Lessons learned in Denver from 1918 influenza pandemic

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DENVER (KDVR) — As World War I was coming to an end, a new war of a different kind was just beginning in Colorado. A deadly influenza pandemic spread across Colorado and around the world in 1918. It’s commonly called the Spanish Flu, although historians say the origin is a mystery. 

Roughly 8,000 Coloradans were killed. Hundreds of them were buried at a Fairmount Cemetery in southeast Denver. 

Michael Long is director of business development at Fairmount Funeral Home and Cemetery. He says the virus killed some 1,500 Denverites in 1918 and 1919. Cemetery blocks 84 and 85 are known as the pandemic sections.

“Funeral homes and cemeteries were so busy dealing with the pandemic at that point in time,” Long said while describing the impact.

The first reported death in Denver was noted on Sept. 27, 1918. A young college student named Blanche Kennedy died from pneumonia.

“The mayor took the initiative after Ms. Kennedy passed away,” Long said.

The initiative from Mayor William Fitz Randolph Mills and Gov. Julius Caldeen Gunter led to actions that remind Coloradans of today’s pandemic reality. Large gatherings were banned and businesses were forced to close.

What happened later is lesson for leaders of today. In November 1918, to mark the end of the First World War, a decision to celebrate led to more pain and misery.

“We had the big victory parade and celebration taking place in the heart of downtown Denver where thousands of people came together,” Long explained.

That armistice recognition paved the way for a surge of new viral infections and more death. After the surge was realized, new government restrictions were mandated. Denver residents would wait until January 1919 to once again lead normal lives.

In 2018 – mark 100 years — the Daughters of the American Revolution Columbine Chapter funded a monument at the cemetery. It was presented in the summer of 2019. The structure honors all of the victims and recognizes those laid to rest who don’t have headstones.

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