Texas Coast Quarantined; travelers forbidden to go ashore at (South) Padre Island Texas

© 2012 Steve Hathcock

 

Bill Keller of Monterey California wrote me; “I bought an old Padre Island postcard on Ebay recently that shows a building called the Quarantine station. Can you tell me anything about where it was located and why it was built?”

Thanks

Bill Keller

             

Yellow fever and Cholera outbreaks were very common in Texas during the 1800s, so much so that in 1870, the State Legislation passed an Act declaring quarantine on the Texas Coast. Each community was ordered to establish a quarantine station at a safe distance from the usual places of landing for ships.

All ships were inspected at sea, if any sign of fever or vomiting were noted the vessel would be placed under quarantine.

Locally appointed health officers, paid $10.00 a day, had absolute jurisdiction over cargo, crew and passengers of any ship docked in the harbor. If a craft from an infected port tried to land without a bill of health from the proper official they could be fined not less than $500 and not more than $5000.  Attempting to by-pass the station altogether could result in a jail sentence of two years or more. Anyone aboard a vessel under quarantine was forbidden to go ashore under penalty of $50-$500 fines. Cargo could not be landed without first undergoing fumigation. (Before the first station was built, quarantined ships were kept at anchor just inside the bar; the crew passengers and cargo were kept aboard until twenty days passed with no signs of infection had passed.)

The first quarantine station was built on Clark Island which lies to the west of Brazos Island. (The two were only separated during high tide.) The west end of Clark Island, which is almost two square miles, was about twelve feet above sea level and was covered with grasses, cactuses and stunted mesquite bushes. Four hundred yards away was a large, three foot deep channel. Small skiffs were able to approach within 100 feet of the land here and a wooden pier extended out over the water so the quarantined souls did not have to wade ashore. The facility itself consisted of a large hospital tent and seven smaller “pup” style tents for use as needed. Fifty cents was collected before each person quarantined was given a clean bill of health.

In 1882, a wooden structure (shown in your postcard) was erected on Padre Island just north of the light house which would put it somewhere near the pilings of the old causeway. This structure served as “home” for anyone suspected of being infected. Primitive as it looks, the old wooden structure was probably as comfortable a place as any to spend twenty days of quarantine. Shuttered windows could be opened wide on all sides thus ensuring any breeze could be directed through the building and the living area was perched about 10 feet off the ground. There was even a little room located atop the structure that had a wrap-around deck wide enough to walk about

Early research by Dr. W.C. Gorgas, an army physician stationed at Fort Brown proved that yellow fever was not caused by a gas rising from decaying vegetation, but from the bite of a certain type of mosquito that carried the dreaded virus in its saliva. As a result, fever bearing mosquitoes were eradicated and the occurrence of epidemics dropped dramatically. Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century the quarantine station was closed for good. I’m not sure of what happened to the building but I believe it was destroyed in the hurricane of 1933.

 

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