Henley: Polio and 'The Silver Streak’

  • Discuss Comment, Blog about
  • Print Friendly and PDF

Every now and then, while reminiscing with old friends about our grammar school days in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the dreaded word “polio” almost always comes up.

Although polio was eliminated in the United States in 1979 following the discovery of preventive vaccines developed by Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, health care professionals across the nation were shocked last August when a case of polio was discovered in an unvaccinated 20-year-old man who lived in upstate New York. The polio virus also was found later in wastewater samples in three counties north of New York City and in the city’s sewage. The possibility exists that the disease may spread elsewhere, and medical leaders are stressing the importance of providing all American children with the vaccines.

Polio (poliomyletis), which is also called infantile paralysis, is an incurable, infectious disease that primarily affects children. It damages nerves that control muscles, resulting in muscle weakness that cause victims to lose ability to move their arms and legs. In many cases, patients are permanently confined to bed or are able to get around by using wheelchairs, walkers, arm and leg braces, crutches or canes, according to an article in the publication “Immunize Nevada” written by Mike Holmes, a professor of architecture and construction management at Truckee Meadows Community College, and a spokesperson for the organization Immunize Nevada. Holmes’ father, as well as his father’s brother, contracted polio when they were three or four years old. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was to become the 32nd president, contracted polio in 1921 when he was 39 years old. It left both of his legs paralyzed, but as a result of therapy, he was able to stand and even walk a few steps with the aid of leg braces.

Two current members of Congress, Republican U.S. Sen. from Kentucky and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, and Steve Cohen, 73, a Democrat and congressman from Tennessee, were infected with polio at the ages of 2 and 5, respectively. Cohen still has a pronounced limp and wears a brace on one leg. Both men are winners of the Rotary International Polio Eradication Champion Award.

Polio patients whose cases are exceptionally severe are confined to electrically-powered “iron lung” machines which serve as mechanical respirators that pump air into the machines that stimulate and assist the patients’ ability to breathe when their muscle control is lost. Patients lie on their backs in the iron lungs, with only their heads exposed. An 80-year-old Texas man, who contracted polio as a child, has been confined to a lung for 70 years, breaking the world’s record.

When I was a child, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the U.S. During summertime each year during the height of the polio epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s, panic over polio intensified in the warm weather because polio is spread by infection. Public swimming pools were shut down and movie theaters were closed to children in order to avoid the disease’s spread. In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children were affected with the virus, thousands were paralyzed and more than 3,000 died, according to an October National Public Radio program that focused on the disease.

Virtually every American child received the vaccines as did most of those around the world, and the Western Hemisphere reported its last case, in Peru, in 1991. Isolated cases of polio, though, are still found in in poverty-stricken nations of Africa.

As has been the case over the past 46 years since I began writing this column in 1977 following my purchase of the Lahontan Valley News, I frequently link the topic of my columns with local, state or regional lore and history.

Today’s column on polio provided me success in this endeavor when I unearthed a little-known episode in Nevada history that combines the development of railroading in the state with the advent of several polio cases in Southern Nevada at the construction site of the Hoover Dam. The episode I refer to relates to the 1934 release of a great piece of moviemaking adventure fiction by RKO International titled “The Silver Streak” that highlighted the cross-country passenger train’s high-speed New York City to Los Angeles inaugural run that was rerouted to Las Vegas because of an emergency effort to save lives.

The “Silver Streak” could reach 100 mph, and its engineer “Tom,” who in real life was Charles Starrett, who later would gain fame as the Durango Kid in western shoot-em-ups produced by Columbia Pictures. Handsome engineer Tom also was the boyfriend of Ruth, the daughter of the railroad’s president. Ruth also was the sister of Allen, a civil engineer at the dam construction site.

Anyway ... during the Silver Streak’s streak across the U.S. to Los Angeles, Ruth learned that brother Allen and several other men working on the dam had been infected with the polio virus and would die agonizing deaths unless provided iron lung machines within 20 hours. There were no such machines in the Western U.S., so the train was stopped in Chicago where several were loaded aboard. Then the train continued westward, but headed to Las Vegas instead of Los Angeles because Vegas was the closest railroad stop to the dam site. Once the train was to arrive in Vegas, the iron lungs were to be loaded aboard waiting trucks and rushed to the small dam site hospital where technicians were waiting to strap the ailing men inside the lungs.

Handsome train engineer Tom, however was alerted during the last few hours of the train’s journey that an evil, notorious Russian spy wanted for murder had hidden aboard the train when it left New York and was about to jam on the train’s brakes, causing the train to derail and, of most importance, kill Handsome Tom. The handsome engineer confronted the spy as he was about to perform his evil deed and following hand-to-hand combat, he knocked out the spy. When the train arrived in Las Vegas in less than 20 hours and the iron lungs were unloaded and trucked to the dam where they saved Allen and the other men, Handsome Tom wrapped his arms around beautiful Ruth and kissed her.

The black-and-white, 72-minute motion picture may be seen on the YouTube and Turner Classic Movie sites. It’s a great adventure movie. to be sure.

David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment