Fernie, B.C. (Photo contributed)

West Fernie Stories: A Pandemic Heroine

Contributed by Kevin Allen

The Spanish Flu hit the Elk Valley hard. During October and November 1918, thousands became sick and 59 people died.

The first case in Fernie was a sick lumberjack from Jaffray—cases then grew exponentially. Commercial travellers were quickly blamed and referred to locally as “the foreign element.”

As the pandemic worsened, Fernie Mayor Geo Thomson reacted by proclaiming all schools, places of amusement and public gatherings closed.

The health inspector put sick households under quarantine—a red sticker on your door alerted neighbours that you were not allowed out.

As the health system became overwhelmed, the Napanee Hotel, Victoria Hall and the King’s Hotel became emergency hospitals. Private citizens responded to the crisis in kind, creating a volunteer nursing corp.

The most notable of these courageous volunteers was Aagot “Agnes” Anderson of West Fernie. Agnes was born in Norway and immigrated to North America with her husband, arriving in Fernie in 1907 via Wisconsin.

When the call for volunteer nurses came, Agnes answered. She was put in charge of nursing at the King’s Hospital and, by all accounts, worked day and night to relieve the suffering of her patients.

Sadly, in mid-November, she became sick herself and died a week later, as the pandemic was ending in Fernie.

The November 22, 1918 edition of The Free Press reported:

“Mrs. Anderson endeared herself to every man, woman or child who knew her. She was ever engaged in looking after and helping those who were sick or in distress and the expressions that have been heard during the recent illness show the universal respect and love in which she was held.

Her friends have suffered an irreparable loss and the City of Fernie loses a splendid woman. Mrs. Anderson leaves a husband and three sons to mourn her death. Arthur, who is serving with the American flying corps in France, Harold, who is attending McGill University on Montreal and Oscar, with the Bank of Commerce staff at Saskatoon.

The bereaved husband and sons have the sympathy of every citizen of Fernie.”

Agnes’ funeral was held on the afternoon of November 28. It was largely attended, “showing the respect in which she was held by the citizens of this town.”

Agnes was 45 when she died.

Kevin Allen is an award-winning writer and historian currently working on a book about West Fernie history, a project of the Fernie Museum through generous financial support from the RDEK.

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