Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Delco Times
Date: July 11, 2006
Byline: Stephanie K. Whalen

Lazaretto property in center of firestorm

Tinicum Township, National Park Service at odds over use of historic property.

TINICUM — About a mile south of the Philadelphia International Airport, three researchers picked up where they left off last year, sifting through a prime piece of land along the Delaware River.

Teams have already archived the land's history and snapped photos of the existing site, known as the Lazaretto property — the oldest surviving immigration station hospital in the U.S., where ships and their cargo were inspected for disease before passing along to Philadelphia.

But Monday marked the beginning of the end of the National Park Service's three-pronged research process, said Program Manager Bill Bolger, as researchers prepared architectural drawings of the original site. It's certainly not unusual for a research project to end. However, in Tinicum Township, an anxious air permeates the research site.

According to Bolger, it's because they feel the historical site is in danger of being disturbed by township plans to erect a firehouse and emergency evacuation facility on half of the land. Construction could begin as early as July 27, when Tinicum officials plan to award contracts.

"One of the reasons we are anxious is because we consider the property threatened," said Bolger, who has issued a letter of disapproval to the township.

He said because the firehouse's plans would take up 50 percent of the Lazaretto land, it would eliminate certain future planning options for its historical use, disturb its visual presence and might have negative impacts on archaeological finds.

In particular, Bolger named the northwest corner of the Lazaretto property as an area of concern, where an attached kitchen and morgue flanked the Lazaretto Smallpox Hospital. A large burial ground near the hospital was the final resting-place for passengers who died in transit, quarantine or from contagious diseases.

The Delaware County Planning Commission — which also opposes the firehouse construction found that the gravesite was relocated in 1900, but "most graves were unmarked and the degree of completeness is unknown."

"The general issue is that the archaeological site could be studied for years," said Bolger. "It's completely unique. There is a century of immigration history represented at that site that has no parallel anywhere in the country."

Tinicum Township Manager Norbert Poloncarz said the township hired a firm to conduct a geophysical and archaeological review of the land in question, which turned up "no significant artifacts" in the area of the proposed firehouse. "DNA tests on the soil found there was a burial ground on one portion of the land at one time, but all the coffins were removed," he said. "All tests came up negative."

Poloncarz also pointed out the "historical portion" of the land "is not being touched," and the new buildings were designed to compliment the Lazaretto's Georgian structures, as well as those of the former Lester Piano Co.

"I know where they're coming from," said Poloncarz, of those opposing the new construction. "But we don't have a lot of ground here in Tinicum and we don't have a lot of options."

In 1998 Poloncarz said the township first officially discovered its volunteer fire companies were being housed in obsolete buildings. He said Essington Fire Co. had been housing equipment in the township garage and in the former Westinghouse property, due to a lack of accommodating resources.

A voter referendum passed shortly after, which gave the township the go-ahead to consolidate the Lester and Essington companies and build a new one on the Lazaretto property.