There was no vaccine against the flu; no medical cure. One might avoid it by diligently practicing good hygiene, especially hand washing. The only sure way of staying free of the disease was quarantine. That’s the route many in Idaho took, quarantining themselves against it in their own homes. Some whole communities quarantined themselves. That caused a legal crisis in Challis.
The State Board of Health gave communities the right to self-quarantine, which Challis and some outlying areas chose to do. They posted guards on the roads leading into town to stop visitors from entering. There was flu in Salmon to the north and flu in Mackay to the south. The citizens of Challis were taking no chance with the deadly pandemic. You could enter the town if you quarantined yourself long enough to prove you didn’t have the flu.
But the lure of game was a call too strong for six hunters from Mackay to resist. On the night of November 5, 1918, they slipped past the road guard, and took a short cut up the Yankee Fork to Bonanza to reach their preferred hunting site on Loon Creek. What they shot, if anything, is lost to history. What is certain is that they were arrested and jailed in Clayton on their way back home.
The newly quarantined men got word to Mackay attorney Chase Clark—who would become Idaho’s 18th governor some two decades hence. He filed a writ of habeas corpus. District judge Frederick J. Gowen, sitting in Blackfoot, signed the order. Sheriff W.J. Huntington and county health board chair C.L. Curtley responded to the judge’s order with a “No.”
The judge charged the county officials with contempt of court and ordered them to show up in Arco on November 11 to face charges. Before that date, though, the incubation time had passed, proving the hunters did not have the flu. The sheriff released them.
Judge Cowen made a personal trip to Challis to meet with officials. Meet them he did, at a barricade outside of town. Several riled-up citizens challenged the judge to step across a line into the quarantined zone. He did so. The man was unharmed, but tensions were high. He did not linger long in Challis. Shortly after he left, he called the Attorney General in Boise requesting that troops be sent to Challis to maintain order.
This was all happening in the final days of World War I, so the question, “What troops?” was in order. With the contempt charges still pending, Governor Moses Alexander was getting pressure from both sides of the issue. Two competing Custer County Defense Councils, one from Mackay and one from Challis, were vying for the governor’s attention. One sent him a telegram of 777 words, so counted by some reporter probably because telegrams were priced by the word.
Governor Alexander sent his secretary, R.S. Madden to try to work out a compromise that would keep the county officials out of jail and let Challis retain its quarantine. After spending a day in Challis. Madden sent a telegram of five words to the governor, “Armistice declared. Be home Monday.”
Soon thereafter Challis modified its quarantine to allow people to enter the town with a yellow flag flying from their vehicle to identify them as possible carriers of the flu. It wasn’t long before Challis abandoned its quarantine altogether.
It turned out that wasn’t such a good idea. Dick d’Easum, writing about the incident in his 1959 book Fragments of Villainy gave a sad postscript to the story. He talked with retired Forest Service employee Al Moats who was in Challis at the time. Motts said, “What happened after the excitement was that Challis got the flu. Nobody knows where it came from, but it was bad. A lot of people died.”