Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: The Voice (Cumberland County College)
Date: October 3, 2006
Byline: Lisa Riley

Losing our history: Destroying a 200 year old landmark

Just off of Interstate 95, on the banks of the Delaware River, rests a forgotten burial ground and quarantine station, the Lazaretto.

Some historians consider the Lazaretto a prototype to Ellis Island. Erected in 1799 in response to the Yellow Fever epidemic, the Lazaretto served as an immigration portal, quarantine station, and burial ground. It is estimated that nearly one out of three Americans today are descended from those who first arrived to the New World via the Lazaretto. A century older than the Ellis Island facility, the original structure still stands, but is in danger of having its burial grounds disturbed and its site forever altered.

In a December 1899 article, 'The Forgotten Dead: Neglected Graves at the Old Quarantine Station at Essington' The Chester Times wrote: "In the grounds of that place is a space of ground about 100 feet square, where are buried threescore of bodies which have long ago been forgotten, and there is no one who can recall their names."

Although it is documented that in April of 1900 several hundred bodies had been exhumed from the Lazaretto burial ground and removed to the Arlington Cemetery in Upper Darby, PA, it is uncertain how thorough this removal process was. The 1900 exhumation does not detail the methods used, size or number of burial locations. "Research and current archaeology show that the burial ground had been exhumed', said one Lazaretto Task Force member (a group of local citizens, experts in historic preservation and historians interested in the history and historic site potential of the Lazaretto). "Although this does not negate the importance of the site as a burial site of immigrants, disease victims, etc.".

Tinicum Township, comprised of the communities of Essington and Lester, purchased the Lazaretto from a private owner who had planned to demolish the Lazaretto and construct an airport parking lot. "However, the township's plan was not to purchase and restore the Lazaretto site in full," states the Task Force. "But rather to purchase all the land, mothball the main building, and on the northern half of the Lazaretto site to build a fire station complex. We support the firefighter's need for a new firehouse, but endorse building it at the 'Westinghouse' location it was originally designed for, on property the township already owns."

When questioned as to why the firehouse plans were moved from the original site to the Lazaretto grounds, Tinicum Town Solicitor, Sam Auslander, replied: "The other site is not as suitable. The Lazaretto site is closer to the community". Auslander stated that Tinicum "has saved the Lazaretto from being demolished" and that the new plan "serves the safety and welfare of our residents." Auslander also noted that Tinicum may restore the main building but have to complete a feasibility study and consider costs before this would occur.

The National Park Service has stated that the site is eligible to be on the most elite list of historic sites in the nation as a National Historic Landmark. Historians note that the Lazaretto site has potential as a World Heritage Site, which many consider even more prestigious. "What Tinicum is doing is vastly compromising a site that is on the same level as Independence Hall and, in many opinions, more important than Ellis Island," states one local member of the Task Force.

Tinicum residents have strong feelings on this issue as well. "Funny how this township needs a new firehouse (of course!)--Oh, I'm sorry 'evacuation center' — to be located close to a major river..." writes one Tinicum resident on the Task Force's forum. "So when planes crash in from the airport onto Tinicum property the evacuees can be rushed to the sinking and flooded major 'evacuation center' for safe-keeping!?"

To learn more about the Lazaretto and what is being done to save this historic site, visit website: www.ushistory.org/laz/index.htm