Built in 1801 in response to the yellow fever outbreak of 1793 that killed 1 of every 10 Philadelphians, the Lazaretto Quarantine Hospital is the oldest in the United States, significantly pre-dating both Ellis Island in NY and Angel Island in CA. An Old Lazaretto quarantine site was built in 1743 closer to Philadelphia, but no real effort was made to control disease epidemics until after 1793, when the city created a Board of Health, with the power to levy taxes for public health measures. The name “Lazaretto” comes from St. Lazarus, patron saint of lepers. Quarantine stations known as lazarettos were established in European beginning in the late 14th century.
Not knowing how yellow fever spread, city officials looked for ways to mitigate future outbreaks. One cause was thought to be contaminated water, so the city began work on its first waterworks, built where City Hall now stands. More information about this can be found at the Water Works museum in Fairmount Park, including this display of original wooden and cast iron water pipes (Philadelphia’s Waterworks: A Free Museum And Secret Sculpture Garden).
Others blamed yellow fever on immigrants (partly true) or infected cargo, hence the building of a dedicated quarantine hospital, responsible for inspecting all crew, passengers, and cargo arriving in Philadelphia between May and October-the prime months for disease outbreaks.
Many of the original structures are still visible on the site. The main building is the centerpiece, with 2 hospital wings flanking a central administration area. These hospital wards had no connecting doors between the administration area to prevent spread of disease.
The tiny Bargemen’s house was home to the 6 men who were responsible for much of the physical labor on site as well as for spotting ships in the river and rowing the doctor and quarantine master out to the ships.
Once onboard, the doctor and quarantine master were responsible for inspecting crew, passengers, and cargo to determine if the ship could land in Philadelphia, or if quarantine/decontamination measures were needed. The quarantine master’s house is still standing.
If crew or passengers were ill, the quarantine period could last from days to months. Once beds in the hospital areas were full, tents were set up on the lawn. The station was responsible for not only medical care, but also feeding both staff and those in quarantine. The bake house still stands next to the back doors leading to the basement kitchens.
Also still standing is the carriage house, where horses, cows, and pigs were kept:
These original iron gates were part of a perimeter fence separating those living or being held at the station with the general public.
The fenced area by today’s main entrance was the site of the hospital’s cemetery, which was used not only for people who succumbed to their illness, but also doctors and other staff who died. Several doctors and nurses were buried here-working at the quarantine station was definitely a high risk occupation.
Yellow fever appeared in Philadelphia sporadically over the next few decades, and its exact cause was not pinpointed until the late 1800’s when Walter Reed’s experiments in Cuba confirmed mosquitos as the vector. In his tests, subjects allowed themselves to be bitten by infected mosquitoes and were found to develop the disease.
After the quarantine station closed in 1895, it became the summer home of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia, a recreation spot for wealthy Philadelphians. Several members took up “flying boats” (seaplanes), and the site was home to the first seaplanes in Pennsylvania. At the onset of WW1, military pilots trained here for a short time, and a flight school remained active until 2000. A winch and hanger remain from this time. Below is a vintage photo from the website.
The site fell into disrepair, and was about to be turned into an airport parking lot, when it was rescued and renovated into township offices. The main building’s restoration was completed in early 2020-just in time to close for Covid quarantine. Lazaretto is located just south of the airport. A self-guided walking tour is available at www.lazaretto.site.