Weather Window: Flu, war and airmail

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Nevada Historical Society/Community submitted photo

Last week I participated in the National Automobile Museum’s 2010 Biennial History Symposium that focused on the years 1910 to 1920. My presentation was titled and#8220;A Snapshot in Time in the Tahoe-Sierra.and#8221; Like most students of history, when I first thought about key events during the second decade of the 20th century, World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic came to mind. And yes, both of those events deeply affected the community of Truckee.

The war effort, from 1914-1918 took men from the community and for several years negatively impacted important tourist traffic during both winter and summer. The Spanish Flu Pandemic, the most devastating disease outbreak in history, killed at least 21 million people worldwide. By the time the flu reached Truckee in October 1918, the town’s two doctors had requested citizens wear masks and avoid all public gatherings, including schools. Drs. George Bryant and Joseph Bernard did their best to handle the hundreds of infected people, some local and some rescued off of passing trains for emergency treatment.

Truckee’s pair of doctors worked tirelessly and eventually Dr. Bernard fell ill himself, leaving Dr. Bryant on his own to treat the overwhelming number of patients. Women volunteers with the local branch of the Red Cross did their best to comfort victims, preparing nourishing meals and gallons of hot soup for the bedridden. It’s not known how many members of the Truckee community died during this epidemic, but the impact was significant. Fortunately, Dr. Bernard recovered, but the exposure to disease and Herculean efforts by Dr. Bryant may have compromised his immune system and he died from a flu virus four years later.

The First World War and devastating flu made headlines, but further research, along with material provided by Gordon Richards, a former Truckee Donner Historical Society researcher, illustrated how transformative the decade was for transportation in many Sierra communities as well as for isolated Nevadans.

By 1910, most Americans had heard of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first successful flight in a winged aircraft in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, N.C., although few had seen an airplane with their own eyes. But in 1910, the Los Angeles Airshow attracted reporters and spectators from throughout the West, and after the show each town and city wanted the daring aviators to show off for their communities, but only the largest cities (none in Nevada) could afford their fees.

Initially air travel was too expensive and complex for individual entrepreneurs. Similar to the development of railroad and highway transportation, it took the power and resources of the federal government to develop aviation. During World War I, the Army Air Service established 69 airfields across the U.S. These bases became part of a nationwide network of airways and landing fields that permitted rapid movement of units across the country for military purposes.

On May 15, 1918, the U.S. Postal Service inaugurated airmail service between New York City and Washington, D.C. Soon postal officials laid out a transcontinental air mail route between San Francisco and New York via Reno, Elko, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Omaha, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Airplane flights quickly became routine in major American cities.

The decade was also revolutionary for the automobile and highway system. Car dealers and manufacturers had previously proven the technology capable of surviving the rough dirt roads of Nevada and the Sierra, but few cars were actually on rural western roads by 1910. Away from the transcontinental railroad, most early traveling was done by horseback and stagecoach. By 1915, planning and construction for the nation’s first highway system was underway, and auto touring and car camping had become of favorite pastime for summer visitors to Truckee and Lake Tahoe.

and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning author and professional speaker. His books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at

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