Wednesday, June 24, 2020

GE Engineer Catches the Spanish Influenza, in 1918

Photo of West Dollar Island, Lake George, circa 1910
West Dollar Island, circa 1910. Photo from John Apperson's collection, provided by Ellen Apperson Brown.

This post was written by guest writer, Ellen Apperson Brown.

In the Apperson family, we’ve passed down a story about our Uncle John who came down with the dreaded influenza, went to the hospital, but decided to leave after just a few days. He hated being cooped up, and figured, if he had to die, it wouldn’t be in a hospital!  As the story goes, he sneaked past the nurses, caught a streetcar home, collected his camping gear, and headed into the north woods, as far from civilization as possible. 

I have just completed a project, transcribing more than a thousand of my great uncle’s letters and other documents, and arranging them in chronological order, so it is easy to look back to the documents from 1918, and see what he was doing in that year.

In 1918, John Apperson worked as an engineer at General Electric, second in charge of GE's Power and Mining Department. He also was responsible for protecting and preserving about fifty islands at Lake George. In August, one of Apperson's friends from G.E., Robert H. Doherty, wrote a tribute to Apperson, comparing him to the valiant knights in King Arthur's Court and listing all their accomplishments in removing squatters, rip-rapping island shores, making a survey of all the islands, and cleaning them up, ready to have the state start welcoming overnight campers.

Within a month, however, the vigorous, enthusiastic engineer (age 40) was caught up short by the so-called Spanish influenza. His friends, probably overriding his objections, called an ambulance, and he was taken away to Ellis Hospital. According to a receipt, found in a trunk of old letters, he was admitted on September 25th, and stayed until September 30th, with fees that covered nursing care and ambulance, making a total of $36.00.

One interesting document, from September 21st, is letter from the management at G.E., stating: “You are a highly trained and specialized engineer who cannot be replaced at the present moment.” Having already reached the age of forty, he probably wasn’t thinking about enlisting. He knew full well that he was doing important work in the Power and Mining Engineering Department.

On October 2nd, there is a letter from a friend, Jim Cawley, saying he was sorry to have missed Apperson during his visit to Schenectady, and that he had heard John was sick. Then, a week or two later, Jim wrote again, saying he had come back to Schenectady, couldn’t see him, but enjoyed being put up at the Mohawk Club. These clues still left a big gap in my knowledge. What was Jim Cawley doing in Schenectady? Where was John? At Lake George? Staying with a friend? 

Well, a little further research suggests that his destination must indeed have been Lake George, although it is uncertain where exactly he camped – whether on Dollar Island or perhaps on Commissioner’s Island. I wonder if he had he strength to paddle over in his canoe, or whether he had to catch a ride. 

Jim Cawley had made friends with Apperson a few years earlier, having heard about him through his club, the American Canoe Association. By 1918, Jim was an officer of the ACA, and heard about Apperson’s projects, rip-rapping shores and generally protecting the islands of Lake George. He wanted to write an article for an A.C.A. publication, using Apperson’s photos. He wrote: 

Dear Apperson:
As I told you when I saw you last on Phantom Island, I would drop in to see you on the day that I hit Schenectady. But unfortunately I was unable to get in touch with you. I spent three hours with the Advertising Department and called your department, but found that you were home ill. After I left the plant I looked up your name in the telephone directory, but failed to find it; so was unable to have a talk with you.

I do not know when I will get to Schenectady again, but I should like to have a talk with you regarding the article on the work that has been done on the Islands. In other words, to come right out with it, I want to borrow some of your excellent photographs to tone up the article, to make up for my lack of ability to write. Perhaps some time when you do have time, you could get together what you think I would need and let me know, but I think that within a month or so I may get around your way again and I shall certainly look you up, as I will have more time than I had on my last trip.

Hoping to see you sometime again – and asking you to give my kindest regards to Mr. Rushmore, I am

Yours for the Fourth Liberty Loan,
James S. Cawley 

Warwick S. Carpenter, the Secretary of the Conservation Commission, had also become one of Apperson’s (nick-named Appy) closest friends and allies. Carpenter was responsible for editing and publishing issues of The Conservationist, and when he came to Schenectady in October, he was hoping to get Appy’s permission to run some of his photographs in an upcoming article about Lake George. Not being able to reach him, Carpenter sent this letter:

Dear Apperson:
At the request of Mr. Houghton I am enclosing herewith two prints of some very excellent collections of tin cans.
 
I have been trying to get over to see you ever since one evening when I called at Mr. Rushmore’s house and found that you had retired. Every minute of my time has been taken up or I would have made another attempt. 

Hoping that you are getting along all right now and with kindest regards, I am

Sincerely yours
Warwick S. Carpenter (October 17, 1918)

Returning to work in late October, Apperson was swamped by all the work he’d missed. Apperson wrote several thank you letters to Jay Taylor, the State Forester at Lake George, and to his wife, thanking them for their hospitality during his illness, thus establishing that he had, indeed, fled to Lake George to rest and recuperate after his illness. Surprisingly, he refers to the possibility that Taylor himself may have come down with the flu:

Dear Taylor:
My work has piled up during my absence and it seems necessary for me to stay here this week-end. I hope your sickness is not serious and if I can do anything to assist you or send you anything please let us know.

My progress is still rather slow but I am nevertheless making progress.

With best regards to you and your family, I remain

Very truly yours,
J. S. Apperson (October 31, 1918)

On November 8th, he wrote again:
 
I do hope you have recovered and all members of your Tongue Mountain Village are well. You are no doubt pleased with the war news. However, the celebration was somewhat premature. I will agree with you now that your boy should be back in a short time.

In my letter last week I think I failed to again express my appreciation of the good attention you and Mrs. Taylor gave me during my sickness, and I can assure you that I cannot forget this kind attention, which I never before needed.

And on November 14, he wrote to Mrs. Taylor, saying:

I have your note of the 11th and I am glad to find that Jay is much better. I am sorry to hear that you have deserted your village, but probably it was the wisest thing to do….

Again allow me to thank you for the very kind attention, which you and Jay gave me during my illness.