by John Sheehy
In June of 1918, the government deployed Petaluma’s mayor, a saddle maker named A.W. Horwege, to Portland, Oregon, to run a large saddle plant for the U.S. Cavalry fighting in World War I. Chosen to fill his remaining term was city councilman Dr. Harry S. Gossage, a prominent local surgeon.
[Image: Ada Fay Turner, top row, third from left, and other employees of George P. McNear’s Feed Mill, B Street and Petaluma Boulevard South, 1918. Courtesy of Petaluma Historical Museum & Library]
Aside from a minor deficit in the city’s budget, Gossage’s mayoral challenges appeared relatively routine.The main news that summer was that American forces fighting in Europe had achieved their first major victory, marking a turning point in the war. However, on the horizon signs of a larger threat loomed, one, it turned out, Mayor Gossage was uniquely qualified for.
It began with word from Spain that a deadly influenza was spreading across the continent. American media, mistakenly assuming the disease had originated in Spain, tagged it the Spanish Flu. The influenza soon spread to U.S. military bases, and by midsummer Petaluma newspapers were running obituaries of local enlisted men stationed in army camps out East and in the Midwest.
In mid-September, as allied forces began their final offense of the war in Europe, a San Francisco man returning from a visit to Chicago brought back the disease. Although he was immediately quarantined in a hospital, by the first week of October influenza had spread to a couple hundred people in San Francisco. A week later, the pandemic reached Sonoma County, where it claimed its first victim, Helen Groul, a young girl living at the Salvation Army orphanage in Lytton, north of Healdsburg. She was among 153 children at the orphanage stricken with influenza.
As local newspapers began running obituaries of former Petaluma residents killed by the disease in other parts of the Bay Area, Dr. Gossage, who also chaired the city’s board of health, held a special meeting of the city council on the epidemic. Although no cases of influenza had been reported in Petaluma, the mayor raised the issue of a general closure to get ahead of it.
Many feared such an order would do more harm than good, inducing panic and crippling the economy, and ultimately proving ineffective. Others argued it was probably too late to take such action, as Santa Rosa already had sixty reported cases, and California overall 19,000 cases.
On October 19th, California’s State Board of Health ordered the closure of all theaters, dance halls, and schools, along with a ban on public gatherings. Churches were exempted, although it was strongly recommended they either cancel services or hold them in the open air, which is what St. Vincent’s Catholic Church did two days later.