A History of Quarantine Stations on the Cape Fear River (Part 1 of 2)

By Sandy Jackson

[Originally published in the January, 1996 – FPHPS Newsletter]

In the decade preceding the Civil War the sanitary regulations of the port of Wilmington were under the control of the Commissioners of Navigation and Pilotage who established quarantine stations on the river.

When the Civil War began, however, the quarantine laws that applied to the port of Wilmington were waived because supplies and food were desperately needed by soldiers and civilians. As a result of the waiving of quarantine regulations, an epidemic of yellow fever began with the arrival of the steamer Kate, a blockade-runner from Nassau.

On August 6, 1862, after slipping by the Federal blockade, the steamer Kate entered the Cape Fear River loaded with bacon and other food supplies and anchored at the foot of Market Street.

In the absence of a sufficient quarantine practice the infectious disease spread to the inhabitants of the town, resulting in a great loss of life before it was finally brought under control several weeks later.

As a result of an outbreak of yellow fever in Wilmington, health authorities implemented improvements in quarantine regulations. By 1864 all vessels bound for Wilmington were required to stop at Fort Anderson, on the site of old Brunswick Town, for inspection.

Following the war, quarantine regulations for the civilian trade briefly came under the jurisdiction of the quarantine medical officer, while the military continued to enforce its own policies.

Under provisions stated in “An act for the preservation of the public health, by establishing suitable Quarantine regulations for the Port of Wilmington, NC.” (1868), notice concerning inspection and or quarantine of vessels possibly carrying infectious diseases was given to pilots, masters, and owners of vessels.

The act called for the establishment of a quarantine station “opposite Deep Water Point, near the mouth of the Cape Fear River . . .” and the appointment of a physician by the governor. At the nearest convenient station upon the shore, a hospital was to be built for the sick removed from restricted vessels.

All vessels from ports south of Cape Fear had to stop at the station near Deep Water Point for inspection by the quarantine physician and be “quarantined for fifteen days, and thoroughly fumigated.” A fee of five dollars was required of each ship inspected; for every sick person taken to the hospital a quarantined vessel, a fee not exceeding three dollars a day” was charged.

Any vessel that knew it had a sickness on board was required to stop at the station regardless of the port from which it sailed. Any ships to which the above regulations did not apply could proceed directly to Wilmington without detention.

Under military General Orders issued for the district, quarantine regulations stated that “All vessels coming directly, or indirectly, from a port where any infection exists, are required to remain in quarantine as long as the quarantine officer shall think necessary.”

The military assumed the control of all quarantine regulations and established quarantine stations at Fort Caswell and Fort Fisher. It was required that the quarantine ground be as near Smith’s Island and Bald Head as the depth of water would allow for arriving ships. A quarantine hospital, storehouse, and trading post were established on the beach about 2 miles Fort Caswell.

In 1869 a quarantine station was built at Pine Creek (probably Price’s Creek) upon a tract of two acres at a cost of two thousand dollars.

The following year an amendment to the quarantine health act was ratified; the amendment created a Board of Quarantine for the Port of Wilmington. The board consisted of “the Board of Navigation and Pilotage, the Quarantine Medical Officer and the Quarantine Commissioners, whose duty it shall be to make such rules and regulations as may be necessary to protect the inhabitants from infectious diseases, and for the government of the Hospital at Deep Water Point . . .”.

An editorial by Dr. Walter G. Curtis, the quarantine physician, that appeared in the Wilmington Star in 1878 praised the success of the quarantine station. The physician stated: “I believe it can be confidently asserted that Wilmington is one of the healthiest cities on the Atlantic Coast. Yellow fever has visited that city but once in thirty years. The quarantine establishment opposite Deep Water Point has intercepted it invariably since its establishment there, and kept it out of your city”.

In a March 1879 letter, Dr. Curtis reported to Gov. Thomas Jarvis that “nothing occurred of importance at this Quarantine Station.” Dr. Curtis did, however, express his concerns over the continued control of vessels arriving from South American ports, where yellow fever and smallpox were prevalent. Although an occasional vessel arrived from South American ports with sickness on board, Dr. Curtis had found no shipboard cases of a contagious nature.

Within three months Dr. Curtis was again in contact with Jarvis, stating that the health of the Port of Wilmington continued to be excellent and unaffected by ships arriving foreign ports. The number of vessels that arrived at the port for inspection did, however, exceed the doctor‘s initial expectations. The policy of inspecting for infectious diseases vessels arriving from ports in South America and the West Indies continued with the approval of the Wilmington inhabitants.

On March 31, 1882, the Quarantine Hospital at “Pine Creek” burnt. It was determined that a fire that started in the roof and was fanned by the strong winds along the river caused the destruction. The keeper and his family managed to save most of the furniture and bedding.

Dr. Curtis suggested to Gov. Thomas Jarvis that a temporary quarantine station might be established at the old lighthouse at Pine Creek. With the support of Jarvis and Senator Zebulon B. Vance, their recommendation was made to the Chief of the Lighthouse Bureau. The Bureau approved use of the old lighthouse, provided that “the property be in as good order as when received, and that it be restored to the custody of the Light House Establishment on due notice.”

The quarantine hospital may have remained located in the lighthouse for several years.

[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]

Bibliography

Brown, Landis G.
1973 “Quarantine on the Cape Fear River.” The State 41, no. 6 (November).

South, Stanley.
1960 “Colonial Brunswick 1726-1776“. State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

Wilmington Star, (Wilmington, NC.) 1868, 1870, 1878

Yearns, W. Buck. (editor)
1969 “The Papers of Thomas Jordan Jarvis“. Raleigh: State Department of Archives and History.

 

[Additional resources]

January, 1996 – FPHPS Newsletter (pdf)

Epidemic! Quarantine! – a July, 2014 FPHPS Article describing issues related to the ‘deteriorating’ quarantine station.