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When the big flu pandemic hit Rockford 95 years ago

For all the talk and media coverage of the current flu epidemic, the outbreak is trivial on the whole compared with the great flu pandemic of 1918.

In the local history “Rockford — Big Town/Little City,” we see how quickly that plague in the final days of World War I took its toll in this community, especially at Camp Grant (above), the sprawling Army training facility just south of the city:

Soldiers and sailors returning to the United States from Europe brought with them the Spanish flu, so-called for its nation of origin. In early September 1918, the bug spread westward from Boston. Within weeks, an epidemic exploded at Camp Grant, where thousands of men were confined in close quarters. Four thousand fell ill in two days, then thousands more.

Inevitably, the plague struck the civilian community, and death was everywhere.

Schools, churches, theaters and many businesses were closed. People on the street wore face masks. Emergency hospitals were established in the Rockford Boys Club, Lincoln School and the Knights of Columbus club. A downtown garage was turned into a morgue. Flag-draped coffins stood in huge stacks at train stations. Grieving families of dead soldiers poured into town to claim their loved ones.

The city faltered under the strain, taking little solace in the fact that most of the nation and the world were suffering, too. A new round of attacks on local German-Americans occurred as rumors spread that the Kaiser’s secret agents had deliberately started the pandemic.

By Oct. 3, the combined death toll for Camp Grant and the city stood at 63. In the next two days, it climbed to 234. On Oct. 10 alone, 218 soldiers and civilians died. When the epidemic ended a few weeks later, as suddenly as it had started, fatalities numbered 323 in Rockford, nearly 100 more in the rest of Winnebago County, and more than 1,400 at Camp Grant.

Worldwide, the flu outbreak killed 50-100 million people, more than perished in the war. The final American death toll was as high as 675,000. It was by far the worst epidemic in the nation’s — and Rockford’s — history.

The city’s great emotional outburst on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, stemmed as much from the passing of the epidemic as from the end of the war. Church bells rang, factory whistles blew, and thousands of people poured into the streets, banging pots and pans and otherwise making what noise they could.

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