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What was the history of the old Southport quarantine station?

Ben Steelman

The Cape Fear Quarantine Station, from a 1912 post card. Photo courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library.

Vessels have been pulling into Southport — or Smithville, as it was known prior to 1889 — for quarantine inspections since colonial times. A quarantine requirement was put into a 1751 pilotage act by the colonial Assemlby. In 1868, the state General Assembly authorized a quarantine station at Smithville.

The big fears were yellow fever and cholera, which often arrived with infected sailors or passengers aboard ships from South America and the Caribbean. Wilmington suffered major yellow fever epidemics in 1819 and 1821. The great yellow fever epidemic of 1862 — which killed at least 600 people and sent thousands more fleeing the city — was blamed on the blockade runner Kate, which arrived in August 1862 (although some modern researchers question this tale).

Especially after 1862, Confederate blockade runners were subject to strict quarantine requirements; in 1864, a company of troops was stationed at Fort Anderson on the west bank of the Cape Fear River, charged with enforcing quarantine inspections.

North Carolina’s 1868 act provided for a port physician, who was to draw up quarantine regulations. An 1879 law provided that the president of the state Board of Health was to appoint two physicians residing in Wilmington to assist the port physician; together, the three would draw up the quarantine regulations.

Port physicians were appointed by the governor, and Wilmington newspapers often complained that politics played too much of a role in the post. Dr. W.G. Curtis served as port physician from the mid-1870s to the early 1890s, while Democrats held the governorship.

The quarantine station was apparently unpopular in Smithville, according to local historian Larry Maisel; locals blamed it for epidemics in the area. When the quarantine station on the Smithville waterfront burned down in 1882, locals lobbied to have it moved farther away from town.

The state dragged its heels, however. In 1893, the General Assembly voted $20,000 to have a new quarantine station built, provided the City of Wilmington chipped in $5,000. Wilmington never did.

Meanwhile, Congress got in the act, authorizing the U.S. Marine Hospital Service (forerunner of the U.S. Public Health Service) to take over the quarantine station  in 1893. A total of $20,000 was authorized to build the facility, but no contracts were open for bids until 1895.

Even then, construction lagged. (According to Dr. Landis G. Brown in The State magazine, at one point, the contractor quit work to go “on a spree.”) Pilings were found to be too short and had to be pulled up twice. Eventually, the new facility was completed in 1897.

Maisel noted that the new station was finally located about a mile upriver from Southport, across from the Price’s Creek Lighthouse. An artesian well was dug for the faciliity in 1897. In 1901, quarters were added for detained sailors. A hospital building followed in 1904, an additional wharf in 1914, a water tower in 1920 and a launch shelter in 1921.

Many of the quarantine station’s records were destroyed by fire, but according to Dr. Brown, the station seems to have been very active.

According to a 1907 report. the station passed 86 vessels, 19 steamers and 11 sailing ships. Two steamers and three sailing ships were disinfected. and a total of 610 crew members and three passiengers were disinfected. (By contrast, Brown noted, the station st Charleston in that same years passed no vessels, and the port of Savannah passed 20.) Vessels inspected were from Bahia, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Portobello in Panama and Barbados.

By the 1930s, new international public health laws and a system of bills of health had rendered the Southport quarantine station out of date. In 1937, it was put on surplus status, under the care of a custodian. In 1946, however, it was turned into a relief station.

The old quarantine station burned to the ground in 1953. Writing in The State magazine’s November 1973 issue, Dr. Brown reported that only a concrete slab was left of the old complex.


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