Historical Markers
Lazaretto Quarantine Station Historical Marker
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Lazaretto Quarantine Station

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
99 Wanamaker Ave., at 2nd St. intersection, Essington

Dedication Date:
October 25, 2008

Behind the Marker

Exterior landscape painting.
The Lazaretto Quarantine Station, Tinicum PA, by T. L. Carnea, circa 1840.
In August 1793, yellow fever struck the city of Philadelphia, then the nation's capital. Within a month it had killed close to 10 percent of the city's population and driven thousands from the city, including both the state and federal governments. By the time it abated in November the mosquito-borne virus had killed between 4,000 and 5,000 people. "Yellow Jack" returned in the summers of 1794, 1796, 1797, and then so forcefully in 1798 that both government and business again fled the city and left Philadelphia a ghost town.

Bush Hill and Cholera Hospital, by Augustus Köllner, circa 1850.
In the 1700s and 1800s, contagious diseases had a sustained and at times devastating impact on Philadelphia and other American coastal cities. Outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever, scarlet fever, and small pox were routine along the Atlantic seaboard, then spread westward along with goods and people. The Yellow fever outbreak of 1793, however, was more devastating than any that Philadelphia had ever witnessed.

In response the city strengthened its public health codes, cleaned its streets, and constructed the nation's first urban water system. To better protect the residents of Philadelphia from contagious diseases arriving with immigrants-many blamed the yellow-fever outbreaks on recent immigrants from the French West Indies-a newly established Philadelphia Board of Health decided to move the city's lazaretto, the quarantine station that screened all newcomers arriving to the Commonwealth by ship, from its location at the mouth of the Schuylkill River, nearmarker Fort Mifflin, on Province (or Fisher's) Island to a more remote location farther down the Delaware River.

Aerial view of the Lazaretto
Aerial view of the Lazaretto Quarantine Station, Tinicum, PA, circa 1929.
On August 7, 1799, the Board of Health purchased ten acres of the Thomas Smith [and sister Rebecca Smith] farm on Tinicum Island for a comprehensive immigration and quarantine station. About seven miles downriver from the city, the new property had deeper water and a good anchorage. On November 21, 1799, the United States government bought a six-acre property, adjoining the ten-acre lot on the west, from John and Mary Taylor for use as a Customs House and Wharf.

Today the Lazaretto Quarantine Station, which sits just west of the present-day international airport in Tinicum Township, is the oldest surviving structure of its kind in the United States. Pre-dating more famous immigration and quarantine stations like New York's Ellis Island, Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, and Canada's Grosse Isle, the Lazaretto Station in its heyday was the nation's leading point of entry for immigrants from Europe.

Opened in 1799, the Lazaretto operated under the supervision of city and then state health regulators. The ten-acre site included the hospital and quarantine station, rows of office buildings and residences, and a burial ground. All passenger vessels entering the port of Philadelphia were required to dock at Lazaretto, where the human and material cargo was inspected before being permitted to proceed to its final destination. A hospital on the grounds treated passengers not fit for entry into Philadelphia. An abundance of caution on the part of inspectors prevented anyone showing evidence of carrying a communicable disease from entering the city proper. Those who did not recover were buried in the on-site cemetery.

View of International Navigation Co. Emigrant Station building at Washington Avenue landing, with train tracks leading to buildings.
International Navigation Company Immigration Station, (Washington Immigration...
Lazaretto's prominence coincided with Philadelphia's role as America's largest city and most active commercial port. (Its opening, however, and other reforms did not prevent the city from losing the state government, which left first for Lancaster in 1799 and then to a permanent new home in Harrisburg in 1812, or the federal government, which moved as scheduled to the District of Columbia in 1800.) This meant tens of thousands of so-called "old immigrants" from western and northern Europe (German, Irish, and British newcomers who dominated the pre-Civil War migration generation) first touched American soil when they disembarked at Lazaretto.

By at least one count, one-third of all Americans can trace their ancestry to someone who passed through marker Lazaretto's inspection facility. Too often, the passengers' excitement on arrival was tempered by exhaustion and the blistering anti-immigrant sentiments that periodically swept over Philadelphia's native inhabitants.

One of the most important incidents involved a confiscated cargo seized by the United States Navy vessel Ganges off the coast of Cuba. In August 1800, 118 African bondsmen arrived at Lazaretto. After a federal magistrate granted them their freedom, and gave each the last name of Ganges, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society assumed custody and made arrangements for their relocation as servants in the homes of prominent Philadelphians.

Riverside (east) view of the Lazaretto Quarantine Station
Riverside (east) view of the Lazaretto Quarantine Station, 2009.
As Philadelphia surrendered its commercial prominence to New York City, patterns of migration shifted northward, and Lazaretto declined in stature. The station, however, still remained active. In 1873 more than 4,000 passengers passed through inspection at the Lazaretto and by 1879 these numbers had soared to 30,000. A growing fear that cholera brought by immigrants might spread to nearby Philadelphia, however, led to the Lazaretto's closure in 1895 after the opening of a new quarantine station the further down the Delaware River at Marcus Hook.

The Lazaretto property did not stay vacant for long. With its prime waterfront location, proximity to Philadelphia, and natural areas for hunting, fishing, and boating it soon became a resort for the well-to-do sportsmen. There, members of the Aero Club of Pennsylvania in 1915 organized the Philadelphia School of Aviation, one of the nation's first private flying clubs. In 1917, the Lazaretto became one four training sites for the Army Signal Corps, which set up the nation's first seaplane base on the property and used the facilities to train flyers.

As an acknowledgement of the location's historic importance, the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1972 approved Lazaretto's nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2005 Tinicum Township bought the vacant buildings, and plans to reopen the Lazaretto as the headquarters of its municipal government and police department by 2015. 
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