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THE FORGOTTEN OF ELLIS ISLAND
Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911

 

"Quarantine At New York"

From HARPER'S WEEKLY, A Journal of Civilization

Vol. XXIII, No. 1184, September 6, 1879


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From a recent report of the Commissioners of Quarantine we condense the following account of the measures taken to preserve the healthfulness of New York against contagious diseases that may be brought hither by ships arriving from infected ports.

The first quarantine law for the port of New York was enacted about one hundred and twenty ears ago, by the Legislature of the then colony. It was entitled "An act to prevent the bringing in and spreading of infectious distempers in the colony," and stipulated that vessels having small-pox, yellow fever, or other contagious diseases aboard should stop on their way to the city at Bedloe's Island, and there be quarantined, under heavy penalties for disobedience. In 1784 the State Legislature re-enacted this law substantially. In 1794 it authorized the Governor of the State to appropriate Governor's Island for quarantine purposes, erecting hospitals, reception buildings, etc. Five years later (1799), Staten Island, six miles down the bay, was designated by the Legislature, in place of governor's Island, as the place for quarantine, and full authority was given for securing anchorage grounds, and erecting a hospital upon the shore, to be known as the Marine Hospital. Two years later (1801), the quarantine establishment, such as it was, was fully located at Tompkinsville, Staten Island, where it remained for over sixty years, subject, during the latter part of that period, to the control of a board of Health Commissioners.

Upper Quarantine, New York Bay

With the increase of population in the vicinity, the bitter hostility became so intense upon Staten Island that the Legislature, March, 1857, authorized the appointing of three Commissioners to select a site elsewhere, and erect the necessary docks, buildings, etc. The governor appointed George Hall, Egbert Benson, and O. Bowne, who were the first Quarantine Commissioners. They selected Sandy Hook as the point for the new boarding station, but were unable to effect (sic) a purchase from New Jersey. They then selected Seguine's Point, on the south shore of Staten Island, and proceeded to erect a pier, buildings, etc. The people in the vicinity, however, turned out in a body one night (May 6, 1857), and burned everything connected with the new station. Another application to obtain Sandy Hook also failed, and the old station at Tompkinsville was continued in use. Incensed at this failure to procure a removal, the surrounding population invaded the quarantine inclosure (sic), on the night of September 1 and 2, and destroyed all the buildings and other property, for which the county subsequently paid the State over one hundred thousand dollars, in accordance with the law making any county within which property is destroyed by a mob liable for the loss. Following this destruction of property, the Commissioners decided to construct a floating hospital. They subsequently, however, reconsidered this determination, and December 21, 1858, recommended the construction of five acres of land on "Old Orchard Shoals, in Raritan Bay, to form a site on which to erect the buildings necessary for a new quarantine station for the port of New York, and to which, when constructed, an entire removal of the quarantine establishment should be made." This plan, however, was not carried out, and in 1859 another Commission was appointed, consisting of Horatio Seymour, John C. Green, and ex-Governor Patterson, who adopted the floating hospital, and purchased the steam-ship Falcon for that purpose. The steamers Illinois and Empire City were afterward loaned to the Commissioners by the general government. Ship-fever patients were sent to Ward's Island, small-pox patients to Blackwell's, and yellow fever was treated on the floating hospital.

April 23, 1863, what is now known as the General Quarantine Act was passed, defining the quarantine establishment, authorizing its construction, creating the permanent office of Quarantine Commissioner, defining the duties and powers of the Commissioners and Health Officer, and establishing a general system of quarantine for the port. Additional powers were conferred by amendments made to this general act in 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1867, under which two small steamers were purchased; the property at Tompkinsville, Staten Island, known as the Marine Hospital Grounds, was sold; and the artificial islands in the lower bay were undertaken and afterward completed — Swinburne Island in 1860, and Hoffman Island in 1873.

A brief description of quarantine as it is now carried on may be interesting to those who have not the opportunity to make a personal inspection. The residences of the Health Officer and his two deputies are located at Clifton, on the south shore of Staten Island, a short distance above the Narrows and Fort Richmond; a short distance below the Narrows is Hoffman Island, with three extensive brick buildings. Three-quarters of a mile further down the bay is Swinburne Island, which encounters "the stead roll of the Atlantic," and the full force of the winds and storms. The row of long white hospital wards unmistakably indicates its character

Swinburne Island Hospital

Far away to the right, eight miles distant, at Seguine's Point, on the Staten Island shore, is the quarantine burying ground. Three miles and a half from Swinburne Island, in a nearly direct course toward Sandy Hook, is anchored, during the quarantine season, the hospital or boarding ship Illinois. Her great dismantled hulk can be seen for a long distance. The Boarding Officer for the lower bay resides upon this ship. All vessels arriving from the West Indies, South American ports, and from the west coast of Africa are required to come to anchor here while the Boarding Officer inspects them. All other vessels proceed up through the Narrows, and are boarded in the upper bay, opposite the Health Officer's residence, by the deputies, who are provided for this purpose with the steamer Governor Fenton.

Lower Quarantine

The object of boarding from two points (viz., upper and lower bay) is to keep all vessels coming from infected ports, or likely to be infected with cholera or yellow fever, as far away from the city as possible. As these vessels come to anchor near the Illinois, the Boarding Officer leaves the latter in a small boat and visits them aboard, the vessel is fumigated; after being detained twenty-four hours or more, as may be required, she is permitted to proceed through the Narrows to the upper bay, anchoring not far from New York, between Robbin's Reef Lighthouse and Bedloe's Island. Her cargo is here discharged into lighters. Then the vessel is cleansed, her hold is washed out, pratique is granted, and she is permitted to proceed on up to her wharf. When the Boarding Officer from the Illinois finds any yellow fever or cholera patients on the incoming vessels, a signal is set, and one of the steamers belonging to the quarantine service comes and bears away the sufferers to Swinburne Island. Immediately upon reaching there they are stripped of their clothing, which is at once burned in a furnace constructed for that purpose, and they are placed in the sick wards. If recovering, the patients are removed across to the convalescent wards. They are then permitted to take daily exercise on the walk surrounding the wards, or to recline by the hour upon the grass-plots in front of the Superintendent's residence, where they are protected from the sun's rays by a heavy canvas. This change to outdoor life rapidly hastens their recovery, and, in fact, the whole surroundings of the hospital are so conducive to health, that nearly all the patients who are brought here in time are restored, and yellow fever has no terrors whatever for the persons and employés (sic) upon the island, of whom but one has ever contracted it. When sufficiently well, the convalescents are taken to Brooklyn or rejoin their vessels. In case of death, the bodies are placed in plain coffins and carried in small boats across the bay to the burying ground at Seguine's Point.

A complete record is kept of each patient, and of all the facts that can be gleaned from him upon reaching the hospital. When buried, a board slab is placed at the head of the grave, containing a number which corresponds with the hospital record. The Commissioners are frequently called upon by friends for bodies, five, ten, and even twenty years after they have been buried.

Residing upon the Illinois with the Boarding Officer from May 1 to October 15 are a ship-keeper, cook, and servants. Every appliance is kept aboard for removing patients, including chairs in which they are strapped during heavy weather and let down from vessels into the quarantine boats, which convey them to the Swinburne Island hospital. Transfer clothing is likewise provided on the Illinois for yellow fever patients to take with them to the hospital. There are very commodious apartments upon the Illinois, including a cabinet, reception, sitting, and dining rooms, kitchen, dormitories, etc.

Our illustrations on page 704 show all the incidents alluded to in the foregoing description, from the arrival of the foreign vessel at lower quarantine until she is permitted to proceed to her dock.


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