Santa Cruz County History - Disasters & Calamities



Voices of the Heart: Introduction
by Phil Reader

Throughout the history of Santa Cruz County and the central coast area there have been an irregularly occurring series of plagues and epidemics. Documented evidence lists at least half a dozen before the advent of statehood.

Recorded history of the Monterey Bay region begins with the coastal explorations of the Spaniard Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602, but it would be another one hundred and sixty-six years before we learn any details of life in the area that would one day be called California. The push into the territory was led by the Franciscan padres, under the leadership of Junipero Serra, in search of converts to Christianity. They were followed closely by Spanish civil and military authorities, who's quest was of a more material nature.

These newcomers found living here a race of stone age people, strong, vital, healthy and existing in an ancient state of harmony with their environment. Their style of living had left them relatively free from the ravages of highly contagious diseases. However, the coming of the Spanish to the shores of California would quickly change all of this.

The Franciscans in their zeal to save the mortal souls of these indigenous peoples endangered their very existence. At Mission Santa Cruz, founded in 1792, the local Ohlone Indian tribes were collected into the confines of the newly established mission and exposed to the Spartan rigors of Spanish Catholicism. A new settled, non-migratory way of life was forced upon them. They were clustered together in an unfamiliar close proximity to one another and their dietary habits were radically altered.

These mission Indians soon suffered from a multiplicity of "imported" European diseases against which their systems produced no natural anti-bodies. Foremost amongst these were Smallpox, Influenza, and Syphilis, as well as the common cold and the childhood diseases of Diphtheria, Mumps, Chicken pox, and Measles. The result being the almost total annihilation of the local tribes of California aborigines within the first two decades after their Christianization. The lack of preparations for, or protection against the ravages of these afflictions, on the part of the padres, borders upon the verge of genocide.

The advent of the nineteenth century brought an influx of immigrants to Pueblo de Branciforte, located on a hill over looking the San Lorenzo River and one of only three pueblos in Alta California. These first settlers found life on the isolated Spanish frontier to be both harsh and demanding. Communications with the outside world were quite limited in nature and this ongoing isolation from so many of life's necessities put their health at risk on a number of occasions. Physicians and their medical knowledge were, of course, unheard of and the citizenry was left to the mercy of contagion and pestilence.

Although written records from this time period are only fragmentary, there are several which deal with the health history of the Villa. One in particular is of significant importance however. In the Branciforte Archives is document #507, dated December 19, 1833. It gives advice to the citizens of the pueblo on how to handle a potential "Cholera Morbus" epidemic then rampant in Mexico. The scourge, unknowingly conveyed aboard ship and on overland wagon trains, swept northward, arriving in Alta California during the early spring of 1834. It filtered into the pueblos and ranchos carrying away hundreds of Californios and Indians before it ran its deadly course.

In the century and a half since the American conquest of California in 1846, there have been four "major" epidemics of note which have had profound consequences in Santa Cruz county. (But this is in no way to infer that these were the only ones.)

The first and perhaps the most devastating to the general populous occurred during the late fall and early winter of 1868. The disease was the much dreaded Smallpox and the first diagnosed cases of it occurred among the impoverished Spanish residents of San Juan Bautista. Local newspapers reported that the pestilence was spreading rapidly and by mid-November, 1868, there were more than one hundred and twenty known cases in the infected district with more being reported daily. The death toll in the first week of the epidemic was set at twenty-three.

The stage coach lines which serviced the area canceled all of their runs and a cry went out for help. The roads leading in and out of this little mission town were barricaded in an attempt to localize the malady. Collections were taken up in nearby cities in order to help alleviate the suffering.

A campaign in Santa Cruz county raised almost two hundred dollars in one weekend. The funds were used to purchase serum in order to inoculate those in the area not already afflicted with the pox. Two young Irishmen, who would later loom large in the history of Watsonville, braved the ravages of the disease and delivered the much needed serum to San Juan. These two "home town" heroes were Matt Tarpy and Patrick McAllister.

All attempts to contain the illness were without success, however, when cases began to appear in Watsonville and Whisky Hill. (Now Freedom) By the 25th of November, the death toll in Watsonville stood at eleven, among that number being a teacher and town constable. On the 27th, a group of Santa Cruz residents rode out to Aptos and demolished the bridge on the Watsonville Road. After posting a guard at the ruins to prevent anyone from entering Santa Cruz from the east and south, they scurried back to town and waited. But these quarantine measures were also useless and the only lasting effect of this rash action was to create an rift between the citizens of both cities.

Two days later the plague was raging in Santa Cruz to such a degree that the county supervisors issued a medical alert and created, for the first time, a board of Health, appointing Dr. C.S. Anderson as Health Officer. the new board established a "Pest House" and inaugurated a daily route for a "death wagon" to convey the afflicted to the hospital for treatment. Instruction at the public schools were suspended for the remainder of the term and the local press published widely the latest remedies available for home use as well as methods to prevent the spread of Smallpox.

Thanks to such measures the pestilence began to subside throughout the county during the first two weeks of December and by the new year, the Board of Health could declare the epidemic at an end. The exact number of those who succumbed to Small Pox during that winter will never be known, but cemeteries in the Monterey Bay area abound in headstones bearing dates from this period. It appears that the fatality rate from the disease was, as usual, highest among children.

During the twentieth century, Santa Cruz county has experienced two significant epidemics, or actually pandemics- worldwide outbreaks of a communicable contagion - the first which occurred in 1918, while World Was I was raging on the European continent. It was the outbreak of the so called Spanish Flu. In reality, however, it was the most virulent form of a series of strains of Influenza which had tormented the world for a forty year period of time between the 1880s and 1920s. Prior to 1918, the most devastating, an attack of "la Grippe" or "old Grip", had occurred in 1890-91 claiming many thousands of victims across the nation.

In Santa Cruz, the Spanish Flu, with it's haunting images of frightened people wearing the infamous gauze masks over their faces, began in October, 1918, when soldiers returning home from basic training carried the pestilence with them. It reached a zenith during the month of December, as dozens of new cases were reported on a daily basis. Striking hardest at the very young and very old, there were well over a hundred flu related deaths reported among these age groups. Death resulted not from the Influenza itself, but from Pneumonia which quite often developed following a case of flu.

Various quarantine methods were enacted; schools had to be closed, restaurants and saloons were shut down, most social activities were canceled, and by the early spring of 1919, this blight passed from the scene. In all "the Flu" would cost over thirty million lives worldwide.

The second major plague, more contemporaneous, was the Poliomyelitis or Infantile Paralysis outbreaks of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Its peak year in Santa Cruz county was 1952, when the isolation wards at all local hospitals were reported to be overcrowded from the many Polio cases which sprang forth during the summer of that year. The bulk of the local casualties were youngsters between the ages of five and fifteen. Dozens died of the malignancy while many more were paralyzed for life.

In 1954, a researcher from the University of Pittsburgh developed the first practical immunization against Polio. His name was Dr. Jonas Salk and the famous vaccine which now bears his name was quickly pronounced totally effective and has led to the complete eradication of this disease.

All of the above mentioned epidemics struck hard at society as a whole, but, as mentioned earlier, generally speaking, there were most lethal to young children and the elderly. Youngsters are susceptible because their immune systems are not yet fully developed while those of advanced age experience a breakdown of the protective mechanisms in the human body. In both instances, individuals involved are rendered extremely vulnerable to the onslaught of viruses.

Some afflictions, however, are classed as childhood diseases exclusively. From a historical point of view the most prevalent and mortal of these is Diphtheria and it has emerged from time to time to exact a heavy toll in misery and death from the very young.

The Diphtheria bacillus produces a toxin of great virulence which is highly contagious. It strikes at the throat, causing swelling and thereby obstructing both breathing and respiration. It is accompanied by headaches and a soaring fever. An attack is usually a week in duration and, during the nineteenth century, commonly ended in death.

A major outbreak of the disease occurred throughout California during the two year period between the summers of 1876 and 1878. This run of Diphtheria took place in an era when childhood mortality was already high, so the advent of such a noxious pestilence only darkened the picture and brought more sorrow to the families in Santa Cruz county. Across the years a random case of the disease was expected to appear and claim an occasional victim. But no one was ready for the onslaught which was about to befall the population.

During the entire year of 1875, there was but one death attributable to Diphtheria. It occurred on October 22, when fourteen year old John B. Cole, son of J.A. and Survina Cole died at his parents home in Santa Cruz. Young John would later prove to be the first of three Cole children to perish during the epidemic. The slow pace continued on into 1876 with only three deaths registered to the disease. But with the advent of summer, these figures jumped and by the end of the year there was an average of seven Diphtheria related deaths a month.

It was during this time that a new and most tragic phenomenon came into play - that of multiple deaths per family. Because the pestilence was so virulent and highly contagious, it would strike hard at a household and, in some instances, completely depopulate a family of its children.

Such was the case of Alfred and Sarah Hinds of Santa Cruz. Hinds was a prominent businessman with a socially active wife. But utter calamity befell their small family when, between thanksgiving and Christmas of 1876, all four of their infant children died of the malady. Also suffering a great loss was longtime Santa Cruz house painter Otis Longley and his wife Matilda, a daughter of pioneer Adna Hecox. The Longley's lost a son and two daughters within a period of two weeks. Stage coach driver Henry Whinery watched two of his children die in as many days. Meanwhile in the Pajaro Valley, the farm family of James and Naomi Blankenship lost the first of three children.

In all, this first year of the plague witnessed a total of thirty-nine fatalities due to Diphtheria. By year's end the county officials and local medical specialists were beginning to realize that the whole population was at risk when word of a state wide epidemic filtered in from other affected areas. But they were slow in taking any type of concerted action.

The high mortality rate continued on into 1877 and reached crisis proportions during the month of June, when, in the city of Santa Cruz alone, there was one death every other day. Hardly any family in the county was spared the agony of losing a child.

In February, Duncan McPherson, editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, lost his eldest son, Alexander. That same month witnessed Irish immigrants, Thomas and Kate Handley burying three of their children. Philipp Frank, a steward at the county hospital, inadvertently brought the disease home - a move which would cost him a daughter and two sons.

The infirmity swept through the lumber camps and lime quarries near Felton, decimating family after family. Two of the hardest hit were those of Alexander McDonald, who, in June, lost four children under the age of eight. During the same month, railroad section hand, Michael Cantwell and his wife Catherine mourned the passing of a son and daughter.

Diphtheria also laid waste to the hamlet of Corralitos in the Pajaro Valley, robbing the district of its children. John and Elmina Bradshaw watched four of their youngsters die, while William and Sophia Drew lost two, including the couple's beloved daughter Cora Elizabeth Drew.

The toll in human misery was crushing as the epidemic raged on, claiming one hundred and six children in 1877. But the community was also on the move, adjourning the schools while refurbishing and enlarging the hospital. The flow of information from health officials into the homes of the citizenry was facilitated by an eager and willing local press. Long standing problems of sewage disposal and sanitation endeavors were dealt with at last as the people of Santa Cruz county closed ranks against the pestilence which was plundering them of their young.

The rate of death remained high for the first two months of 1878, but the number gradually began to diminish as the health and sanitation measures began to take effect. By July, Diphtheria deaths were down to pre-contagion levels with the last death attributed to the epidemic coming on September 30, 1878, when Mary Alice Hall of Soquel succumbed to the disease.

During the two years of the plague there was at lease one hundred and seventy-five known fatalities as a result of Diphtheria. Because there were so many deaths and funerals in such a relatively short period of time, and because the mourning was almost constant, a vast number of families chose to bury their youngsters without the usual amount of ceremony and public notice. These facts make it obvious that the true mortality figures for this epidemic will never be known.

The nature and extent of the pestilence did, however, have a number of long lasting effects on the community. As mentioned earlier, the county did enlarge its medical facility to include ten more beds and a local doctor was hired to tend to the inmates, where as before the physician in attendance had been there strictly on a voluntary basis.

The Board of Public Health was given a broad range of power in order to allow it to take action during a declared emergency. Local legislation was passed granting the board the discretionary authority of the law to enforce these actions. Prior to this time, little or no attention had been given to county wide sanitation and waste disposal. The local press decried the metropolitan areas of Santa Cruz and Watsonville as "vast Cesspools" were raw sewage had been allowed to flow freely down the main streets.

In the city of Santa Cruz, this waste did congregate in several huge pools on Front Street and from there drain ran into the San Lorenzo River. At times the stench had been so putrid that residents had to cover their faces with handkerchiefs when passing through the area. At Watsonville, the sewage ran down Main and Rodriguez Streets before entering the Pajaro River near the bridge.

The coming of the epidemic forced the authorities in both cities to address this important question. At issue here was not only how to properly drain the city, but also how to control the overflow from privies. A series of public works projects were initiated, the object of which was to replace the old crude system of drainage with a new large volume reinforced pipe and cistern system. Although it would take several years to complete the project, it did indeed prove to be successful and held up nicely until the turn of the century.

In order to deal with the septic tank problem, the Common Councils (or City Councils) in both town passed ordinances mandating the use of the disinfectants lye and chlorine in "outhouses" and authorized the hiring of a health officer who's job it would be to regularly inspect dwellings and streets. He was also granted the necessary power to enforce rigid compliance with the sanitation laws.

Another institution greatly affected by the plague was the school system. During the late 1870s, the general population of Santa Cruz county rose significantly, but school censuses, taken annually, show that the number of students enrolled at local schools actually declined as much as five percent as a result of the epidemic. For a decade afterwards classes were smaller as was the number of graduating students. School revenues were down and the educational system as a whole suffered.

The Diphtheria epidemic of 1876-78 was by no means the last outbreak of the disease. Santa Cruz county would experience another sizable attack of the contagion during the winter of 1882, but it would strike with nowhere near the severity. Several others would follow later in the decade before an immunizing anti-toxin would be developed in the 1890s putting an end forever to this destructive malady.

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Published by Cliffside Publishing, 1993. Copyright 1993 Phil Reader. Text and photographs reproduced with the permission of Phil Reader.

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