Death at Mrs. Cooney’s Hotel: When an influenza epidemic devastated a small town in Alaska

In spring 1920, Sanova Efelena Cooney became one of the 50 million worldwide victims of Spanish flu. May 10, 1920, marks the 100th anniversary of her death in Nenana. At the time she was struck down from pneumonia, she was serving as a volunteer Red Cross nurse in the 100-bed hotel she generously donated for use as a temporary emergency hospital. Contingency plans to convert her hotel to a hospital were conceived well before the flu epidemic hit her small town. Before and after the dreaded flu arrived, Sanova made her life matter. She is an example of what it means to extend one’s humanity to benefit the greater good. Her life is a poignant lesson in the generosity of the human spirit in the midst of an epic influenza crisis. This is Sanova’s story.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 1918, residents of the village of Nenana were awakened by the blowing of a loud whistle and the joyous ringing of the city fire bell. News had just been received from Fairbanks — 50 miles northeast of Nenana — that the armistice had been signed between the Allies of the Great World War and Germany. The war was finally over. “Firearms and other noisemakers of every kind were brought out by patriotic residents, and in a very short period of time an enthusiastic celebration was begun,” reported the Nenana Daily News. Later that morning when school assembled, patriotic songs were sung, the principal announced a school holiday, and the children lined up to form a peace parade. Led by an older student dressed as Uncle Sam and another student who “lustily banged on a drum,” the children paraded through the town, each holding an American flag.

On that cold Armistice Day morning, one woman in Nenana was especially busy. Her son, Melville, was marching in the peace parade and would be arriving home early. She, along with her husband, owned the largest hotel in town, and she had guests to attend to. Already overextended, she had just been appointed as a member of the subcommittee of the local Red Cross Influenza Committee, according to a Nenana Daily News announcement. Her mission would be to locate buildings suitable for hospitals in the event Nenana was subject to the worldwide pandemic Spanish flu. So far, the region had been spared. But her work on the committee would have to wait.

Later that evening, Mrs. Michael J. Cooney — Sanova to her friends — would be one of several prominent residents participating in the Armistice Signing Celebration at the Nenana Coliseum. Sanova would read the closing poem, “The Angel of Peace,” and she had practicing to do. Little did she realize the profound significance of her appointment that day to the Red Cross Influenza Committee. She could not have known then that, as part of that committee, she would play a key role in decisions and heroic actions that would ultimately lead to her own premature death 18 months later of a particularly virulent strain of Spanish flu.

Her journey begins

She was born Sanova Efelena Simpson on June 4, 1878, in Missouri. In 1888, her parents moved to the territory of Washington where her father James tried his hand at hops farming, and her mother Henrietta managed a hotel in Fairhaven, Washington. Eight weeks before the stock market crash of 1893, Sanova’s mother Henrietta took $1,500 in cash she had inherited from her father and bought a block of land in Puyallup, Washington. Sensing opportunity during the goldrush of 1898, Sanova’s mother left her seven children in Washington to run a hotel and restaurant in Skagway, Alaska. By 1899, her mother also owned a bakery in nearby Bennett, British Columbia, gateway to the goldmines of the Yukon. (The bakery was two doors down from the Arctic Hotel and Restaurant owned by President Donald Trump’s grandfather, Fred Trump.) In 1900, her mother expanded her business, building a hotel in Dawson City in the Yukon. Sanova followed her mother to Dawson City in 1901 and opened her own restaurant called the Royal Café. After marrying businessman Peter Steil with whom she had a son, Melville, Sanova’s young family settled in the Fairbanks area during the region’s goldrush around 1906. Later divorcing Steil, she married Michael Cooney in 1914 and opened the Cooney Hotel.

The formal opening of the Cooney Hotel Annex was held on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1920. Hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Michael J. Cooney, the gala was held in the hotel’s lobby, which according to news accounts was “one of the largest, if not the largest in the Territory” of Alaska. The addition to the hotel was necessary to accommodate the increasing number of people visiting the town since the Alaska Railroad had completed construction of a line between Fairbanks — 50 miles away — and Nenana. Nenana had been a mere trading post at the turn of the century until discovery of gold near Fairbanks resulted in an influx of people to the region. Mrs. Cooney’s hotel, the nicest in town, was nearly always filled to capacity.

The big hotel lobby and annex “presented a pretty scene,” reported the Nenana Daily News. “The costumes of the many beautifully gowned women harmonized well with the soft lights and lobby decorations.” Dancing began in the afternoon and lasted until 3 a.m. Nearly everyone in the town attended, and it was one of Nenana’s “most successful New Year’s celebrations.” Though they could not have known it then, for many in attendance that evening, this would also be their last New Year; they would not live to ring in 1921. Scores of them would soon be returning to the Cooney Hotel to face the unfathomable.

A pandemic grows

By early 1920, Spanish flu had been around for 2 1/2 years and had killed approximately 50 million people around the world. It first ravaged Alaska in November 1918, when it reached the Seward Peninsula, wiping out scores of settlements and Native villages. In one tiny coastal area north of Nome, 72 residents died within five days, sparing only eight children and young adults. By the end of December 1918, 1,000 deaths had been reported in the coastal regions from the Bering Strait to Norton Sound. Except for periodic incidents, the Interior of Alaska had mostly been spared the effects of the worldwide pandemic.

In the winter of 1920, a recurrence of Spanish flu swept across the country. There was a serious epidemic in Chicago that led to 101 deaths in one day alone. In late January, Memphis, Tennessee, ordered schools and theaters closed and announced a ban on public gatherings. Washington state had a serious flu outbreak in early February. One victim was a 16-year-old from Nenana, Dorothy May Wilson, who had been visiting Spokane with her grandmother. Seattle was hit hard; as of Feb. 13, 1920, there were more than 2,100 sick and 49 flu-related deaths.

By March 1920, the residents of Nenana were nervous. There were rumors circulating that cases of the flu were on the coast and the mining trails. There was fear that men traveling those trails would bring the dreaded disease to Nenana.

Seemingly out of the blue, on April 5, 1920, the Nenana Local Board of Health issued a statement in the Nenana Daily News. There were no traces of the flu in the Interior or anywhere on the coast sufficiently close to Nenana to be concerned. Residents were reassured. Health officer Dr. M.E. Smith advised that “notwithstanding the fact that no danger threatens Nenana or any other section of the Interior country at present, it is the intention of the local health authorities to keep close watch on the coast districts and all trails leading to the Interior, with a view to taking prompt measures to safeguard the Interior should the flu make its appearance.”

Life in Nenana went on as usual. April 10, 1920, Nenana residents put on a charity vaudeville show at the coliseum, filling nearly every seat. Performances included an accordion solo by Mr. Alfred Linder, and a love song, “O Sole Mio,” sung in Italian by Mr. Dominic Grilli. In addition, “Miss Margaret Southworth was seen in a fancy dance, in costume, and was very well received.” After the show, the Union Hall sponsored a three-hour dance. Admission was $1.

Two weeks passed. The first reported illness in the region was Friday, April 23, 1920, in Fairbanks. It was reported in the following day’s Nenana Daily News that “Fairbanks doctors are considerably worried over the appearance yesterday of a number of cases of illness which somewhat resembles the flu, and a strict quarantine has been established pending further developments.” The report stated that “two doctors claim the disease is not the flu, but is either typhoid fever, caused by bad drinking water, or just plain spring colds.” It was noted that “the ailment, whatever it is, is characterized by high fever and congested lungs.” Movie theaters, schools, churches, and lodges in Fairbanks were closed.

Also called off in Fairbanks that Saturday was a Republican rally. A Nenana resident, Jesse Browne, had made the trip to attend the rally, only to discover that it was canceled due to the flu quarantine. He returned to Nenana on a special train from Fairbanks the afternoon of April 24, 1920. There was yet no sign of flu in Nenana, and apparently no concern that the disease could spread. Social life in Nenana was active as ever, and there was a double feature at the Nenana Coliseum. For 25 cents (or 50 cents for reserved seating) a ticket could be purchased that night to see “The Death Mask,” a two-part thriller, and “The Road Agent,” a comedy starring Harry McCoy and Vivian Edwards.

By Monday, April 26, 1920, conditions became more serious in Fairbanks. Forty-nine people were being treated for the flu, virtually all of whom were miners from the creeks of the Interior. Though the exact nature of the “strange malady” was not known, it was the consensus that the epidemic was a mild form of the flu. As a matter of precaution, the quarantine imposed on Saturday in Fairbanks remained in force.

The following day, Tuesday, April 27, 1920, the Nenana Daily News wrote that “the flu has found its way to Nenana.” Assuring people that “the flu as it has appeared in Nenana and Fairbanks is of the mild type and should be of no occasion for alarm,” the Nenana local health board — as a precautionary measure — placed the town under quarantine. Schools, churches, the coliseum, and places of public congregation were closed. People were also discouraged from meeting together in “unnecessary numbers” in private homes.

The same day in Fairbanks, 200 cases developed, “none of them, however, being of a serious character.” A special train was sent to the Alaska creeks to pick up sick miners. Several cases of pneumonia had developed, “but none have reached a serious stage,” it was reported. A first aid station was set up in Fairbanks, and those feeling unwell were urged to go to pharmacies to be examined and, if necessary, sent to temporary quarantined hospitals.

Nenana’s town commissioners decided to call an emergency meeting. Threat of imminent crisis was clear when city leaders met at the town firehall building on the evening of April 27, 1920. Those in attendance included local health board chair, the Rev. Robert Joseph Diven; Mayor Oscar Rothenberg; and Health Officer Dr. M.E. Smith. It is unknown whether Mrs. Michael J. Cooney — proprietress of the Cooney Hotel, board member of the local Red Cross, and member of the Red Cross Influenza Committee — was also present. What is known is that it was decided at the meeting, pursuant to the Red Cross Influenza Committee recommendation, that the Cooney Hotel would immediately become the temporary flu epidemic hospital. Thanks to the recent addition of the annex, it could accommodate up to 100 patients.

The following morning, Wednesday, April 28, 1920, the ladies of the Nenana Red Cross convened a meeting. Mrs. Cooney acted as chair in the absence of Chairwoman Mrs. Jesse Browne, who was confined to her home, already a victim of the spreading virus. A call was issued for volunteer nurses, in recognition that there would be an acute shortage of health care workers should there be an increase in the number of sick individuals.

Mrs. Cooney no doubt felt relieved later that night when her husband Michael returned from a long trip. With his large team of dogs, Mr. Cooney had developed a successful freight business and had just completed a job that required him to haul butter from the coast. The April 29 edition of the Nenana Daily News reported that he had contracted the flu at a roadhouse on the trail. He was still feeling weak, the paper said, but was gaining strength. From what he could tell, commented Mr. Cooney, the flu in Nenana was nothing compared to what he had seen on the coast from where he had just returned.

When Mr. Cooney arrived home that night, he found Mrs. Cooney, as a volunteer nurse, tending to sick patients at their establishment where all flu victims had been taken. By noon the following day, Thursday, April 29, 1920, there were 44 reported cases of the flu in Nenana, 26 of whom were at the Cooney Hotel. That afternoon, Nenana Health Officer Dr. M.E. Smith and the district health board issued a statement that there had been an increase in reported cases over the last 24 hours, but “the situation is now well in hand and no serious consequences are anticipated.” The health board, in conjunction with the Alaskan Engineering Commission, also announced that all train travel from Fairbanks had stopped. They discouraged anyone from traveling “beyond the infected area.”

Death comes to Nenana

Despite the health board’s assurances, it was clear from reading Thursday’s newspaper that all was not “well in hand.” “Some difficulty has been experienced thus far in securing sufficient nurses,” the paper stated. By Friday, April 30, the nursing shortage was dire, as several nurses themselves had fallen ill. One of them was Mrs. Cooney.

“The Cooney Hotel is filled today,” it was reported on Saturday, May 1. With all 100 beds filled at the hotel, at least 55 were being treated elsewhere, and the numbers were increasing. Seven or more were expected to be brought into town from the trails that evening. “Aside from the shortage of help, the situation today is well in hand,” the Nenana Daily News insisted.

By May 3, 1920, there were more than 200 flu cases in Nenana. The newspaper explained the desperation: “More nurses in the crying need of the hour in Nenana just at present, to relieve those who have been taken ill and to look after the new cases that are coming in all the time. Very few of the nurses who began work when the epidemic started are on the job now, and it has been no small task to find volunteers to take their places and to assist in the new work that has developed ... “ Most of the nurses who were there at the beginning were now flu patients. On May 5, 1920, the urgency was readily apparent from the Nenana Daily News headline: ‘Nenana must have more nurses now.’

The first two flu-related fatalities in Nenana occurred Wednesday, May 5, at the Cooney Hotel. In the early morning hours, William Linehan, age 46, an “oldtimer” miner who had developed the flu on the trail, passed away of pneumonia. The second death, also of pneumonia, occurred around noon. Thelma O’Connor, age 33, had married the love of her life Joe O’Conner in Nenana just four months earlier.

After the deaths in Nenana were reported in the May 6 edition of the Nenana Daily News, the newspaper shut down; the entire newspaper staff had been stricken with the flu. The Nenana telegraph office had been forced to close two days earlier because there were no healthy employees to run it.

By May 12, when newswires were again able to transmit news, 40 of Nenana’s 624 residents were reported to have died of the flu. That number would later rise to 60.

The details of what occurred between May 6 and 12, when the newspaper and telegraph office were shuttered, are scant. And while there is no direct newspaper account of the horror of that week, the Rev. Robert Diven, pastor of Nenana Grace Presbyterian Church and the Nenana local health chair, later described the ordeal in a letter to friends dated May 26, 1920: “We are nearly well again. There were nearly 500 cases in town, which is more people than we thought we had here — almost every soul in town had it. Sixty odd died. Over two hundred were down at the same (time). We had great difficulty to keep the dead moving to the cemetery fast enough for warm weather had set and the ground was thawed only a little below the surface. The graves took much work, even much blasting. We were short of help to nurse, and that is why so many people died, perhaps. It was pneumonia in each case that killed the folks. They went quickly. We had a very malignant type of form here.”

Sadly, death records indicate that on May 10, 1920, the beloved Mrs. Michael J. (Sanova) Cooney succumbed to pneumonia as a result of the flu she contracted at her own hotel. She was survived by her husband Mr. Michael J. Cooney and son Melville Peter Steil, age 16.

Mr. Cooney, carrying on, made an announcement on the afternoon of May 24, 1920, that the Cooney Hotel had reopened. Everything from “cellar to garret” had been “thoroughly disinfected and fumigated according to directions issued by the health authorities, and the place (looked) as fresh and clean as the day it was first opened to the public.”

On May 26, 1920, the town’s quarantine that had been in effect for almost a month, was lifted. Though there were still several people in critical condition, there had been no new flu cases in several days, and it was reported by the Nenana Daily News that “it is the belief of the local health board that the epidemic has run its course.”

Even though the owner of the Coliseum, Herman Rosenberg, had succumbed to the flu weeks before, its movie theater reopened that night with a five-reel feature, “Sleeping Fires” starring Pauline Frederick. Regular train schedules resumed. The Nenana Daily News in its afternoon edition assured its readers: “Business in town has been gaining steadily during the past several days, and is now nearly normal, with the promise of an unusually busy summer.” Life in Nenana eventually resumed as before, though the sadness of losing so many in the small town that spring would linger for years to come.


Note from author: On the 100th anniversary of her death from the Spanish flu, Sanova Cooney deserves to be remembered and honored. How I wish I could have a conversation with her right now. What advice would she have for us during this worldwide health crisis? I would ask what she thinks about the coronavirus and the measures we and others are taking. I wonder what she would think of our health care system. Would she do it all over again, graciously open her hotel to use as the town’s flu hospital, and volunteer as a nurse to care for the sick? Or would she have saved herself, taken her son Melville, and run for the hills? I suspect I know the answers to the last two questions: I know what she was. May her spirit live on. It is times like this that we find out what we truly are as a people ... a community ... and a nation.

Marjorie Gell is a tax professor at Western Michigan Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She can be reached at