Calgary lies at the edges of this story set in the ranching country west of town near Morley. The city sends out ripples of economic change. The oil and real-estate booms are “as a boomerang to the land,” bringing in “the wild-cat speculator, the get-rich-quick folk, the gold-brick seller and the train of clever swindlers that spring into being when a boom is in swing.” For the young farm woman, Nettie Day, the city offers escape from the cattle king who rapes her and the scandal of her resulting pregnancy. It also brings “eternal speed and noise, a feverish, rushing activity which would bewilder and terrify.” By late 1918, Nettie will see Calgary as “the city of gloom and plague” – a magnet for the sickness that is spreading from the battlefields of Europe.
Calgary might have been likened at that time to a beleaguered city, on guard for a dreaded enemy attack. The widely printed warnings, in newspapers and on placards in public places and street cars; the newspaper accounts of the progress of the sickness in Europe, the United States and the eastern part of Canada, with the long list of death’s grim toll, threw the healthy city of the foothills into a state of panic.
Schools were closed; people feared to go to church. Disinfectants were sprayed in all the stores and offices. Every cold, every sneeze was diagnosed as plague, and the mounting fear and hysteria awaited and perhaps precipitated the creeping enemy. For slowly, surely, pushing its way irresistibly over all the impediments and prayers to hold it back, the dreaded plague encroached upon Alberta.
The first definitely diagnosed cases came in early summer, which was raw and cold as always in that country. Only two or three cases were discovered at this time, but all of the medical and nursing profession volunteered or were conscripted for service to the city. Curiously enough, no means of protection were taken for the vast country that abounded on all sides of the city of the foothills.
The warm summer brought an abatement of the menace; but when the first chill swept in with the frosty fall, the plague burst overwhelmingly over the country.
Calgary, the city of sunlight and optimism, was now a place of pain and death. Scarcely a house escaped the dreaded visitor, and a curiosity of its effect upon its victims was that the young and strong were the chief sufferers. A haunting sense of disaster now brooded over the city. Hospitals, schools, churches, theatres and other public buildings were turned into houses of refuge. No one was permitted on the street without a mask – a piece of white gauze fastened across nose and mouth.
In this terrible crisis, the shortage of nurses and doctors was cruelly felt. An army of volunteer nurses were recruited by the city authorities, but these failed to supply adequate help for the stricken houses, and many there were who perished for lack of care and attention. The hospitals were crammed, as also were all the emergency places that had been transposed into temporary hospitals.
Despite almost superhuman efforts, the death lists grew from day to day. The ghastly sight of hearses, carts, automobiles and any and all types of vehicles, passing through the street freighted with Calgary’s dead, was an everyday occurrence.
Winnifred Eaton Reeve, Cattle (Toronto: The Musson Book Company Limited, [1923?])