By Sandy Jackson
[Originally published in the February, 1996 – FPHPS Newsletter]
In 1889 the state legislature failed to appropriate funds to improve the quarantine facilities. Plans for the selection and construction of a new quarantine hospital at the mouth of the Cape Fear River were again considered by the state in 1893-94.
The state proposed $20,000 for construction of a quarantine station, provided that Wilmington would contribute $5,000 for the purpose. Wilmington could not raise its appropriate share, and the state funds were never provided.
A suggestion was made by the board to petition the federal government to maintain a quarantine hospital on the Cape Fear River.
With the appropriation of $35,000 by Gen. Robert Ransom under the 1894 River and Harbor Act, the US. government would maintain the hospital site chosen to be located near Southport. The most promising site for a new quarantine station was at White Rock, southeast of Price’s Creek lighthouse. “It possessed the advantage of being fairly well protected wind and water, did not endanger Southport, was well isolated, and it was out of the way of regular river traffic”.
Bids were opened for the construction of a wharf and buildings at the new US. Quarantine Station. Frank Baldwin of Washington, DC, was the lowest bidder, at $18,500; however, Baldwin was unable to complete the service in 1895 and the project was then awarded to William Peake (one of the bondsmen for Mr. Baldwin) in the amount of $8,176.66. The State Quarantine Station near Southport was transferred to the US. government on July 18, 1895. There was no charge for inspection or disinfection.
For the prevention of the spread of cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, typhus fever, plague, or other such infectious diseases, the following vessels were subject to the quarantine regulations:
1) All vessels, American or foreign, that had any sicknes’s on board.
2) All vessels from foreign ports, except vessels from the Atlantic or Pacific coasts of British America, not having on board passengers or the effects of passengers not resident in America for sixty days; and except foreign vessels arriving by way of non-infected domestic ports.
3) All vessels from infected domestic ports.
Constructed on pilings located within the Cape Fear River, the new quarantine station consisted of four houses: the disinfecting house, the hospital, the attendants quarters, and the medical officers’ quarters. The quarantine complex was described as follows:
The station has been carefully laid out on the east side of the channel of the river half way between the upper end of Battery Island and No. 4 beacon light (Price’s Creek). The location is entirely in the water and the nearest point to the shore is fully a half mile. The station is one mile east of Southport. As before stated the station will be out in the water and will be constructed on a pier, the caps of which will stand ten feet above mean low water. The pier will be in the shape of a cross .
The quarantine station pier was 600 feet in length and ran north by northwest. It was constructed on a shoal in the river with water from 18 to 20 inches in depth. The disinfecting house was constructed at the west end of the pier and included tanks for disinfectants, sulfur furnaces, a steam boiler and engine, and hose and pumps for applying the disinfectants under pressure. Vessels that required fumigation laid alongside with their hatches closed. A hose was run down into the vessel and the fumes and disinfectants forced in by steam until the ship was entirely covered.
The hospital, built on the south wing of the cross pier, contained wards for the sick, a dispensary, and a kitchen. The third building, the barracks or attendants’ quarters, occupied the center of the cross pier.
The remaining medical officers’ quarters was a two-story house on the north wing that contained an office, living apartments, kitchen, and dining room. At the east end of the pier a ballast was built for the deposit of ballast from quarantine vessels.
Before ballast from contaminated vessels could be dumped into the crib, it had to be disinfected. From 1898 to 1928, about $75,000 was appropriated by the federal government for construction of various additions at the quarantine station. The additions included: men’s quarters, 1898; quarters for detained crews, 1901; wharf, 1914; water tank, 1920; launch shelter, 1921; remodeling 1926; and extension of gangway, 1928. An artesian well, 400 feet deep, was also added to the station in 1897.
The’ United States marine hospital service tug John M Woodworth arrived in November 1895 and was immediately placed under the supervision of Dr. J.M. Eager, quarantine officer, who had assumed charge of the quarantine station in June. The Woodworth was “an iron hull boat of 88 tons, 80 feet in length, 17 feet beam, and draws 7 feet 6 inches.” The tug was designated to be used as a “boarding steamer” but was tied to the end of the quarantine pier and used as attendants’ quarters until the station was completed.
Until the new station was completed, the Cape Fear quarantine vessel served only as a boarding service, and all vessels needing fumigation or treatment were sent to another port.
The quarantine station apparently continued operation until 1937, when it outlived its usefulness and was placed in a surplus status under a caretaker.
It appears on several maps until that period. The station is indicated as late as 1937 on a US. Army Corps of Engineers map. Health services for seamen were transferred to a shore facility, located next to the Stuart house in Southport.
By 1939 maps described the station as “Decommissioned.” With improvements in the control of contagious diseases, a need for quarantine stations no longer existed. In 1946 the Southport station’s status was changed to first class relief station. The status of the shore station again changed about 1953, when it became an outpatient office of the US. Public Health Service and operated as such until 1970.
The abandoned quarantine station within the river was left to deteriorate. The caretaker, Charles E. Dosher, retired in 1946 and five years later – on August 19, 1951 – a large part of the old quarantine station was destroyed by fire. Presently only the concrete platform for the steel tower and water tank remain
[Editor: Claude V. (Sandy) Jackson III included this article in his book: ‘The Big Book of the Cape Fear River‘, available at the Federal Point History Center]
Brown, Landis G.
1973 “Quarantine on the Cape Fear River. ” The State 41, no. 6 (November).
Reeves, William M.
1990 Southport (Smithville): A Chronology (1887-1920). Vol. 2. Southport, NC: The Southport Historical Society.
United States Army Corps of Engineers.
1937 Cape Fear River Below Wilmington, N.C. in Front of Southport. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Office Map, Wilmington, NC.
1939 Cape Fear River Below Wilmington, N.C. Southport to Fort Caswell. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Office Map, Wilmington, N.C.
Wilmington Messenger (Wilmington, NC.) 1895
Wilmington Star, (Wilmington, NC.) 1894, 1895
February, 1996 – FPHPS Newsletter (pdf)
Epidemic! Quarantine! – a July, 2014 FPHPS Article describing issues related to the ‘deteriorating’ quarantine station.