Grande Prairie Pandemic

Grande Prairie’s Valiant Efforts to Combat the Flu and Honour its Victims

Ellen Scheinberg

Grande Prairie is located in Alberta, about 450 km north-west of Edmonton. At the time of the epidemic, it was a small, recently incorporated town. The area was originally home to a number of First Nations communities, including the Cree and Iroquois. The land rush of the early twentieth century drew dozens of families from different parts of Europe to settle there. By 1913, Grande Prairie had a school, a small hospital and an Immigration Hall for arriving settlers, along with a bank, hotel, post office and land office. Three years later, Grande Prairie could also boast a new railway terminal, connecting it to the rest of the country. And by the end of the war, the town had a burgeoning population of about a thousand people. While the community was similar to many other small Canadian Prairie towns during this period, it’s response to the pandemic was uniquely compelling, and therefore worthy of recounting and commemorating.

Main street of Grande Prairie with view of the confectionery, Crown Café, pool hall and other attractions, 1915. South Peace Regional Archives, 0032.08.08.0368

The Spanish flu epidemic struck Alberta in November of 1918, ultimately killing 4,300 Albertans. Although some isolated prairie villages and towns were spared the ravages of the flu, Grande Prairie was hit hard, experiencing two separate waves, in November 1918 and January 1919. About three dozen residents perished. Since the virus was spread across the country by the military along the rail lines, the presence of the new terminal in town likely served as the entry point of the contagion.

However, Grande Prairie was quite fortunate to have a small hospital – the Katherine Prittie Hospital —  that had been established and operated by the local Presbyterian missionary, Reverend Alexander Forbes and his wife Agnes, since 1914. The facility was quickly inundated with patients after the first wave of the pandemic struck the community. In response, the local Board of Health temporarily converted the Immigration Hall into a temporary isolation hospital to accommodate influenza patients.

Grande Prairie Immigration Hall, 1918. South Peace Regional Archives, 2002.54.34.

At around the same time, the town was grappling with an even greater challenge. In early 1918, James B. Oliver, the director of the local funeral home and undertaker, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was sent overseas. James, or “Jimmy” as his friends called him, was also the only person in town who owned a flat-bed cart. He used his horse drawn cart to transport patients to the hospital as well as coffins to the cemetery. Consequently, his absence made it impossible for Grande Prairie to function during this unparalleled health crisis. In response, town officials sent an urgent plea to federal military staff, asking if they would be willing to de-commission Jimmy and send him home. Unfortunately, the government refused the request.   

Portrait of Frank Donald, ca. 1925. South Peace Regional Archives, 1997.13.54.

The individual who boldly stepped into his role was Frank Donald, the local hotel owner and a popular race car driver. In addition to running the transport service, funeral home and cemetery, Donald also devised a solution to contend with the mounting number of bodies that couldn’t be interred due to the frozen soil. He purchased a parcel of land beside the main cemetery – situated less than a kilometer south-east of town – with soft, sandy earth that was perfect for quick fall and winter burials. It was named Bear Creek Cemetery. Close to 40 flu victims were laid to rest there in 1918-1919, although some were relocated to another nearby cemetery after the pandemic.

In 1975, the community restored Bear Creek Cemetery and erected a sign identifying it as the resting place for those who perished during the “Asian Flu” pandemic. This innocent error has been noted by locals. A lovely cairn was also installed in this cemetery, honouring the individuals interred there. In addition to these important cemetery initiatives, Grande Prairie in 2014 named a park for Frank Donald to pay tribute to his significant achievements and other contributions to the community. After the outbreak, he opened a second hotel called the Hotel Donald, invested in two of the local movie theatres, raised cattle, and became a prominent race horse breeder. He was truly a remarkable individual and deserving of this honour. It’s hard to fathom how the town could have coped had he not stepped forward to provide the leadership the town required to weather that harrowing storm.

Photographs of Bear Creek Cemetery, 2009. Daily Herald Tribune, 20 November 2009.