What Can Nashville of 1918 Teach Us About How to Handle COVID-19?

Nashville classrooms left empty with blank chalkboards staring back at endless rows of unoccupied chairs. The Broadway strip noticeably devoid of any late-night party goers wreaking havoc on dimly lit honkytonk dance floors. Local businesses all across town shut down with vacant parking spots and barren store shelves. A global virus casting a heavy shadow over everyone who calls Nashville home.

I’m not describing the city as it stands today, but what it looked like 100 years ago. 

Nashville has been here before. 

It was an incredibly challenging time for the city, but we were able to come together and push through it then, and we will again now. 

I’d imagine the last thing you probably want to read about right now is more pandemic pandemonium, but stick with me – there’s some hope here. 

What the hell happened in Nashville back in 1918? And how can we learn from those events today as we tackle what feels like an unprecedented challenge facing our city and so many others around the world?

Let’s get curious.

COVID-19 has demanded cities in every corner of the world take drastic measures to protect their citizens. And while the virus is shaping up to be one of the most dangerous our world has collectively faced, we’ve seen eerily similar health challenges before right here in Nashville. 

Turn the clock back to 1918, and you’ll find the city of Nashville holding some of the same iconic buildings that still frequent its streets today. Union Station towered over rows of railroad tracks, students shuffled in and out of Hume-Fogg high school, and the building now housing Acme Feed and Seed down on the bottom of Broadway was host to Bearden Buggy Company (whose logo you can still find painted on the backside of Acme). 

Of course, you likely wouldn’t confuse it with modern-day Nashville because, you know, cranes. 

Another striking similarity between the Nashville of 1918 and the Nashville of 2020 though is that all of these buildings would be empty due to a global pandemic.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was a virus strikingly similar to what we’re facing today. It’s believed to have started in animals, moved to humans, and proceeded to cause a variety of respiratory symptoms that would classify it as a coronavirus by World Health Organization standards

First reports of the virus in Nashville came on September 27th 1918 when local newspapers reported a handful of cases later confirmed by city health officials. The city wasn’t surprised as the virus had been spreading all over the world in previous months. 

To make things even more unusually similar, Nashville in September of 1918 was recovering from a tragedy similar to the tornadoes we recently felt only a few weeks ago. On the morning of July 9th 1918, two trains collided outside Union Station in an event causing over 100 deaths and another 100 injuries in what has been labeled the deadliest train crash in U.S. history

In September, cases of the Spanish Flu were mounting in Nashville and, by October 8th, the city moved to close all non-essential amusement venues and shut down the city’s schools.

Despite this, there were those in the community vehemently denying the realities of what the city faced. Owners at Old Hickory, one of the largest industrial plants in Nashville, refused to close their factory and claimed there were no cases among their 35,000 workers despite frequent hospitalizations coming in from the factory. 

Sound familiar? 

Steve Smith, owner of Tootsies, Rippy’s, Kid Rock’s, and Honky Tonk Central pulled a similar stunt when he announced that his Broadway bars would stay open despite recommendations from the CDC, World Health Organization, and local law officials.

So we’ve got pre-virus tragedies, corona spreading across Nashville, school shutdowns, and business owners refusing to close up shop. 

Where’s the hope part in all of this, again? 

Well for one, Steve Smith quickly rolled back on his decision and agreed to close down Broadway. Old Hickory meanwhile stayed open throughout the pandemic and ended up with an estimated 10,000 cases among its workforce. 

Damn Old Hickory.

But part of the reason Old Hickory stayed open was because there was this whole thing going on across the Atlantic called World War 1, and Old Hickory had re-geared the factory to produce gunpowder for the war effort. Meanwhile, today’s factories across the world are shifting production toward medical supplies to combat the virus.

Before 1918 Nashville succeeded in shutting down schools and businesses other than Old Hickory, over 10,000 cases of Spanish Flu had already spread across the city. Nashville of 2020 is on lockdown with only a handful of COVID-19 cases currently reported, and Governor Lee just announced Tennessee will begin using state funds to issue payments of up to $1,000 a month for families in need.

Looking at it from a different angle, today’s Nashville is ahead of the curve in shutting down businesses and schools, we’ve got everyone on board with quarantine memes spreading faster than the virus, and instead of being in the midst of World War 1, we have countries exchanging information, supplies, and strategies on how we can fight this virus as a unified world. 

There are still a lot of tough times ahead of us. Check any other news source and you’ll be sure to find out why. But if Nashville’s history from over 100 years ago can teach us one thing, it’s that we’re going to make it through this together. 

Stay curious.


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