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In-Depth: A humble monument to unknown WWI soldiers in eastern Nevada

Posted at 5:53 PM, Nov 12, 2021

November 11, 1918, marked the end of the First World War, which was marked by the cruel futility of trench warfare in the industrial age.

The celebration of peace had a shadow: A deadly influenza, never acknowledged by the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

In October 1918, 195,000 Americans died of what they called the Spanish Flu.

The next month, men crowded shoulder to shoulder on ships and on troop trains.

For a virus particularly deadly for healthy young adults, it was the worst kind of petri dish.

Those troop trains were pulled by steam locomotives. They needed regular stops for coal. In the west, small towns were built for that purpose. Towns like Montello, in Elko County, Nevada, which sits just eight miles across the Utah state line.

Among the 800 residents of Montello was an army doctor, Joseph M. Waste. He was brought in to evaluate passengers and pull those with the flu off the train.

It was a chaotic time, especially in a high desert outpost overwhelmed with travelers. In nearby Salt Lake City, the CDC said in the same month, "Officials place[d] quarantine signs on front and rear doors of 2,000 homes where occupants have been struck with flu," and every day trains carrying hundreds of men pulled through little Montello. The hotel became a makeshift hospital.

The railroad doesn't need coal anymore, but Montello has survived. It's the only place to gas up, get a burger or a beer in the 150 miles between Wendover, Nevada and Snowville, Utah.

And the town cemetery has a monument and a mystery: Ten graves, unmarked until 1975, with a monument inscribed "10 U.S. Soldiers Buried Here, Victims of Flu Epidemic, World War 1."

Ten men dead without identification. Did they survive the horrors of the trenches only to die on a train, or did they head to war only to be turned back with the Armistice? Joy and hope dashed quickly by an invisible killer in a high desert oasis? Some sleuths have tried to solve the mystery with some results.

Dan Turner, Steve Highbarger and Judy Swett dug up what they could, including death certificates that may account for two graves in Montello.

George Kirker, a 34-year-old born in Illinois. Single. Birthday not known. Former residence not known. Died November 24, 1918. Buried in Montello.

Charles Robinson, 46 years old. A black man born in the southern U.S. Single. Birthday unknown. Usual residence not known. Died December 1, 1918. Buried in Montello.

President Woodrow Wilson never said a word in public about the flu. His Thanksgiving proclamation for 1918 only talked about triumph in the war in Europe. "A new day shines about us," he wrote.

If you go to Montello for gas or a burger or a beer, or to explore the Pilot Range, or the hill country north of the Great Salt Lake, you'll find the cemetery a couple of blocks west of Main Street. You'll most likely find quiet and peace where some men who didn't know enough of either are at rest.