Local historians still get emotional when recounting the story of the Spanish Flu outbreak in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Richard Merritt, a writer and retired ophthalmologist, takes a moment to compose himself when talking about the tragic events of 102 years ago. “It’s an amazing story, it’s multifaceted, and it’s commemorated every year,” he says.
In 1918, Niagara-on-the-Lake — now famous for its wine, tourism, and theatre — was home to a military training camp called Niagara Camp. One of its two facilities, opened in May 1918, housed mostly Canadian Army conscripts. The other, known as Camp Kościuszko and established in fall 1917, was for North American Polish volunteers who had enlisted to help their homeland, which had been partitioned by Russian, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary in the late 1700s; they fought in a separate force, under the French flag. By 1919, 21,000 Polish soldiers had trained there under Canadian officers.
“The boys,” as Merritt affectionately calls them, scared Niagara locals when they first came to town. In his 2015 book, Training for Armageddon, he notes that residents changed their locks and that the town council rushed to get the jail in order in preparation for an influx of foreign fighting men. But, he says, the soldiers’ good behaviour endeared them to locals, who opened their homes and workplaces to billet trainees during the cold winter months so that they wouldn’t have to sleep in canvas tents. The library started offering Polish history books, and women’s groups began raising funds for Polish relief efforts.
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“Things were going along quite well until about September 17, 1918, when it became apparent that that there was a problem in the Polish camp,” Merritt says. Men were falling ill with chills, aches, fever, and a cough.
Although some historians argue that Quebec beat Niagara to the unfortunate distinction by a couple of days, local experts are certain: Camp Kościuszko had become the site of Canada’s first Spanish Flu outbreak.
Merritt says the virus was likely imported along with trainees from the United States, where there were large outbreaks. Once inside the crowded camp, it spread quickly. Despite efforts to separate the sick from the healthy, men soon started to die. Over the course of two surges of infection — the second of which happened in January 1919 — 31 Polish trainees and two Canadian officers died.
“The real tragedy, of course, is that these men were all volunteers,” Merritt says. “They had all volunteered to fight for the repatriation of their homeland, Poland, which had been occupied by other countries for 125 years. These men were dying almost as martyrs.”
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, which was then a town of about 800, two people died of the virus. The community enacted a lockdown, closing schools, churches, and businesses for several weeks, Merritt says. Physical distancing does not seem to have been a tactic used to limit transmission, he adds. In fact, during the first surge of the virus, soldiers from Camp Kościuszko marched into town for a festive tradition known as a cook’s parade, complete with crossdressing and men grouped together under fabric to represent the flu germ. Gauze masks were adopted as a preventative measure but, although this wasn’t known at the time, they could actually aid in spreading infection when damp; cigarettes were delivered to men in the camp, because of a mistaken belief that smoking would tamp down the virus.
The people of Niagara-on-the-Lake continued to support the men at Camp Kościuszko during the outbreak. The Polish White Cross in Buffalo sent aid, and local women volunteered to care for them. One such woman was Elizabeth Ascher, a reporter for the St. Catharines Standard whom men called the “Angel of Mercy.” Born in Niagara in 1869, Ascher became interested in the fight to free Poland. She reported on the outbreak at the camp for the Standard and for American papers and worked to raise money for Polish relief.
Ascher, who was also an active member of multiple community groups, has not received the credit she deserves, says Roman Baraniecki of the Polonia Canadian Institute for Historical Studies: “People have short memories.” Baraniecki, who lives in London, worked with Merritt, his colleague Andrew Kawka, and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum to put on a 2018 exhibit marking the 100-year anniversary of the Niagara Camp outbreak. The exhibit prominently featured Ascher. Like Merritt, whose voice breaks when he talks about Ascher, Baraniecki is moved when he reflects on her leadership and commitment to her community: “I have authentic goosebumps when I talk about this,” he says.
In recent years, Baraniecki worked with historian Donald Combe to design a marker for Ascher’s grave at St. Mark’s Anglican Church, in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It recognizes her role during the pandemic — and also spells her surname correctly (which is not the case with her tombstone). Combe says that, while Niagara officially recognizes the role such men as British general Sir Isaac Brock played in the formation of the colony, the contribution of such people as Ascher does not get as much attention. “Ascher was a power in town and someone not to be meddled with,” he says, adding that, perhaps unlike Brock, she and others like her “were more interested in what they were doing than having credit for it. It seems to me a more selfless way of behaving.” Baraniecki one day hopes to see a street named after her.
One of the more remarkable parts of the story about the Polish camp, according to Merrit, is that the outbreak has been commemorated every year since 1919 — and not just by history buffs. After the outbreak, Ascher helped care for the cemetery in which trainees from Camp Kościuszko are buried. Today, those graves, which sit on land in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery that the Canadian government has designated as sovereign Polish territory, are the site of an annual pilgrimage on the second Sunday every June. The tradition started in May 1919, when a group of local women placed flowers on the soldiers’ graves, and there was a mass and a march outside the cemetery. The ceremony now also includes a stop at Ascher’s grave, across the street. “I thought probably this year, ironically, another pandemic would bring an end to that record,” Merritt says. But that wasn’t the case. Kawka says that, while no big ceremony took place this year, about 100 people came to pay their respects throughout the day. “People remember,” Kawka says, adding that he went with some friends to lay flowers at the enclosure and on Ascher’s grave. “I spent $200 on flowers. … I felt bad not going.”
Kawka has gone every year since 2008, when he first learned about Niagara Camp. He says the reason the soldiers’ sacrifice and Ascher’s work are honoured each year is simple: “Without Canadians’ help, the Polish Army would never have been created,” as the training and manpower provided by the volunteers at Camp Kościuszko was essential to freeing Poland. Baraniecki agrees. Without that army and, by extension, the Niagara Camp, he says, “Poland would not be independent.”
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