Louisville during the 1918 Spanish Flu

By Jay Ferguson, Louisville Water Museum Education Specialist

The Spanish Flu swept the world in 1918. Louisville suffered the worst of it during the latter half of the year and into the beginning of 1919.

Flu symptoms first appeared locally at Camp Zachary Taylor, the World War I Army training camp, then quickly spread across the city, region, and state.

To combat this disease, much like the precautions we’re taking today, travel restrictions were put in place. Soldiers were confined to camp. Then public gathering places such as schools, churches, and some entertainment venues were closed or had restricted operating hours. And of course, those infected by the flu were ordered to stay home.

According to my research, the effect on work at Louisville Water seemed rather minimal. However, company officials did show concern over the cost of labor. At the time, the United States also was gearing up for the war, so it was difficult to find and retain workers. In response to the competitive environment, Louisville Water increased pay to keep employees with the company.

Records show that an employee named Adam Schwartz, was singled out for a pay raise and we surmise he must have been an exceptional worker. He was an emergency turner and often substituted as night watchman. Discussing pay raises, the Board of Water Works noted he was, “particularly experienced in the work and therefore very valuable. We cannot afford to lose him at this time, although he can secure a better position.”

In a smaller yet notable impact from the Spanish Flu,  Louisville Water’s board was scheduled to meet weekly, but in 1918, at the height of the pandemic, the board met only five times between September and the end of the year—and never for two weeks in a row. In 1917 and 1919, the Board met seven times during the same period. Was 1918 an anomaly or did they intentionally hold fewer meetings because of the flu? It was never noted.

Though existing records don’t go into much detail about how Louisville Water operations were impacted during the world’s last major pandemic, we absolutely know COVID-19 has had a great effect on our present-day operations. We’ve responded to the crisis in a variety of ways, such as closing our lobby for in-person payments, suspending turn-offs, and moving educational programming to a digital format. However, the one thing that will never change is our commitment to providing all our customers with high-quality, safe drinking water.