Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 22, 2006
Byline: David Barnes

Plea to save Tinicum's Lazaretto

These days, most immigrants and foreign visitors to Philadelphia arrive through our international airport, located along the Delaware River at the city's southern edge. Two hundred years ago, new arrivals from overseas landed at nearly the same spot: just a mile west of where the airport now stands in Essington, Tinicum Township.

The gateway to Philadelphia for the first century of our nation's existence was the Lazaretto quarantine station and hospital, where all ships, passengers and cargo arriving from spring through fall were inspected and quarantined, if necessary. (The name Lazaretto derives from St. Lazarus, patron saint of lepers.)

Some have called the Lazaretto Philadelphia's Ellis Island, but from a historical standpoint, it is even rarer and more precious than New York's famous immigrant inspection station. A century older than the Ellis Island facility, the original 1799 Lazaretto structure still stands as a silent monument to the first hundred years of our nation's conflicted history of immigration and public health. Unfortunately, the building is not only abandoned and closed to the public, it also is endangered by development. The bulldozers could be put to work as soon as this summer.

Ironically, those pushing the development of the site are the same people who saved the Lazaretto from demolition a year ago: its Tinicum neighbors. Island Marine Partners bought the property in 2000, and planned to level the Lazaretto building and other historic structures on the property. Tinicum Township's Board of Commissioners fought the plan, and boldly held the line on historic preservation, denying the necessary permits to destroy the Lazaretto. In August 2005, Tinicum commissioners and State Rep. Ron Raymond (R., Delaware) brokered a deal allowing the township to buy the Lazaretto property with grant money from the state.

Even with state aid, however, the township cannot afford to pay the historic preservation bill for the region and nation as a whole. Tinicum enjoys limited space and resources, and faces the same budget constraints confronting local governments everywhere.

The fire companies of Essington and Lester, which recently merged, need a new station house, and the township has been planning to build an emergency evacuation center. (Some even see the evacuation center as a potential money-maker in between emergencies, hosting weddings, bingo nights, and the like.) Tinicum now plans to build a huge fire station and evacuation center complex, including a 200-space parking lot, on half of the 10-acre site. While the Lazaretto building itself would remain intact, the integrity of the entire site would be compromised under the township's current plan.

We know that 19th-century Lazaretto hospital patients are buried on the property, which also is on the site of the 1643 Swedish colony founded by Johan Printz — the first permanent European settlement in what is now Pennsylvania. Historians and archaeologists believe the Lazaretto property may also be the location of the Printzhof, the governor's house, courthouse, prison, and all-purpose building of the Swedish colony, which has yet to be definitively located. The firehouse plan would also obstruct views of the Lazaretto building from at least two sides. Most important, the planned development would seriously and permanently jeopardize the Lazaretto's potential as a viable museum or historical site for visitors.

Make no mistake: If properly preserved, the Lazaretto would make an unparalleled museum or historic monument. The structure itself needs work, but it stands today much as it did in 1799, with remarkably few significant alterations. The history of our nation's conflicted policies toward immigrants — welcoming but fearful — is especially timely today. Moreover, recent fears of pandemics carried by global travel and commerce call urgently for reflection and discussion of our nation's long history of attempting to preserve public health by keeping suspect foreigners out.

Ellis Island's experience since 1990 has shown that when properly managed, a historical site showcasing the history of immigration into the United States can be a significant tourist attraction. The Lazaretto adds to this mix another century of history and an authentically preserved building unmatched anywhere in the country. In short, Tinicum Township is sitting on a potential gold mine.

Essington and Lester need their fire station, and the township should be adequately recognized and compensated for its vital efforts to save the Lazaretto. But other, less problematic locations have been proposed for the new firehouse, and the current plan to build on the Lazaretto site must be put on hold pending further study. The stakes are too high to permit actions which, though undertaken with good intentions, would be irrevocable.

A hidden treasure lies on our doorstep, sandwiched between marinas on the riverfront next to the airport. The Lazaretto property may lie in Tinicum Township, but the responsibility for it lies with everyone who is a descendant of immigrants and everyone who cares about our nation's history. It is up to all of us to preserve this site, honor our history, and learn from it.

David Barnes, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.