GUNNISON, Colo. – Amid concerns about the international impacts of coronavirus, the mountain town of Gunnison was again making headlines for how they handled a different mass virus outbreak last century. Local historian Dave Primus spent countless hours pouring over historic newspaper accounts of how Gunnison was able to fend off the deadly Spanish flu.
They did so by shutting their town down to the outside world.
It was Nov. 1, 1918, as the Spanish flu hit communities across the country hard, Gunnison officials shut the town down and started a quarantine center for outsiders at the present day Western Colorado University inside a building on campus.
“Putting the sheriff at the passenger depot and telling people ‘if you stop off this train today… 48 hour quarantine,” Primus told CBS4.
Inside the campus library basement, Primus is turning back the pages of time to find perspective into today’s current outbreak of coronavirus.
“They saw a town 30 minutes away have cases overnight, and they thought ‘We’ve heard enough about this, and we are going to shut down this town.’ I think it was a strategic decision they made and they enforced it heavily,” he says.
“A couple of guys broke through the barricades on the pass, and the sheriff heard about it, and arrested them and threw them in jail,” Primus recalled.
On the front pages of the Gunnison News Champion — now the Gunnison County Times newspaper — the top story for months dealt with the self-imposed quarantine, alongside advertisements for nurse volunteers posted by the local Red Cross.
As hundreds died in other towns in the region like Silverton and Lake City, residents in Gunnison waited out the spread, school was canceled and people were ordered to not meet in groups of four or more.
F.P. Hanson, a county physician, decided to quarantine the town:
“In order that our lives and those of our families may be better safeguarded, I have caused a strict quarantine to be placed on Gunnison County against the world. Barricades and fences have been erected on all main highways near the county lines; lanterns at night, and signs by day warning autos to go thru the county at once or submit to quarantine. Any person may leave the county at his will: None may return except those who will go into voluntary quarantine at a place designated by this office. Any person willfully molesting these barricades or deliberately endeavors to break this quarantine will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.”
Things have changed a lot since then. The economy draws on visitors, roads are open year round over snowy mountains passes, and there are planes flying into the airport daily. Pulling off a similar quarantine wouldn’t be easy if they had to do it again.
“Today it would be a huge problem. Do you have airplanes coming in here? How do you stop all that?” Primus said.
But the advice to wash hands and avoid those who are sick given in 1918 still holds true during this latest outbreak.