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102 years ago — Nov. 1, 1918 – DEATH OF REV. GEORGE J. SAVAGE

Beloved and Devoted Pastor of St. Agnes’ Roman Catholic Parish, a Victim of Influenza

The National Hotel, located across the street from the Lake Placid train station, was used as a hospital in the fall of 1918 to deal with the cases of Spanish influenza. Lake Placid did not have a hospital until 1923. (Provided photo — Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society)

LAKE PLACID — With the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, we look back to Lake Placid’s history at the time of the Spanish influenza of 1918, the world’s deadliest pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people.

As with most small towns across America during World War I, Lake Placid was susceptible to the spread of disease. It could have come by the way of train passengers and automobilists or by locals traveling outside the area. This village was a fast-growing resort at the time, anchored by the popularity of the Lake Placid Club, and hotels were being established almost every year. No one was immune; however, the poorer residents were hit the hardest.

Death of Father Savage

As the Spanish flu spread throughout Lake Placid, one of the people trying to ease people’s pain was the Rev. George J. Savage, pastor of the St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church on Saranac Avenue, and he subsequently succumbed to the disease. On Nov. 1, 1918, the Lake Placid News reported on his Oct. 23 death:

“Good, faithful, sympathetic, loving, Father Savage gone from our midst. … Death was due to a complication of influenza and pneumonia, which the devoted priest no doubt contracted in the exercise of his sacred calling, that of administering comfort and solace to those stricken while the epidemic of influenza raged its worst in the community. With true apostolic zeal, he labored incessantly in the vineyard, heedless of the malady that had already seized upon him when on Saturday, Oct. 19, in sheer exhaustion of body he sank rapidly into his final rest the following Wednesday.

“In his passing, the church has lost a valuable shepherd, St. Agnes’ parish a faithful painstaking pastor and the community a leading citizen. Beloved by the entire populace of the village, regardless of creed, all had hoped against hope that he would master the malady, and as the few days of confined illness passed, their hopes grew stronger, only to be crushed Tuesday evening when the news from his bedside came that he was rapidly failing.”

Born in Moira, Savage graduated from the Malone High School and graduated from the University of Toronto and Laval University in Montreal. He was ordained to the priesthood at Ogdensburg by the Rt. Rev. Bishop Gabriels in 1901. He served in parishes in Madrid, Plattsburgh, Olmstedville and Westport before being transferred to Lake Placid five years before his death. His body was transported by train to Brushton for interment.

Influenza grips Placid

The Oct. 11, 1918, issue of the Lake Placid News reported on the status of the Spanish influenza in town:

“Lake Placid is having its scourge of the nationwide epidemic known as Spanish influenza. The disease broke out suddenly last week in various sections of the village and local physicians, nurses and pharmacies have since been working night and day to save patients and stay the progress of the malady.

“The Board of Health took action Monday morning by closing the school and theater. Churches will be affected too, it is said, if the disease is not under complete control by Sunday. However, at present writing, the outlook is much brighter, a marked decline in outbreak of new cases is noted. The fine weather seems to be aiding in the cleansing process, and the medical men are optimistic in their opinions that the plague has run its course in Lake Placid.

“Besides the two deaths recorded in the News last week, three more are added this week. Of course, in all instances, complications set in or the patient was already suffering from a weakened constitution and were unable to battle with influenza.

“… The disease now occurring in this country and called Spanish influenza resembles a very contagious kind of “cold” accompanied by fever, pains in the head, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body, and a feeling of severe sickness. In most of the cases, the symptoms disappear after three or four days, the patient then rapidly recovering; some of the patients, however, develop pneumonia, or inflammation of the ear, or meningitis, and many of these complicated cases die.”

Emergency hospital

The Oct. 18, 1918, issue of the Lake Placid News reported on how health officials were dealing with the Spanish flu in the community. And since there was no hospital, a building was needed to quarantine new cases.

“The necessity for hospital accommodation in Lake Placid was never so apparent as during the past couple of weeks, during which the time the Spanish influenza has been so prevalent and from which source the death rate has exceeded anything in the history of the community.

“The local physicians performed great work in the face of overwhelming odds. They worked night and day and up to the point of exhaustion in their efforts to allay the dread epidemic and the fact that numerous lives were saved is due to their untiring efforts.

“A noticeable fact is that all the deaths occurred among the poorer residents and is accounted for in the lack of proper housing facilities. Congested quarters and improper nursing all served to make recovery difficult.

“At a special meeting of the board of health held Oct. 17, it was decided that some place would have to be found that would serve as an emergency hospital. Dr. d’Avignon, health officer, advocated the National Hotel if procurable as the best place in town from the standpoint of equipment and interior arrangements. The other members of the board, F. S. Leonard, village president, Willis Wells, supervisor, and T. A. Leahy, sanitary inspector, concurred with Dr. d’Avignon and Mr. Leahy voiced his willingness to allow the use of his hotel for emergency purposes.

“Dr. d’Avignon emphasized the advantage of early checking in this disease as the surest means of saving lives, for as it advances, pneumonia invariably sets in, and recovery becomes doubtful. Then he says it is a nurse’s attention that is most needed. The physician is helpless without the aid of nurses; therefore, a hospital is vitally necessary.

“The announcement therefore that Mr. Leahy would turn over the National Hotel at the station for hospital purposes during the epidemic period was hailed by the physicians, the Red Cross and in fact all townspeople as the greatest aid that could possibly come at this time. Conditions were laid before the State Board of Health with the result that a New York physician and several nurses from Albany were dispatched here to aid the overworked local doctors and nurses.

“The National was opened for hospital purposes on Wednesday … Mr. E. E. MacConnell of the Lake Placid Pharmacy has turned his enclosed Overland delivery over to ambulance duty and already the new hospital is housing and caring for 20 patients. It is possible without altering or changing over the hotel in any way to house about 50 patients.

“The physicians and staff are all agreed that everything pertaining to the hotel is ideal. In fact, it makes a far better hospital than many a good sized city can boast. It contains a first class heating plant, has running hot and cold water, and bath connecting with every room, electric lights and call system, good light and perfect ventilation. …

“Even in the brief space of a couple of days, the advantage in coping successfully with the epidemic is apparent. Segregating the more serious cases can now be done. The doctors can attend patients without a hardship and orders can be carried out without a flaw. They have every confidence that within a short time they will have the epidemic under complete control with a minimum death rate.”

Hospital advocated

The Oct. 18, 1918, issue of the Lake Placid News reported on the need of establishing a hospital in Lake Placid, but that wouldn’t happen for another five years. The community raised money to purchase the home of the late Dr. Merritt Proctor on the shore of Mirror Lake, on the site of the former National Sports Academy. The Lake Placid General Hospital accepted its first patient on July 17, 1923 (LPN, Aug. 1, 1924).