After almost five years of bringing you programs on Frontiers, there’s one thing I’ve learned: Alaska is a historian’s paradise, with so many stories yet to be discovered and given their due.  The story of the Bristol Bay flu epidemic is one of those historical gems. 

This week on Frontiers, we travel back in time 100 years to 1919 -- the year the Spanish Flu swept through Bristol Bay -- in what turned out to be a second wave of sickness and death. The world had felt the brunt of a global pandemic the year before. 

Here are some of this week’s highlights:

  • The great flu of 1919: How canneries like the Diamond NN at South Naknek responded to the epidemic, in which an estimated 40 percent of the adult population died. 
  • The children left behind: How children, suddenly parentless, were initially cared for by the canneries and then later sent to orphanages. One of those was headed-up by Dr. Linus French, who treated the orphans even as he battled the flu himself. We hear from the descendants in one family.
  • Featured guests: Historians Tim Troll and Katie Ringsmuth. Troll has a new book out, "Bristol Bay Remembers, The Great Flu of 1919." Ringsmuth teaches history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and oversees the NN Cannery History Project.

Tim Troll’s entryway into this story makes me smile. When he was a volunteer at the Sam Fox Museum in Dillingham, he opened up a beautiful wooden box full of ivory artifacts that had just arrived from the Lower 48. Turns out, they were from the family of Dr. Linus French, who started the hospital at Kanakanak, near Dillingham.

After contacting French’s grandson, he learned that French kept a diary and was an amateur photographer, who had left behind hundreds of photographs taken during his time in Bristol Bay – including pictures of the children orphaned in the flu epidemic, which you can see in this week’s show.

Katie Ringsmuth’s path to this story was a little different. Her father was one of the last superintendents at the NN Cannery in Naknek and she spent many summers there as a child, primed to be curious about the cannery’s history. 

The NN Cannery was one of a chain of fish packing plants owned by the Alaska Packer’s Association. In their day they were outposts of the modern world, equipped with doctors, nurses and hospitals. They played a key role in fighting the epidemic and saving lives. Troll and Ringsmuth, through original letters and cannery reports, piece together the story.

But what makes this week’s show so compelling are the photographs of the children. Their eyes tell the story of loss and devastation. Each image captures details that offer clues to what the orphans collectively experienced.

This group of children went on to have hundreds of descendants and many of them became leaders of Bristol Bay -- so their story is not so much a story of tragedy, but one of hope, strength and resilience.  We hope you find it inspiring.

 

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