Once upon a time, when ocean travel ruled the world, ships filled the area along the Delaware coast, bound for the major international hub of Philadelphia.
But international ships didn’t just bring food, people and goods. They also brought the fear of illness and epidemic.
Archeologist and historian John P. McCarthy described “Quarantine Stations of Delaware Bay” in his Dec. 6 lecture at Fort Miles, a short distance from Sussex County’s own turn-of-the-century quarantine station.
“The concept of quarantine is simply the separation of the diseased from the healthy and has its roots in the 14th century in Venice during the Black Death,” McCarthy said.
The U.S. federal government created the National Quarantine System in 1878, uniting the states’ individual efforts at public health. The Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station included about 40 acres in today’s Cape Henlopen State Park.
It was before modern medicine, and germ theory was in its infancy — especially in the face of contagions such as yellow fever, cholera and smallpox.
At one time, quarantine was required for incoming ships that reported disease, or when overseas diplomats reported disease in foreign ports, so ships were automatically held when they returned to U.S. shores.
Officials protected the general population as best they could, with quarantine and hot sulfur gas fumigation — and by dumping loads of cargo into the sea, from fresh produce to immigrants’ personal belongings (the science behind that decision was imperfect).
For instance, the schooner Hannah McLoon arrived in the Delaware Bay in July of 1893, yellow fever having claimed the captain’s life en route from Havana. The captain was buried ashore at Breakwater station, while his vessel held for observation. Nine days later, the crew was allowed to sail north, the ship having been fumigated with sulfur steam.
(The Delaware Bay also housed Reedy Island Quarantine Station near Port Penn, as well as Pennsylvania’s Marcus Hook Quarantine Station and Essington Lazaretto near the Philadelphia Airport.)
Today, it’s hard to find any trace of the Breakwater Station, despite there having been 40 acres of bunks, small hospitals, kitchens, surgeons’ quarters, laundry and a cemetery.
The area became a military hospital and then a World War II Army fort for artillery units. Between demolitions and reconstruction, the sands have shifted to cover even the “millions of nails” that should still be nearby, McCarthy said.
“This was a fairly large complex. A lot of people came through here. And there’s hardly anything left of the complex,” McCarthy said.
Researchers continue to seek traces of these old structures. Someday, McCarthy said, he hopes to delineate the cemetery and post a memorial to honor the people laid to rest at Cape Henlopen. With more time and manpower, McCarthy and other researchers can dive deeper into the National Archives, which houses the many records of inspections, boat traffic and even deaths at Delaware Bay quarantine stations.
The public can help with this and other historical missions through Delaware State Parks Time Travelers Program.
“Time Travelers” focus on history and cultural heritage while the volunteers help professional historians with research and digging projects. Across Delaware, Time Travelers’ discoveries have ranged from 2,500-year-old prehistoric pottery to 18th-century millworker artifacts.
The Time Travelers program offers hands-on experience in the field, the lab and the archives, depending on the interests and skills of the individual. No experience is necessary. It’s open to anyone interested in history, age 14 or older.
“Get out, get dirty, find really cool stuff and have a good time with us,” McCarthy said.
By Laura Walter