Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: December 25, 2006
Byline: Todd Mason

Reaching back for roots

A hospital holds their family's tale, and part of a nation's

Larry and Kelly Ganges
David M. Warren
Twins Larry (left) and Kelly Ganges, 53, at Larry's home in Ewing Township, N.J. The Gangeses, along with another brother, Tendaji, of Flint, Mich., visited an old quarantine station in Delaware County, the last of its kind on the East Coast, where their ancestors stopped after arriving here on a slave ship.

The Ganges brothers, Tendaji, Larry and Kelly, traveled to Tinicum Township in August in what history buffs hope was the first of many pilgrimages to an early American quarantine station there.

The red-brick Lazaretto, as it was called, was built in 1800 as a way to screen ships on the Delaware River for infectious diseases. As such, it gave immigrants their first contact with the new world.

Tendaji Ganges
Tendaji Ganges of Flint, Mich., joined his brothers for a glimpse of the Lazaretto. The Africans who landed there were given the last name Ganges after the Navy ship that intercepted their vessels.

In the case of the Ganges family, the Lazaretto was the final act of a close call.

Two slave ships docked at the Delaware County station in 1800 after the U.S. Navy captured them off Cuba.

The 134 Africans aboard went ashore "without the least cloathing," as the Pennsylvania Gazette described them. They were indentured to area residents to learn trades, and given the name of the Navy warship that escorted them to freedom: the USS Ganges.

"We found where we hit shore," said Tendaji Ganges, 57, of Flint, Mich. "It is a human story. It's not just our family's story. That's what is important about it."

Historians say the 206-year-old hospital is the last quarantine station remaining of dozens built up and down the East Coast. The Lazaretto barely survived recent threats.

History detectives hope to chronicle similar stories as a first step in restoring the Lazaretto. They also will spend $100,000 in grants to study how to transform the site into a monument to immigration, a museum for public health, or both.

The Lazaretto took its name indirectly from St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. It closed in 1895.

David Barnes
Peter Tobia
David Barnes, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, plans a book on the Lazaretto's significance.

The USS Ganges drama "is only a hint of the iceberg underneath, a century of conflict and anxiety, death and disease, suffering and hope," said David Barnes, a University of Pennsylvania history professor who promises to write the book.

Conflict also has been swirling around the site itself. Private developers bought it in 2000 and proposed knocking down and paving over the principal remaining structure, a Georgian-style brick hospital, for an airport parking lot.

Township officials saved the 10-acre site by buying out the developers in 2005, but their plans to construct a firehouse and banquet hall on half the land kindled more controversy.

Preservation groups sued the township in October to halt that project. A settlement was reached last month to accommodate the firehouse and turn over control of the remaining five acres to an independent, nonprofit board.

The economic challenge remains. The Lazaretto lived through the 20th century as a summer resort, a seaplane base and a marina.

Lately, it has shared the decline of Delaware County's industrial, riverfront towns.

There is little precedent to suggest that trading on its history will be easy.

Upriver from the Lazaretto, Fort Mifflin lies hidden in the shadow of Philadelphia International Airport, and for years volunteers have struggled to attract tourists and dollars.

The fort drew 200 Revolutionary War reenactors and 900 visitors last month on the 229th anniversary of its fateful six-week siege by the British fleet.

The Lazaretto could be a bigger draw because it can tap into the nation's fascination with genealogy, said Bill Bolger, Northeast regional manager in Philadelphia for the National Park Service's historic-landmark program.

"I visited Ellis Island in 1976, and I thought, 'Who the hell would want to come here?' " he said.

Opened in 1990 after one of the nation's most extensive historical renovations, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year. Genealogy is a key part of its appeal.

But the Lazaretto's genealogical following will be much smaller, said Randy Cotton, associate director of the Preservation Alliance.

Landings there were the exception rather than the rule, historian Rebecca Sell said. Keeping watch on the river, the station's doctor boarded inbound ships to inspect them. Most continued on their way.

Sell, who studied the Lazaretto as a graduate student at Penn, said she had found only a few hundred names of "people who were actually hospitalized there."

"The nation's interest in public health all comes out of these quarantine stations," said Alexandra Lord, the U.S. Public Health Service's historian.

The next stage is piecing together that history, said Barnes, the Penn professor. "I intend to devote a lot of time and research to dig up the documentary history."

Persuading tourists to venture beyond Center City and Valley Forge is the final challenge. The Schuylkill River Development Corp., for one, has explored a boat tour into the Delaware — a natural approach to facilities that were built facing the river — without finding an answer.

"If you are doing it by boat, it ends up being a fairly long tour," said Joe Syrnick, the corporation's chief executive. "Are there people who are willing to spend a good portion of the day?"

The Ganges brothers were eager visitors after a WHYY reporter told them of the site. After arriving, they circled a chain-link fence erected by Tinicum Township to keep unauthorized people out of the hospital building.

Finding a gate, they let themselves in, stepped up to the long porch facing the Delaware, and peered in the windows.

"You almost feel like you are in a different time," said Larry Ganges, 53, of Trenton.

The brothers are spreading the story to Gangeses scattered across the nation, almost all of whom have Philadelphia roots. "They are just amazed" to hear it, Larry Ganges said.