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The 1918 Flu Epidemic and Arthur Carhart

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

By Ralph Swain, U.S. Forest Service

** This article was originally published in the May 2020 Eagle Post 48 Newsletter of the ESWA (Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance) - Reprint courtesy of Ralph Swain and the ESWA, our sister wilderness stewardship organization.**

At times like these when all of us are contemplating what the new normal might look like, it can be instructive to look back in history to see what we can learn from the past. The 1918 flu epidemic offers some insightful connections to wilderness and one of our first wilderness champions, Arthur Carhart.

Many incorrectly referred to the 1918 flu as the Spanish flu because Spain’s government was one of the first to announce the spread of the devastating virus. The first American infections occurred in American soldiers fighting in the trenches in World War I in Europe. Many soldiers died after the flu spread rapidly through close quarters. In total, approximately 50 million people died from the 1918 flu epidemic worldwide, of which 675,000 died in the United States (Abbott et. al., 2006).

Arthur Carhart graduated from Iowa State College in 1916 as a Landscape Architect and entered the Army in September 1917. The Army did not send Carhart to war in Europe, but instead stationed him at Camp Meade near Washington DC to oversee the health and sanitation of the military training camp where the spread of the flu and diseases were a major concern. He served as a First Lieutenant in the Sanitary Corps. Carhart actually came down with the deadly influenza in the fall of 1918, but his newlywed wife, Vee, nursed him “instead of having to tough it out in the camp hospital” (Wolf, 2008). Following his recovery, the Forest Service hired Carhart as the first Recreation Engineer (dubbed beauty engineer) in District 2 (called Region 2 today) in March 1919. One of Carhart’s first assignments was to travel to Trappers Lake in the summer of 1919 to draw up plans for several hundred home sites and a road around the lake.

The summer homes were to be leased by the Forest Service to private citizens under the new 1915 Term Permit Act. Upon his return to the Denver Office, Carhart recommended to his supervisor, Carl J. Stahl, that (1) no homes or road be built, or if leases had to be allowed, (2) the home sites would be set back from the lake and screened by the forest trees. He strongly felt that,

 “…these areas can never be restored to the original condition after man has invaded them, and the greatest value lying as it does in natural scenic beauty…. Time will come when these scenic spots, where nature has been allowed to remain unmarred, will be some of the most highly prized scenic features of the country” (Baldwin, 1972).

On December 6, 1919, the Denver Office held a meeting with another wilderness champion, Aldo Leopold, the Assistant District Forester who was urging his bosses in District 3 (Region 3) to set aside the Gila Wilderness for preservation in its natural condition before roads and development ruined the wild country. From that meeting and the visionary thinking of champions like Carhart and Leopold, the wilderness concept was born. (Click HERE to read Carhart's summary of the meeting.) However, Carhart’s vision of providing public land access to the returning soldiers and the American people did not end at Trappers Lake. Later, in 1919 and early 1920, Carhart drew up plans for development of the first “health” camp (as he liked to call them) at Squirrel Creek on the San Isabel National Forest west of Pueblo.

His health camps would provide auto camp conveniences – the forerunner to today’s Forest Service campgrounds. The flu, which started on the East Coast in America, spread to Colorado by late September during the deadlier second wave of the virus where it sickened a dozen soldiers-trainees at a military training camp in Boulder and quickly spread to Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.  In total, the flu killed approximately 8,000 people in Colorado from September 1918 to late January 1919.  Reports of flu deaths continued until December 1920. Today, as we contemplate our future and the benefits we derive from wilderness, we can thank wilderness leaders like Arthur Carhart and Aldo Leopold. They inspire us to take pleasure in things remaining “normal” like hearing birds chirping and the sounds of nature, seeing wildlife roaming free in wild places without roads and development and gazing in awe at beautiful sunsets that remind us of why we care so much for wilderness. REFERENCES: * Abbott, Carl, Leonard, Stephen J., Noel, Thomas J,, Colorado:  A History of the Centennial State, Fourth Edition, 2005 * Baldwin, Donald N., The Quiet Revolution:  Grass Roots of Today’s Wilderness Preservation Movement, Pruett Publishing Company, 1972 * Wolf, Tom, Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet, University Press of Colorado, 2008



Ralph Swain is the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region (Region 2) Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Program Manager in Lakewood, Colorado.  He started his FS career as a firefighter on a hot shot crew in California and has worked in wilderness as a trail crew foreman, wilderness ranger, and District and Forest Wilderness Manager in California, Montana and Colorado.  Ralph has also worked with protected area managers on international assignments in Belize, Mexico, South Africa, Russia, Romania and the country of Georgia.


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