1918 Pandemic and Fort William Public Library

Over the last 140+ years, public libraries in Thunder Bay have weathered a lot along with and as part of this amazing community. This week I wanted to look back on what transpired in the Fort William Public Library (FWPL) during another global pandemic; the 1918 influenza pandemic that began on the heels of the First World War. The following is an excerpt from an ongoing project by current library staff related to the history of the Thunder Bay Public Library:

Fort William was struck in the fall of 1918 and the FWPL was ready to lend a helping hand. The library quickly transformed into an emergency hospital for overflow of patients from nearby McKellar Hospital. The basement reading room “assumed the appearance of a hospital ward” with twelve hospital beds installed, supplied by the Wright Furniture Company, and more beds were made available as needed from the Frederic Hotel on Gore Street West (FWDTJ 1918, 30 October). The Fort William Daily Times Journal newspaper closely tracked the epidemic and reported updates almost daily in relation to how the community would be able to access library services and collections. The library closed to the public on 24 October 1918 but still permitted the returning of books. After Saturday 26 October 1918 the building closed completely due to concerns for public health with other recreational buildings and attractions closing and the library building “becoming crowded and…regarded as being a menace to health and a possible focus of infection” (FWDTJ 1918, 24 October).

The Library expected to take in its first influenza patients the evening of 8 November 1918 (FWDTJ 1918, 9 November), despite the FWDTJ reporting on 4 November 1918 that there was only a remote probability the library building would be called upon for temporary patient quarters (FWDTJ 1918, 4 November). In the end, the emergency hospital facility in the reading room of the library hosted a number of city pensioners instead of flu patients. The pensioners were moved to the library between 9 November to 23 November in order to free up beds at the hospital for those suffering from the flu (FWDTJ 1918, 9 November). This allowed valuable emergency services at the McKellar Hospital to focus on their most pressing cases. By the end of the epidemic there were 737 reported flu cases between Fort William and Port Arthur with 18 confirmed deaths. The FWPL reopened its doors on 28 November 1918 to resume full public library service.

This excerpt makes me think about what we are all going through right now and the extraordinary changes that have occurred and are yet to come. We are also participating in a partnership initiative led by Lakehead University to focus on preserving the historical significance of this time. The Thunder Bay Museum and the City Archives are involved as well and the Museum has created an online portal for you to share your photos related to COVID-19 and its impact on your life; check out their website for details. Additional material can be shared with the world through the Library’s online database, Gateway to Northwestern Ontario History, by going to the Community Contributions section and uploading your stories, video, or other relevant records of interest to future researchers and historians. 

At the moment the Library is entering a multi-phased plan for offering library services  and there is more information available on our website and social media with regular updates. Timing will depend on how long it will take to have all of the safety precautions in place for staff and the community. We are all in this together and the Thunder Bay Public Library looks forward to another 140+ years of service to Thunder Bay. 

Jesse Roberts – – www.tbpl.ca. If you have a comment about today’s column, we would love to hear from you. 

Brodie library

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