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The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and How It Affected the City of Schenectady, New York
Chapter V: Schenectady in 1918

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[This information is from pp. 34-38 of The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and How It Affected the City of Schenectady, New York by Alan Morris (Schenectady: Union College, 1986) and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 974.744 Mor. Title inside cover is America and Influenza: The Pandemic of 1918-19 and How It Affected the City of Schenectady, New York.]

With a population of about 90,000, Schenectady was typical of most U. S. cities of similar size. (1) Schenectady was primarily an industrial city and nearly thirty percent of its population were factory employees. By 1915, Schenectady had the highest percentage of factory employees within its population than any other city in New York State. General Electric and the American Locomotive Company employed approximately ninety percent of all factory workers. At the start of the war, G. E. had almost 20,000 employees on its payroll, and ALCO employed about 8000. Owing to the nature of the products made at these two plants, most of the blue collar workers, about seventy percent according to a survey conducted by the New York Department of Labor in 1915, were skilled. (2)

General Electric and ALCO retooled for war production shortly after Woodrow Wilson announced the United States' intention of entering the European conflict. Both plants were kept opened twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week. Overtime was the rule rather than the exception. For the first time, women joined the workforce in great numbers, not only in the factories but many of the municipal jobs vacated by men entering military service. For the military, G. E. produced searchlights, lighting systems for shipyards, and radio equipment. ALCO was under government contract to produce locomotives exclusively for military use. (3)

Schenectady was truly a city caught up in the patriotic fervor of the war. Mayor Charles A. Simon clearly reflected this feeling in the Mayor's Message for the year ending in November, 1918:

We cannot help but reflect with justifiable pride upon the splendid achievements of the people of Schenectady in the common cause which united America and the allied world. It requires no egotism to declare that no municipality in the land has done more than our own City of Schenectady in dedicating itself to the preservation of the ideals of American liberty and free government. This city gave over 5,000 of its sons and daughters toward the great crusade for human justice, it magnificently over-subscribed to every Liberty Loan of the federal government, it gave far more than its quota in the vigorous campaign for true Americanism, and it met every cause in which it was asked to enlist its efforts in a spirit and with an enthusiasm that was characteristic of its best traditions. (4)

The various war campaigns mentioned by Simon included the Navy's "Appeal for Binoculars," the "Our Boys in France Tobacco Fund," and the War Savings Stamp program. Hardly a day passed when the Schenectady Gazette did not run a patriotic editorial, or that a fund-raising event did not occur. Schenectadians generously contributed to the peachstone drive (used to make gas mask filters) and many started victory gardens to help lessen the homefront consumption of staple foods. (5)

As 1918 wore on, the patriotic spirit seemed to grow stronger. War heroes were brought to the city to speak at bond rallies which often turned into parades down State Street. Many city organizations sponsored evening speeches by politicians, clergymen, civic leaders and military personnel. (6)

The war also caused the citizens of Schenectady, like everyone all over the country, to make certain sacrifices. The "Hoover Economy" (Herbert Hoover was the Wartime Food Administrator) called for people to consume less food, particularly sugar, butter and flour. In late 1917, the government implemented "heatless Mondays" to save coal, and the spring of 1918 brought "gasless Sundays" to conserve gasoline for the war effort. Additional restrictions were placed on tin, leather, steel and rubber. (7)

In 1918 Schenectady was a Republican city. The mayor, as well as all thirteen members of the Board of Aldermen (the Common Council) were Republicans. Each member of the Common Council represented one of the city's thirteen wards. There were eight other city officers: Comptroller, City Treasurer, Corporation Counsel, Commissioner of Public Safety, Commissioner of Charities and Health Officer. The Common Council met on a weekly basis and was responsible for approving nearly all city legislation. As we shall see, the Mayor has the power to call special committees together, and in times of emergency can issue proclaimations in the form of excutive orders. (8)

Union College also underwent many changes because of the war. Shortly after the U.S. entered the war, a group of Union Faculty members went for military training camp near Plattsburgh. One Union professor wrote, "[They] realized that there was danger in the air and that the teachers of young men should know something about military training." (9)

In the fall of 1918, Union became a military post under the authority of the Students' Army Training Corps (SATC). The purpose of the SATC was to select the most promising students and transfer them to Officers' Candidate School. Most of the student body was inducted into the army and given the rank of private. The commander of the unit was a Major Harding who was obviously disappointed that he did not get active service. The Army took over various college buildings for its own use: Alumni Gym became a mess hall, Delta Upsilon (Lamont House) was the infirmary, Psi U and Phi Gamma Delta were officers' quarters, and the Kappa Alpha lodge was used as a recreation hall. Although the Army frowned on fraternity activities, most houses did manage to initiate new brothers, and the houses not taken over by the SATC were left open. The College continued to teach civilian courses, but most of the teaching was geared to military application. In addition, the college still particpated in intercollegiate athletics. (10)

In 1918, there were 105 physicians (an additional fourteen were serving with the military) and two hospitals, Glenridge and Ellis, serving Schenectady. Glenridge, then known as The Schenectady County Tuberculosis Hospital, was used exclusively as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. There is no record of any influenza cases being sent there during the pandemic. Ellis opened at its present site in 1906 after moving from Jay Street. The hospital is named for John Ellis, the founder of ALCO, because his son, Charles Ellis, bequeathed $25,000 to the hospital in his father's name. In 1918 the American College of Surgeons, today known as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, accredited Ellis for the first time. (11) Ellis Hospital had 23 physicians on staff in 1918. In addition to general practioners, there were specialists in the following fields: Ophthalmology, Gynecology, Obstetrics, Pediatrics, Pathology, Radiology, Dermotology and Neurology. Between June 30, 1918 and June 30, 1919, Ellis treated 3,771 patients, admitted 3,685, and recorded 304 deaths. Influenza accounted for 552 admittances and 108 deaths. Furthermore, 335 admittances and 130 deaths were attributed to pneumonia. (12)

The fall of 1918 began with a public protest against the Schenectady Railway Company which had sought to raise its trolley fare from five to six cents. The company claimed that it had to raise the fare because the War Labor Board had awarded its employees a five cent increase so that the minimum wage went from forty-three to forty-eight cents per hour. The public, claiming that raising the fare was directly in contrast with the patriotic spirit of the war effort, got the company to withdraw the request. Unfortunately, the citizens of Schenectady were about to begin a battle with an enemy from which they could neither see nor protect themselves. (13)

Chapter V Footnotes

  1. Larry Hart, Schenectady's Golden Era, 1880-1930, 1974, p. 271. This figure is an estimate; the 1920 U.S. Census showed a population of 95,692.
  2. Karl Saindon, A Social Portrait of Socialist Schenectady, 1977, pp. 10, 13, 18.
  3. Hart, p. 269; Larry Hart, The Hospital on the Hill, Ellis Hospital… the First 100 Years, 1985, p. 77; The General Electric Story: The Steinmetz Era, 1892-1923, 1977, pp. 56-58.
  4. "Mayor's Message," Proceedings of the Common Council of the City of Schenectady for the Year 1918, Volume 2, Reports, 1918, p. 5.
  5. Hart, Schenectady's Golden Era, p. 270.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Proceedings, Vol. 2, Preface.
  9. Charles Newman Wardon, The Union College I Remember, 1902-1946, 1951, p. 51.
  10. Ibid., pp. 51-54.
  11. Hart, Schenectady's Golden Era, pp. 251-2; Hart, The Hospital on the Hill, p.79.
  12. The Hospital Association of the City of Schenectady, Report for the Year Ending June 30, 1919, pp. 6, 13, 26, 28.
  13. Hart, Schenectady's Golden Era, p. 271.

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