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Flying the Quarantine flag

Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911


Barriers Against Invisible Foes

by Frank Linstow White

Page 4 of 4

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, Vol. XXXIII, January to June 1892; Pages 662 - 672.


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There is more routine work in the afternoon, but we put in a little time profitably chatting with Secretary Sequine, who gives us some interesting historical data, for Quarantine has its history.

The fact that the port of New York, through its extended trade, is peculiarly exposed to the introduction of contagious diseases, has at various times been brought rather forcibly to the notice of the power that be, and numerous laws have been enacted with the view of providing for the protection of the public health.

As early as 1647 the Council adopted measures to prevent the introduction of epidemic diseases into New York. In 1714 His Majesty's Council issued an order directing that vessels from Jamaica should be quarantined at Staten Island, and two years later this order was extended to all vessels from the West Indies. The first quarantine law for New York harbor passed by the Colonial Legislature was enacted in 1758; and provide for quarantine at Bedloe's Island; this law was re-enacted by the State Legislature in 1784. In 1794 the Governor was authorized to appropriate Governor's Island for quarantine purposes, and five years later Stated Island was designated instead, full authority being given for securing an anchorage ground and erecting a hospital, to be known as the Marine Hospital. In 1801 the Quarantine establishment was finally instituted at Tompkinsville, Staten Island, upon the site of the present Cotton Docks, where it remained for over sixty years.

Though New York was no doubt satisfied with the change which removed Quarantine further from the city, Staten Island was not, and with the increase of population the growing hostility against the institution became so bitter that the Legislature, in 1857, passed an Act to secure the selection of another site. George Hall, Egbert Benson and Obadiah Brown, the first Quarantine Commissioners to be appointed under this law, chose Sandy Hook, but New Jersey objected. Failing here, they pitched upon Sequine Point, at the southern end of Staten Island, and began with the erection of the necessary buildings. The inhabitants however, cut off Quarantine from that quarter by turning out on the night of May 6th, 1857, and setting fire to the establishment. A second attempt to obtain Sandy Hook having also failed, the old station at Tompkinsville was continued in use, which so incensed the surrounding population that they followed the example of their Seguine Point brethren, and on the night of September 1st-2d destroyed the place which their petitions and remonstrances had not been able to dislodge. The county later on had to foot the bills, for by law it was held responsible for the damage done by its mob.

To meet the emergency thus created, the Commissioners decided upon the construction of a floating hospital, but changed their minds, and in 1858 hit upon "Old Orchard Shoals" in Raritan Bay, as a site, which plan also was not carried out. When, in 1859, another Commission was appointed, consisting of Horatio Seymour, John C. Green and Ex-Governor Patterson, the "floating hospital" idea was adopted, and the steamship Falcon purchased for that purpose, and located below the Narrows. The steamers Illinois and Empire City were subsequently also placed at the disposal of the Quarantine people by the general government. The Illinois served until 1888, when it was finally abandoned, and the S. D. Carlton purchased to take its place.

The arrangements were still inadequate in the early sixties. On the 23d of April, 1863, however, the General Quarantine Act was passed, establishing a general system of quarantine for the port. By this Act, the permanent office of Quarantine Commissioners was created, and their duties and powers, with those of the Health Officer, were more close defined. Among the subsequent amendatory Acts was that of April 22d, 1867, which provided for a permanent structure on West Bank, as also a temporary one on Barren Island, and a landing and boarding station on the west end of Coney Island. Of the last two projects nothing more was heard, but the construction of Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, on West Bank, was duly undertaken, and then came the location of the present boarding station just above Fort Wadsworth, in 1874. Thus, out of all these difficulties – occasioned to a great extent by the apathy of the people, out of which they were occasionally aroused by the alarming proximity of Yellow Jack and the cholera – there has arisen a Quarantine establishment that probably excels in completeness any other in the world. The confidence felt in its efficiency has made the air of secrecy which formerly enshrouded all doings at Quarantine a thing of the past. Still, if the methods down there were as well known as they ought to be, some of the misstatements made by the newspapers during the later "hunger-typhus" scare might have been avoided.

A perusal of the collected laws relating to Quarantine will convince us that they are in some measure antiquated and conflicting, but the jurisdiction of the Quarantine establishment extends from Sandy Hook to Hell Gate, and the Health Officer is invested with almost unlimited discretionary power, which has been used with good judgment. Anyone aggrieved by a decision of the Health Officer, however, may appeal to the Commissioners of Quarantine, whose decision, in that case, is final.

Violation of the Quarantine regulations, or obstruction of the officers in the performance of their duty, is punishable by a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $500, or by an imprisonment of not less than three nor more than six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment. And masters of vessels who refuse or neglect to furnish all necessary information to the Health Officer are punishable by a fine not exceeding $2,000, or by imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, or by both.

By the law of April 11th, 1888, the annual salary of the Health Officer was fixed at $10,000, and all fees were legalized. The fee for the inspection of vessels from foreign ports was reduced from $6.50 to $5.00, and that for vessels from domestic ports south of Cape Henlopen, formerly $1.00, $2.00 and $3.00, according to the tonnage of the vessel, has been fixed at the uniform rate of $1.00 for all classes. The fee for boarding at night is reduced from $15.00, $10.00 and $8.00 to the uniform rate of $5.00, and the same amount constitutes the disinfection fee, which formerly ranged form $3.00 to $8.00

Since the Act of 1801 was passed, providing for the appointment of a Health Officer, the following M.D.'s have served in that capacity:

Name   Date of Appointment
John R. B. Rodgers   October 5, 1803
Benjamin De Witt   March 6, 1815
Joseph Bayley   February 4, 1820
John T. Harrison   April 24, 1823
John S. Westervelt   February 25, 1822
William Rockwell   February 10, 1836
A. Sidney Doane   February 14, 1840
Henry Van Hovenburgh   February 8, 1843
Alexander B. Whiteing   January 28, 1848
A. Sidney Doane   April 4, 1850
Richard L. Morris   April 10, 1852
Henry E. Bartlett   April 21, 1854
Richard H. Thompson   April 21, 1855
Alexander N. Gunn   April 6, 1859
John Swinburne   March 19, 1864
John M. Carnochan   January 27, 1870
Samuel Oakely Vanderpoel   February 28, 1872
William M. Smith *   March 27, 1880

* Dr. Smith was succeeded by Dr. William T. Jenkins on February 1st, 1892. [Web Editor's Note: Dr. Jenkins was succeeded by Dr. Alvah H. Doty who served during the highest numbers of immigrants arriving at the Port of New York.]

While we are listening and reading a steamer of the Compagnie Transatlantique has come in. It is growing late, and a raw wind has arisen and blows hard over the water, while the sky has become dismally gray in tone. A merry babble of voices is borne over to us from the deck of the steamer, and the shrill, squeaking notes of a clarinet rise high above the faintly heard hubbub. They are anxious to reach the Compagnie's dock before nightfall, and the big ship steams slowly up the bay, with the small black-and-white Quarantine tug puffing along beside it. They have lost some time already, because the Portuguese steamer that came in just before them from the Azores has been subjected to a very thorough and careful examination, it having brought smallpox on its two preceding trips. But there is no more work to be done after this, as it is nearly six o'clock, at which hour the working day ends here.

It is with a feeling of relief that we get out of the damp wind at the waterside, and board the north-bound train at the Fort Wadsworth station, a quarter of a mile beyond.

But as we glide homeward on the Staten Island Ferry boat, our glance, following the impulse of the many impressions we have received, naturally turns back once more in the direction where New York has set up her wall of protection against the insidious attacks of subtle and deadly epidemics.

The End

Barriers Against Invisible Foes
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