

Delaunais wrote a book about the camp, where 100 years ago, nine lumberjacks died of the Spanish flu during the First World War. He placed the first of the site's commemorative crosses, built an altar, and found many of the camp's buried artifacts.

Delaunais was inspired when he met a man named David Perron in the 1970s, the tenth lumberjack and lone survivor.

Some of the many objects discovered at the camp, in 2012. ( Jean-René Thuot)

Perron's peers all succumbed to the devastating flu between Oct. 22 and Nov. 2 1918. He remained near the site until he died in 1984.

Now, ​100 years later, archeologists from Rimouski are looking to unearth the century-old stories of those 10 lumberjacks.

A group of Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR) professors and students took over the site for a week to document its current state and evaluate the archeological potential. 

The UQAR team consisted of eight teachers, assistants and students. (Radio-Canada/Jean-François Deschênes)

The team of eight people took 3D scans of the area, photos, surveyed the site on foot, used a GPS to record topographical anomalies and did sonar tests on the land.

At the camp — deep in the ­woods, with the small town of Sainte-Irène as its closest community — researchers found lamps, shovels, boots, spoons, and other artifacts hanging in trees and on crosses.

"Of course they are decaying so we wanted to register them as they are today. Some of them, we know, have been moved around [by visitors]," said Manon Savard, a geography professor at UQAR and one of the lead researchers on the project.

Professor Manon Savard believes these bottles of gin were deposited on the site a hundred years ago. (Radio-Canada/Jean-François Deschênes)

Her team is working to decipher which objects are from 1918 and which may be more recent.

The lumberjacks' story is exceptional, Savard said, because they were exempt from serving in the First World War by way of their profession.

"It's a small site in the woods to commemorate, in a very simple way, the men who were allowed to work in the forest and not go to war because they needed wood to rebuild Europe," said Savard.

Perron worked as a trapper to survive and protected himself from bears and other wildlife by sleeping in his small van.

Experts, including Delaunais, theorize that Perron survived the flu due to his excessive drinking.

The lone survivor of the Spanish flu pandemic at the lumberjack lodge, David Perron, spent years living on the site after virus killed his companions. (Billy Rioux)

During their week at the site, the researchers held an open house to meet with the community, an event that drew around 50 people. The population of Sainte-Irène is just about 350 people.

After the Spanish flu, the camp was re-used. The house was cleaned and more lumberjacks came in, but they took the recommendation of doctors to limit overcrowding by having only four men on site instead of 10. 

While the camp remains a site of commemoration, some locals believe it could be haunted. Savard said she was told stories of equipment — two motorcycles and some chainsaws — that would not start at the camp, and had to be removed from the site before they worked.

now