Published: June 1, 2020 By

SATC camp at CU Boulder during Spanish FluThey stashed the bodies in the steam tunnel between Woodbury and Macky.

No, that isn’t the opening sentence of someone’s attempt at writing the Great CU Novel. It really happened on campus during the flu epidemic of 1918 during the final weeks of World War I.

The epidemic reached CU Sept. 19, with the arrival on campus of a detachment of several hundred troops from Montana. They were part of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), college students who joined the army and were to be trained in high-tech skills, like radio operation and aircraft engine mechanics.

CU had contracted with the War Department to provide the training.

Patient Zero arrived with the detachment. He had gone hunting before leaving Montana. By the time the Montanans reached CU, four men were sick.

Five days later, 75 troops were in isolation at the Sigma Chi fraternity house and the Alpha Tau Omega house.

The SATC students who were billeted in the Armory were moved out and dispersed into “barracks-like tents” so that the building could be used as a hospital.

On Sept. 28, as students were returning to Boulder for the start of the fall quarter, the number of cases had risen to 92. By Oct. 1, the first deaths on campus were reported. By Nov. 11, there were 19 deaths on campus.

The top two floors of Woodbury also were turned into a hospital. According to CU archivist Michael Dombrowski, who wrote a brief history of the epidemic, the dead were placed in a makeshift morgue in the steam tunnel running between Woodbury and Macky Auditorium.

As has often been the case when CU hits a rough patch, the Boulder community pitched in and did what it could. But the city soon had its own epidemic to cope with.

On Oct. 7 the Daily Camera reported that the entire town (population 15,387) had been quarantined. All schools, churches and movie theaters were closed.

The same day, CU shut down.

By the time the quarantine was lifted Nov. 10, 1,289 cases of the flu had been reported in the city, resulting in 64 deaths.

CU classes resumed Nov. 11. Assuming classes began at 8 a.m., the armistice on the Western Front in France would have been less than four hours old.

The surviving SATC students were mustered out of the army Dec. 23, in time to be home by Christmas.

Photos courtesy Carnegie Library for Local History, Museum of Boulder Collection