Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Preservation News
Date: November 4, 2001
Byline: unsigned

1799 Quarantine Station Saved from Demolition

Five years ago it seemed that the last example of quarantine stations that once protected the nation's ports from the introduction of "imported" communicable diseases, like yellow fever and cholera, might be lost forever.

The "Lazaretto" — which was commissioned and built by Philadelphia's board of health in 1799 — stands on the Delaware River in Tinicum Township, Delaware County, just downriver from the Philadelphia International Airport. The then-privately owned, 10-acre property was sold to Island Marine Partners in 2000 which proposed various development schemes, all of which would have resulted in the demolition of the Lazaretto.

Since Tinicum Township has no protective preservation ordinance, demolition was a real possibility. Township residents and officials joined with preservationists from the region — including the Preservation Alliance which listed the Lazaretto on its 2003 Most Endangered Historic Properties list — to develop strategies to save the property.

The township stalled the developers by denying various development permit applications, and convened an ad hoc Lazaretto Feasibility Committee comprised of local citizens and preservationists, including representatives from the Alliance, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, and the Delaware County Planning Department.

The turning point came when the Tinicum commissioners concluded that purchasing the Lazaretto property from the developers was the only sure way to protect it. State Senator Ron Raymond got behind the acquisition plan and, with the active support of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) Chairman Wayne Spillove, eventually secured $2 million in state funds toward the $3+ million purchase price.

The township came up with the matching money, and on July 28, 2005, bought the Lazaretto ensuring its preservation.

When it was first built, the Lazaretto stood on a marshy island — which was subsequently drained and connected to the mainland to become Tinicum Township — about ten miles downriver from the city of Philadelphia which had recently been ravaged by the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s.

Watchmen at the Lazaretto would detain incoming ships so that the quarantine station's physician and his team could inspect the cargo, crew and passengers for evidence of communicable diseases. If disease was found, the cargo would be fumigated while the crew and passengers would be waylaid at the Lazaretto's wards until they recovered or, in some cases, died. (Most of the deceased were buried on site, and while it is believed that many were re-interred elsewhere in the late 1800s, it's possible that graves still survive at the Lazaretto site.)

The Lazaretto has many stories to tell. Research by historian Donah Crawford indicates that the Lazaretto was the last "checkpoint" before entering America for refugees of the Irish potato famines, The staff of the quarantine station was stricken by yellow fever during the epidemic of 1870, and many subsequently died. In 1892 over 19,000 immigrants were quarantined at the Lazaretto for twenty days each during a cholera epidemic.

In a then-infamous incident, the U.S.S Ganges, a naval ship, captured two illegal U.S. slave ships, the Prudent and the Phebe, off the coast of Cuba in 1800. The Ganges captain had contingents of his crew take both slave ships to Philadelphia because of that city's strong anti-slavery sentiments. The slave ships arrived at the Lazaretto in August of 1800.

The displaced Africans were detained at the Lazaretto for 31 days until their legal status was debated. During their stay the emaciated and diseased slaves were nursed back to health by the staff of the Lazaretto. The Abolition Society in Philadelphia obtained guardianship of the Africans and dispersed them into American society via indentureships; most eventually became part of Philadelphia's population of free blacks.

What's next for the Lazaretto? The township is undecided on its eventual use, but will proceed soon to stabilize and "mothball" the main Lazaretto administrative building and several smaller outbuildings. The regional office of the National Park Service will continue its documentation of the history and existing conditions of the Lazaretto under the direction of Bill Bolger. And local station WHYY hopes to secure a grant to air one or more documentaries on the history of the quarantine station.

Meanwhile, plans are proceeding to build a needed township fire station — the funds for which also came from the state — on a long-cleared portion of the Lazaretto property. It is thought that there will be a sufficient buffer zone between the new fire station and the historic Lazaretto buildings so not to have an intrusive visual impact. PHMC, however, has provided funds to investigate archeological resources on the building site.

Tinicum Township is likely to undertake a feasibility study of viable uses for the Lazaretto buildings, principally the Georgian-style administration building which stands prominently near the center of the ten-acre site. There is understandably a call for some form of public interpretation of the quarantine station's remarkable history. (For an extensive history of the Lazaretto, contact to request a copy of Rebecca Sells' dissertation on the Lazaretto.)

It is likely that the property can support mixed uses, including public access to the Delaware River, a history museum, community or governmental spaces, or even appropriate leased spaces.

While its exact future uses are still uncertain, it is now clear that threatened demolition of the Lazaretto has been averted thanks to the commitment of the township, the state, and a host of citizens, elected and appointed officials, and the region's preservation community.