Americas oldest quarantine station – “Ellis Island’s Great Grandfather” – helped protect Philadelphia residents for 94 years
In the summer and fall of 1793, panic reigned in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital. Yellow fever was quickly spreading through the waterfront area of the new world’s busiest port, killing more than one out of ten residents. And no one knew how to stop it.
By October, as many as 100 people a day were dying. Before the four-month epidemic ended, over 4,000 people succumbed to the disease. In addition, 17,000 of the city’s 45,000 to 55,000 residents, including President George Washington, fled to safer ground.
The deadly disease, which struck many teenagers and heads of families, turned the skin yellow. Other symptoms included: bleeding from just about any orifice and “black vomit.”
Medical authorities believe yellow fever was carried here from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) by French colonial refugees – some with slaves– who were fleeing a slave revolution there.
In response to what David S. Barnes, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Health & Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, calls a devastating “9-11-type experience,” Philadelphia erected a large Lazaretto or quarantine station on the banks of the Delaware River about 10 miles south of the city to help prevent further calamity.
Named for St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers, the new Lazaretto was more isolated than a closer, smaller station built in 1742 on Province Island near Fort Mifflin. (Historically, Lazarettos were built as early as the 14th and 15th centuries near European port cities.)
While doctors of the day did not know yellow fever was spread by a type of mosquito, Lazaretto personnel stopped and inspected all ships, passengers and cargo from June to October 1, the usual quarantine season. (Late summer until the first frost is sometimes called “the sickly season.)
If there were no problems, the process would take about a day. If dead bodies or infected passengers were found on board, or the ship came from a port known for a contagious disease, the ship would be stopped and held.
All cargo and possessions would be fumigated or “purified,” and the ship scoured and whitewashed clean. The process at this stage could take a day to two weeks or more.
Dr. Barnes, who is writing a book about the Lazaretto, first learned about the station while working with colleagues at Temple University on a History of Public Health course.
Instead of “the dilapidated corrugated metal shell” he imagined, Dr. Barnes was “blown away” by the noteworthy architecture and scale of the buildings, and the “wild, undeveloped Little Tinicum Island.” He found the station “weirdly bucolic” and “intriguing” and considers it “Ellis Island’s Great Grandfather.”
The Lazaretto closed in 1895, with some of its local duties moved to Marcus Hook, or to federal stations near Lewes, Delaware or Reedy Island, Delaware.
Later it served as a popular athletic club, flying school and one of the country’s first seaplane bases.
The Tinicum site still includes the graceful, 3 ½-story main hospital building. It’s not open to the general public, however, and is in need of repairs.
After preservationists filed a lawsuit over plans to make the area into an airport parking lot, Tinicum Township purchased the land for use as a fire station, ballroom and administrative offices in the main building.
Did the Lazaretto work? Dr. Barnes, who’s been writing his book, “Lazaretto Ghosts: Stories of Immigrants, Epidemics and Quarantines in the 19th Century,” for six years, says, “It’s impossible to say.”
Consider this, though: when yellow fever broke out at the Lazaretto in 1870, 14 people died there, including the quarantine master, head physician and head nurse. But the disease never reached Philadelphia.
In 1853, New Orleans reported 7,849 deaths from yellow fever, and 4,000 in both 1858 and 1878. Memphis recorded over 5,000 yellow fever deaths in 1878 alone.
So if you judge the Lazaretto by the lack of a Philadelphia epidemic in 1870 – or many other years when cases of yellow fever, cholera or other epidemic diseases did not spread from the quarantine station to the city – you probably have to consider it a rousing success.
Location: 99 Wanamaker Avenue, Essington, PA 19029
In Operation: 1801-1895
Original Size: 10 acres
Significance: 92 years older than Ellis Island, the Philadelphia Lazaretto is the oldest surviving quarantine facility in the Western Hemisphere and sixth oldest in the world
Web Sites: www.lazaretto.org; 1799lazaretto.org
This article was originally published in the March/April 2013 edition of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.