Gleanings from the Corn Flats: The Spanish Influenza of 1918

Vice Chair, Niskayuna Historical Committee

Categories: Saratoga County

NISKAYUNA — Niskayuna was primarily a farming community with a population of about 2,500 in 1918, dwarfed by the energetic city of Schenectady with nearly 90,000 residents.

Unlike today, the town’s official response to the Influenza pandemic was muted. The town likely experienced similar consequences albeit on a smaller scale.

Ellis Hospital in Schenectady had moved to the “countryside” of Nott Street in 1906 and received its first official victim of the Influenza Pandemic or “Spanish Flu” on Sept. 22, 1918. 

Mrs. J. Comisky, a civilian of Rotterdam Junction, died of pneumonia after contracting influenza. Fifty more cases of influenza had been discovered in Rotterdam Junction over the previous two weeks. 

Ellis Hospital, along with a bustling Schenectady, was about to be overrun with a pandemic that would challenge the hospital’s 175 beds and the new pathology laboratory established the previous year.

City of Schenectady Health Officer Dr. Walter Clark announced Sept. 28 that there was only one diagnosed case of influenza out of several suspicious cases in the city. Major McKerracher, commander at the Military Warehouse in Rotterdam Junction, had 24 infected soldiers (the most serious cases) moved to Ellis Hospital on Oct. 2.

Due to the overcrowding of military barracks, soldiers were forced to sleep two to a cot when necessary, which helped spread influenza among military personnel.

Clark consulted with colleagues and with no other cases of influenza in the hospital besides the soldiers, he assumed the disease was confined to the military. He did, however, assign two contagious disease associates to monitor should any other cases appear.

On Oct. 3, the health department quarantined 11 houses near the military warehouse. The tragic Stein family at 507 South Central St. was one of the first civilian families to contract the disease. Mrs. Krinda, the contagion nurse, found the father, mother, and five children suffering from influenza, as well as a baby dead in the crib.

The mother and five children were taken to the Altamont Avenue Isolation Hospital for observation. Similar cases were found throughout the city proper. 

Ellis Hospital formed a committee of physicians to take charge of the influenza cases on Oct. 4. Doctors S. Ham, Warren Stone and Louis Faust established an isolation ward.

About 30 percent of Schenectady area workers were either employed by General Electric or the American Locomotive Company. Blue-collar workers contracting the disease in their neighborhoods took their illness to their jobs, thus infecting families throughout Schenectady. GE, ALCO and the Schenectady Railroad watched their workforce deplete as workers went home ill or died overnight.
Hospitals and funeral homes were overburdened. Seventy-five funerals took place between Oct. 2 and Oct. 7. Funerals were restricted to immediate family only, for fear of infecting a large crowd.

Edward Rossi, son of the original owner of Rossi & DiToro Funeral Home, stated in an interview with WRGB that casket manufacturers would simply drop the caskets in front of his father’s funeral home and keep moving. There was so much work.

Mayor Smith announced, after a special conference with health and city officials, that he would “close all schools, theaters, moving picture houses, churches, lodges and in general, all places of public meeting and entertainment, until further notice.”

Residents and businesses of Schenectady in the next three months suffered heavy casualties and shut down a city of 90,000 frightened people. At the end of the epidemic in January 1919, Influenza had claimed 404 lives and infected 15,000 people.

Niskayuna’s response today, like all the towns in Schenectady County, was markedly more direct and energetic than in 1918 and clearly demonstrates how much our town has changed and matured.

Author’s Note: We encourage any past or present town residents to contact the Niskayuna Town Historian, Denis Brennan, at [email protected] regarding any information, resources, or stories they might like to share about Niskayuna’s distinctive history.

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