How bad luck and the Great War nearly crushed Duluth in 1918

Duluth barely knew what hit it.

Duluth barely knew what hit it. National Archives

On a fine June day in 1918, a large crowd in Duluth clamored in a half-moon arc. Before their eyes, a British “Britannia” tank approached a Ford automobile, its hungry treads churning slowly but steadily.

In moments, it trundled over the car and flattened it, almost chewing through it as a caterpillar leaves a destructive trail through a leaf. A cloud of exhaust plumed over the carnage.

Such demonstrations were common in the heady recruitment days of World War I. The tank would plow over 25 cars and smash through buildings as it toured the United States and Canada, impressing crowds with its insatiable might and drumming up support for war bonds.

But a photo from that day cast a haunting shadow.

About 100,000 people lived in Duluth in 1918. The town was bustling -- peaking, even -- and it wasn’t short on patriotic sentiment. By Memorial Day, the Duluth News Tribune estimated that about 5,000 of their own were “either on the firing line or in training for the greatest battles of all history.”

They couldn’t have known, watching that tank flatten a car, that an unprecedented number of those 5,000 would die -- not on the battlefield, but on military bases.

They’d contract a particularly nasty bout of Spanish flu, turn blue from lack of oxygen, and cough up foamy blood until they died. This strain alone would end up killing about 675,000 people in the United States in a single year. Coffin-makers couldn’t keep up with demand, so people turned to mass graves.

In Duluth, the epidemic shuttered “all public buildings, churches, schools, and theaters,” according to the Tribune’s Oct. 11 edition. Public funerals were banned to keep the disease in check. Only relatives and close friends could mourn the dead.

And it would get worse. In October, 450 more Duluthians would die in a massive fire -- a “red, flaming annihilation,” according to the Tribune.

Four fires sparked by coal-burning trains consumed one another until they became a raging storm traversing northeastern Minnesota at 65 mph. Some residents barricaded themselves in root cellars and suffocated as the fire swallowed the last remaining sips of air. Thousands were injured or lost homes.

The homeless were temporarily housed in an armory or in hospitals. As a result, the flu would take many of them too.

These disasters would send the city into a decline that would last for decades. In a single year, the city was, effectively, flattened.