Primary Resource

"Flew on the Wings of Death to the Hills," Big Stone Gap Post (November 20, 1918)

Published by the Big Stone Gap Post on November 20, 1918, "Flew on the Wings of Death to the Hills" reports on the horrors endured by communities in Southwest Virginia during the influenza pandemic of 1918 in the absence of adequate health care, food, and supplies.

Transcription from Original

State Board of Health Receives Heart-Rending Reports of Grippe’s Ravages in Southwest Virginia.

Richmond, Va., Nov. 14—It is hardly likely that the general public will ever realize the extent of the suffering and the anguish caused by the Spanish influenza in some of the more remote mountain communities of Virginia where the frightful malady raged with a degree of severity which is difficult to explain.

Particularly did the mining and lumber sections of the southwestern counties suffer, though the State Health Board acted with amazing celerity in establishing emergency hospitals where the need of outside help seemed most pressing. Despite the fine organization of these institutions and the zeal with which their attaches labored day and night, scores of sufferers in mountain cabins and shacks far distant from railroads, could not be reached at all, and in some instances it was heard even to find persons to bury the dead. In several neighborhoods the supply of coffins utterly ran out while almost everywhere there was a shortage of doctors and nurses. Worse still, the well people of some communities became so terrified when they noted the ravages of the disease, that they were either afraid or unwilling to help the sick, and consequently a few dauntless spirits were left to perform duties which taxed their endurance to the staggering point.

In Dickenson county, which has only one railroad, the "flu" literally ran riot, and it is little to be wondered at that many persons became panic stricken, for in some sections they saw death and suffering on every side. Worse still, the disease did its deadly work with horrifying rapidity and no man, sick or well, could tell when his hour might come. In the Clintwood neighborhood alone there were probably 1,000 cases of "flu" while 300 out of 500 persons in Fremont and its environs became ill. To add to the terrors of the situation, pitiless rains drenched the mountains and made ordinary travel almost impossible. In one household four out of ten people succomed to the malady. And it is any wonder that their neighbors became demoralized when they saw a quartette of coffins standing in front of this stricken home? The sight that met their gaze was a hideous allegory of menace and tragedy.

Report also has it that in one lonely cabin both the father and mother died without help, or at least with no help save that which came to them from a tiny child. And had passersby not heard the wail of distress which came from this little one, she too would have perished in that desolate abode.

In many instances whole families—sometimes three generations were ill at the same time in the same house and starvation almost stared them in the face. The State Board of Health knows of at least one case in which an entire family lived for several days on canned tomatoes alone. No one in the habitation had strength enough to go for food or assistance.

So far as Dickenson county is concerned, it may at first appear strange that so isolated a section should have been so sorely afflicted when the health authorities everywhere proclaim that Spanish influenza is "a crowd disease." Well, everybody would have to admit that Dickenson’s heart-rending story presents a sort of scientific mystery, were it not for the fact that her people had their county fair just a few days before the scythe of death began to reap its human harvest. That fair probably did the work which has left desolation in its wake.