Looking east from Queen St. Double streetcar tracking in downtown Berlin, 1910. Image courtesy of the Auditorium Neighbourhood Association and Kitchener Public Library's archives.

Was 2020 Really The Worst Year In KW’s History?

The events of the past year have inspired many people to declare 2020 as the “worst year ever.” 

The year set off a number of historical events — starting with wildfires that ravaged through the west coast of the United States and Australia. 2020 also saw increased tension between the United States and Iran, the Nova Scotia attacks that killed 22 people and injured three others and an explosion in Beirut that killed at least 200 people and injured and displaced thousands. Continued incidents of racial injustice and police brutality prompted the global Black Lives Matter movement, calling for positive change, and a challenging American presidential election resulted in division and polarization and an attack on democracy itself. 

The impact of those events and the COVID-19 pandemic felt around the world made 2020 a year for the history books, but some historians are hesitant to describe it as “The Worst Year Ever.” 

However, when talking about years where, like 2020, the events that took place seemed dangerous, harrowing or even just unusual, you can go back all the way to the early 19th century.

In 1815, a powerful eruption from Mount Tambora killed tens of thousands of people on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. The following year, unusually cold and wet weather conditions resulted in harsh crop failure, the death of livestock and the starvation of thousands of people in Europe and North America. It was dubbed “the year without summer” by historians and caused by the volcanic eruption according to researchers.

While the Mennonite settlement in what became the Region of Waterloo was still very small, the township faced heavy frost during those summer months of 1816, and food became scarce for both settlers and livestock. 

“The hardships these early settlers had to endure during this cold and inclement year, are almost indescribable,” Ezra Eby author of the book, A Biographical History of Waterloo Township said. 

Local author and historian, rych mills, noted that one’s perspective of a year may be individualistic, and shouldn’t be taken into consideration as the world’s “worst.” 

“I’m not going to say this [year] was worse than that. It’s always the worst for the people who live through it. I mean, all these other things, we’re talking about our past history, which is redundant … but for the people at the time, it was hell,” mills said.

At the beginning of June, the Carrick, a ship that had come over from Ireland, reached Quebec with a few feverish immigrants on board. Three days later, Cholera took its first victim. Towards 1834, a Cholera outbreak became known as the most fatal pandemic experienced in all of Canada at the time. 

During the time, approximately 250 people were living in the village of Galt, Ontario (now known as Cambridge). In late July of 1834, a performance was held with an attendance of over 1,000 people. Within the week, 200 residents of Galt and their township neighbours had passed from the disease. 

According to mills, approximately 20 per cent of the people who attended the attraction died, and most of those 200 had died within a few hours of contracting Cholera.

Then, the beginning of the 20th century saw the horrific impact of the First World War.

During this time period, generations of German immigrants were residing in what was previously Berlin, Ontario (now known as Kitchener), which was a busy industrial centre that celebrated its extensive German heritage. However, this German heritage became the focus of scrutiny from non-German residents throughout Waterloo County. 

The First World War resulted in intense conflict among the residents, who were divided by ethnicity and rivalries between Berlin (Kitchener) and Galt (Cambridge). As a result, many voted to change the name of the city from Berlin to what is now Kitchener in May 1916.

While this event didn’t involve any recorded deaths or injuries in Kitchener, mills noted that there was an intense amount of tension between the residents of this township.

“A lot of people want to consider 1916 to be a pretty wretched year,” mills said. “And it is particularly important in Kitchener’s history.”

A few years later, In 1918, the Spanish Flu killed more residents than all deaths from the previous six months in Kitchener. Thousands of residents were infected with the disease, and it is estimated that the flu killed 127 residents that year. In 2021, that is comparable to around 800 residents.

However, the panic of the Spanish Flu within the region was outweighed by news and stories of the First World War. It was also more common to die from infection or disease before the advancement of modern medicine and health care.

Throughout the rest of the century, more acts of war and sickness impacted the region, all contending to be the “worst” years or eras. 

During the 1930s, the Great Depression hit the region, which saw the unemployment rate at an all-time high. When the Second World War occurred, many male residents from within the region died in battle or overseas.

Despite the many challenges last year presented, it’s difficult to confirm that 2020 was in fact  “the worst year ever.” There is much to consider when talking about the “worst year ever”, and while the magnitude of these events may be the same, the impact it had on each individual may be very different.