All Over The Map: UW Navy base was ground-zero for 1918 flu
A once-sprawling and now mostly forgotten Naval Training Station that stood on the University of Washington campus was considered ground-zero for the local Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918.
The only reminders of the station, which was operated from August 1917 to sometime in early 1919, are the old seaplane hangar and “Boys in the Boat” boathouse along the Montlake Cut, and a plaque on an exterior wall of the University of Washington Medical Center.
In 1917, Miller Freeman was Commander of Washington’s Naval Militia, a seagoing version of the National Guard. After the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, Freeman asked UW President Henry Suzzallo to join with the Navy by providing land for a facility to train college-age Naval cadets.
With access to Lake Union and to saltwater via the new Ballard Locks, the land Suzzallo and Freeman chose was along the Montlake Cut. This was years before the Montlake Bridge would be built, and a golf course for students and faculty had been constructed there around 1912. With no Montlake Boulevard to bisect the land, the nine-hole course stretched from where the hospital is now east to where Husky Stadium parking lots would later be built.
By the late summer of 1918, the Naval Training Station had been up and running for more than a year, with roughly 4,000 cadets learning seamanship, navigation, radio and other maritime skills there at any given time. The facility occupied 80 acres, and consisted of several large wooden buildings for training and other purposes, while many of the cadets lived in wood-frame canvas tents.
By mid-September 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic had reached the east coast of the United States, and the disease was working its way west. The Seattle Times reported on September 20, 1918 that the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago – and the 50,000 cadets there – were under quarantine. Ultimately, nearly a thousand would die there.
Around the same time, a trainload of Naval cadets arrived in Seattle from Philadelphia. They were bound for the Navy base at Bremerton, and several of them were apparently already suffering from Spanish Flu. Philadelphia, as it turned out, would later be determined to have suffered the greatest number of deaths of any American city, with some 12,500 people succumbing.
The cadets from Philadelphia may not have been the only carriers of the flu to arrive in Seattle; it was a time of increased mobility, and Americans were on the move for jobs, the war and other reasons like no time before in the country’s history. Whatever the source, by September 28, the Seattle Times reported that the flu had arrived here: there were 200 cases of flu at the UW Naval Training Station. By September 30, that number had risen to 700 cases. Then, on October 2, 1918, a 22-year old cadet named George Dewey Allain, who may have been from San Juan Island, was the first to die of flu at the UW. It’s also possible that Allain may have been the first Spanish Flu death in Seattle, but this is difficult to say with certainty.
At the same time, the flu was ravaging the Navy base in Bremerton; 12 were reported dead by October 12, and a total of 63 would ultimately perish from Spanish Flu. The disease is often described as having very rapid onset of symptoms, with high fever and often deadly pneumonia appearing within only a few days of exposure. It also tended to strike young, healthy people in their prime, though scientists debate the reasons for this, and some suggest contributing factors, such as living conditions for soldiers and sailors of that era.
And old newspapers clippings reveal how little actual science was known about Spanish Flu and about viruses in general in 1918. Health officials and elected leaders seemed to have differing views as to whether local residents were suffering from Spanish Flu or the more common “grip” (similar to the seasonal flu), and opinions varied as what preventive measures made sense. Soldiers at Camp Lewis were forbidden from visiting Seattle, but Tacoma was not off-limits, because the flu present there was considered less “dangerous.” Meanwhile, great resources and effort were devoted to creating and administering a serum to thousands of shipyard workers that experts now say was completely useless.
In October, officials banned large public gatherings in Seattle and shut down theatres and schools, and mandated the wearing in public of gauze masks. The effectiveness of these masks in preventing transmission of viral matter was later described as the equivalent of trying to block dust particles with chickenwire. On October 8, Commissioner of Health Dr. J.S. McBride forbid “singing squads” from the Naval Training Station from participating in Liberty Bond rallies – which were fundraisers and morale-boosters for the war effort – in department stores. By October 9, all cadets were forbidden from leaving the Montlake station.
By late October, though hundreds were still sick and dozens had died, it seemed as if the worst of the outbreak in Seattle had passed. On October 22, the Seattle Times reported only 25 “patients” at the UW Naval Training Station. The morning that the Armistice was declared on November 11, thousands of cadets marched in a parade from campus to downtown to sell Liberty Bonds and celebrate the end of the war.
Restrictions on public gatherings were lifted around the same time as the Armistice, but masks were still required in public for some time after. By spring 1919, an estimated 1,400 people had died in Seattle from the Spanish Flu, with 33 deaths among the cadets at the Naval Training Station. Estimates range between 500,000 and 600,000 total deaths in the United States, and tens of millions around the globe.
With the war over, the Naval Training Station shut down sometime in early 1919. Many of the smaller wooden structures were auctioned off, and several larger structures were kept as student dormitories. The golf course was rebuilt and reopened on July 1, 1920; Commander Freeman’s residence became the clubhouse. In 1946, a portion of the course was sacrificed when the Health Sciences Building was built. Then, in late 1949, the course closed permanently. What had remained of the vintage links was replaced with modern parking lots to accommodate the 15,000-seat addition to Husky Stadium.
Special thanks to Lee Corbin for his research assistance with this story.