By the time the Spanish flu began its sweep through south Louisiana in September of 1918, the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain had cemented its reputation as a convalescence mecca — a place where pine-infused air and sparking clean water provided healing powers to counteract various ailments.
It was suggested that the area’s pine trees released balsam, an organic substance that purified the air by destroying malignant microscopic organisms, according to reports published at the time. The area north of the lake became known as the “Ozone Belt,” a reflection of a time when society was unaware that the gas molecule was actually harmful to health.
And so “Ozone Belt” became part of a catchphrase to promote the north shore’s health tourism industry, one that drew well-heeled New Orleanians who sought refuge from yellow fever and other maladies that contributed to the city’s high death rate. St. Tammany featured places like the physician-owned Ozonia Rest Cure Inn, the Louisiana Tuberculosis Sanitarium and Sabrier’s Resort in Slidell.
Nonetheless, St. Tammany Parish was not immune to the early 20th-century flu that killed about 40 million people worldwide. The exact number of parish deaths from the virus in 1918-1919 is unclear. However, historical reports suggest the parish fared relatively well in the pandemic, with lower casualty rates than those of other more densely populated areas.
While the parish’s clean air and open spaces may have helped limit the pandemic’s toll, the reports suggest that the swift action taken by local health leaders to shut down community schools and businesses was perhaps more important than any “ozone benefit” provided by the pine trees and other environmental factors.
As today’s health care workers in St. Tammany battle the latest pandemic, COVID-19, the “Ozone Belt” is a yesteryear notion and an all but forgotten holistic therapy and tourism ploy.
St. Tammany vs the Spanish flu
St. Tammany’s first case of Spanish flu surfaced in September of 1918 when an 18-year-old who had been stationed at Fort Sheridan, Ill., for two months arrived home to Covington for a visit before returning to his studies at St. Stanislaus College in Bay St. Louis, Miss., according to parish library archives.
Covington health leaders quickly quarantined the teen’s household after the disease spread to five family members — all apparently suffering mild symptoms. Residents were advised to cover their sneezes and coughs and refrain from spitting on the sidewalks.
By early October, St. Tammany’s schools, theaters, churches, bars and other public places were closed. The flu made its way to eastern St. Tammany where in Slidell, five of the city’s six telephone operators took ill, hampering communications, archival reports noted.
Cases increased by the day. At one point, Slidell had 300 reported cases while Covington had 22.
By mid-October, 454 new cases were recorded in St. Tammany, which at the time had a population of about 20,000. Residents in Covington, Madisonville and Abita Springs were told to wear masks — often with locally made Mackie’s pine oil applied as a germicide. In Covington, those who opted not to mask could face a fine of $30 — the equivalent of $512 by current standards, the archives show.
An Oct. 19 headline in the St. Tammany Farmer summed up the situation: “Spanish Flu is Boss of Every Thing for Present.”
By late October, the number of new cases began to decline in Slidell, where five to seven were being reported daily compared to 50 at the pandemic’s peak. Above its masthead, the Farmer ran an optimistic headline — “Flu Now On Decline.”
Shipyard workers in Madisonville stopped wearing masks. By Nov. 11, the total number of cases in St. Tammany had dropped to 139. Schools in Mandeville and Slidell reopened on Nov. 18, and Covington schools opened their doors on Nov. 25. In late November, the parish was down to only 27 cases, the archives reflect.
With the signing of the armistice to end World War I on Nov. 11 and the virus seemingly subsiding, the community was in the mood to celebrate. Across the parish, impromptu parades formed, and people took to the streets in large numbers. The Farmer reported: ” … there was pandemonium for a time, but it was a pandemonium of joy.”
However, in mid-January it became clear that the virus was still lurking in the community. A resurgence created another wave of concern, and parents were nervous about sending their children to school. In a letter to the Farmer, one parent wrote: “Let the teachers and children all die, so they die educated.”
With pressure building, Covington’s Board of Health on Jan. 25 made the difficult and controversial decision to close public schools and all “places of amusement,” according to archived reports.
By mid-February, the virus was running out of steam. And the archives suggest that the community’s social calendar was revved up after a long period of inactivity. The Southern Hotel in Covington hosted a Valentine’s dance and Mardi Gras festivities were staged in March. Normalcy had returned to the Ozone Belt.
A healthy dose of tourism
The Spanish flu’s impact on St. Tammany played out against the backdrop of the parish’s health tourism movement. Mid-19th century hoteliers, real estate developers and railroad agents had been promoting the north shore as a retreat from other disease infested areas in the south.
Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture and the author of numerous articles on the Spanish flu, noted that from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, a vibrant economy based on “health tourism” operated throughout St. Tammany Parish.
“New Orleanians seeking to escape summertime heat and pestilence in the dense metropolis took to the piney woods across the lake, where medical professionals perceived that salubrious ‘ozone’ emanated from the balsam in pine trees, and where pure artesian water could be enjoyed at places like Abita Springs,” Campanella wrote in an email seeking comment for this story.
“Hotels, inns, cottages and sanitariums opened in places like Mandeville, Covington and Slidell, which grew from the income and from the decision of some guests to settle permanently in these small towns.”
In a 2015 article published in The Times-Picayune, Campanella references a booklet produced around 1910 by the Southern Manufacturer Co. called “Along The Line of the New Orleans Great Northern Railroad in Louisiana.” The publication extolled the “health-giving ozone” of the north shore.
It read in part: “According to the United States health statistics at Washington, Covington is the second healthiest spot in the United States. Added to the natural beauties of the place is the unusual one of peculiarly healthful water, that has for 50 years made it a noted health resort. The natural springs are highly medicinal, and especially helpful in the healing of all kidney troubles, liver diseases, dyspepsia, chronic diarrhea, catarrh, constipation, nervousness, general debility and almost any unnatural condition.”
St. Tammany’s health tourism sales pitch extended beyond the South. Campanella’s piece also references a passage in the 1903 Chicago Clinic and Pure Water Journal: “A remarkable fact about (Covington) is that when New Orleans … quarantines against yellow fever, this locality is never quarantined and the village council invites the refugees from all over the South to come to its healthful climate … in the ‘Ozone Belt …’”
Campanella points out that in time, advances in medicine and improvements to municipal services in New Orleans undermined St. Tammany’s health tourism industry.
“Summertime in the city was no longer dangerous,” Campanella wrote. “Highways and later airplanes allowed New Orleanians to vacation farther away and for different reasons. The resorts closed, and the summer cottages became full-time homes.”
A hole in the Ozone Belt theory
Just as 1918 brought the Spanish flu, St, Tammany in 2020 did not escape the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
As of mid-June, the parish reported 1,948 positive cases of the novel coronavirus and 168 deaths.And the so-called Ozone Belt influence has not been mentioned among the many purported coronavirus remedies circulating on social media.
Dr. Patrick Torcson, chief medical officer for St. Tammany Health System, said north shore hospitals began to see COVID-19 patients about 10 days after the virus arrived in New Orleans, which gave the St. Tammany medical community some time to prepare.
“We never got completely overwhelmed,” Torcson said. “We were ready, and we were fortunate. The stay-at-home orders certainly helped.”
Modern-day health experts say the century-old claims that St. Tammany’s environmental factors created an antidote for countless illnesses were overstated. Historical records indicate that decisive action by St. Tammany’s medical community in 1918 and 1919 likely played a larger role in keeping the Spanish flu at bay than any “Ozone Belt” influence.
The parish has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. Its population now stands at about 260,000, and countless pine trees have been replaced by neighborhoods and commercial developments. St. Tammany’s water and air may be cleaner and more healthful than other areas, but the north shore environment’s highly touted medicinal magic is no longer at the forefront of public consciousness, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And there are few vestiges of the Ozone Belt, which was based on a theory that now holds little credence.
“It certainly has not been scientifically proven,” Torcson said of the ozone theory. “It appears to have been a very attractive myth.”