In the early twenty-first century, most immigrants and foreign visitors arrive in the City of Brotherly Love through the Philadelphia International Airport, along the Delaware River at the city’s southern edge.  Two hundred years ago, new arrivals from overseas “landed” at nearly the same spot: just a mile west of where the airport now stands, to be exact, in Essington, Tinicum Township.  The gateway to Philadelphia for the first century of our nation’s existence was the Lazaretto quarantine station and hospital, where all arriving ships, passengers, and cargo were inspected and quarantined if necessary.  (The name “Lazaretto” derives from St. Lazarus, patron saint of lepers.  Maritime quarantine stations known as lazarettos were established in European port cities beginning in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.)  The Lazaretto stands today as a forgotten monument to a hidden history.  Recovering the history and viewing it through the prism of the site itself reveals a hitherto little-known facet of life in a nineteenth-century American seaport city.

        Viewed from the waterfront, as nineteenth-century arrivals to Philadelphia saw it, the Lazaretto still looms large—an imposing and stately but vaguely welcoming presence along a still bucolic stretch of the Delaware River.  The main builiding has lost its shutters and a section of its long portico, but it remains an architectural gem of the Federal style.  The surviving outbuildings, less impressive, hint of a large institution with many functions.  When it was built beginning in 1799, the Lazaretto was an outpost in unsettled countryside, far enough away from Philadelphia to protect the city from the threat of yellow fever and other epidemic diseases.  Even today, however, when it is barely more than a stone’s throw from the airport off Interstate 95 in congested Delaware County, the site occupies a tranquil spot along the riverfront.  Flanked by small marinas lined with pleasure boats, the Lazaretto’s weed-choked waterfront faces the wild green landscape of Little Tinicum Island, and one can imagine without too much difficulty the scene confronting immigrants to Philadelphia in the nineteenth century.

The reasons for the existence of the Lazaretto outside Philadelphia, however, belie the tranquil visual impression of the site.  Fear, suffering, and death pervade the grounds.  Quarantine station and hospital coexisted in one site, simultaneously providing care to sick passengers on arriving vessels and protection to the healthy citizens of Philadelphia.  Thousands of patients were treated, clothed, and fed there over the years.  But there was no mistaking the Lazaretto’s primary purpose: to stop and detain sick travelers before they could spread their diseases to the city. 

The deserted riverfont site also hides a century of conflict and change in American commerce, industry, immigration, politics, medicine, and everyday life.  Viewing the city and its hinterland through the prism of its first line of defense against invading diseases sheds new light on the forces and relationships that transformed American society in the nineteenth century, as well as on medicine and public health in the nation’s birthplace.

Some have called the Lazaretto “Philadelphia’s Ellis Island,”  but the two sites represent two fundamentally different chapters in the nation’s history of immigration and public health.  The oldest intact quarantine facility in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth oldest in the world, the Lazaretto predates its famous New York neighbor by nearly a century.  Posterity, however, has been kinder to Ellis Island, which has been preserved and renovated at extravagant cost.  Today, it is a state-of-the-art museum and tourist attraction visited by two million people every year.  Meanwhile, the Lazaretto sits abandoned, largely intact but empty and in disrepair.  Only since 2005 has the site been the object of a historic preservation effort, with uneven success to date.


Epidemics, Politics, and Quarantine
in the Nineteenth Century