Pest houses were early, hospital-like facilities where sick people were quarantined. They were heavily used during plagues and epidemics to house those with communicable diseases such as cholera, smallpox, influenza, or tuberculosis.
Many towns and cities had pest houses situated near poorhouses and often near cemeteries. The early pest houses are difficult to find; because they were associated with epidemics, they were usually hidden away on the edges of growing towns and were unlikely to be highlighted in historical records. There are reports of temporary pest houses located in private homes, boarding houses or outbuildings where disease outbreaks may have occurred.
The city of Niagara Falls had two early pest houses located just outside of Oakwood Cemetery. In 1906, Niagara Falls Quarantine Hospital was opened at Porter Road and 29th Street.
Niagara Falls had the reputation as an anti-vaccination center because of the low number of citizens who were not protected against known communicable diseases. History assigns responsibility for this lack of oversight to the school system and local doctors who were reluctant to support the evidence recommending immunizations.
When necessary, county medical directors would quarantine a house and family members and the house would be scrubbed to help eliminate the disease.
By the late 1880s, as medical knowledge about communicable diseases progressed, pest houses — or fever sheds, in Canada — became known as quarantine hospitals. "Pest house" is derived from the word pestilence, which is defined as an infectious disease that causes an epidemic.
Lockport was vulnerable to disease outbreaks because of heavy travel on the Erie Canal, which connected Lockport to other canal towns, New York City and beyond.
At the time, there were many ideas concerning how infectious diseases were spread. One popular theory that was held by some doctors even into the late 19th century posited that the spread of disease centered on “miasma” or vapors as the cause. The canal in the 19th century was treated as a sewer with industrial, farm and household waste discharge along its 363-mile length. Unfortunately it was also used for bathing and drinking water. Back then, the Erie Canal had many vapors. There are accounts in the 1830s of canal towns hanging chunks of raw meat and burning tar to draw away the bad air also known as night air.
The pest house that served Niagara County was sited on Niagara Street Extension at Gothic Hill Road, on the grounds of the Niagara County Poorhouse. It was open until the early 1900s. The pest house was located where the Niagara County Jail was built in the 1960s.
There are reports by Niagara County Historian Clarence O. Lewis that when the new jail was built, the pest house cemetery was found on the pest house grounds. The pest house and poorhouse buildings have since been demolished, though remnants of the old poor house cemetery on the north side of Niagara Street Extension can still be found today.
Lockport native Jim Boles is a senior researcher with the Museum of disABILITY History, focused on early care and healing in Niagara County. His US&J column “Abandoned History” is published every other week.