Quarantine and isolation in the old days    

PAINTING BY BOB RIMMERThe Niagara County Pest House was described as a “small, one-story building 14 X 24 feet, 9 feet tall with 18-inch-thick stone walls,” located on the south side of Niagara Street Extension. The Niagara County Poor House is in the background.

Like they are today, Niagara County officials, doctors and residents struggled in the past with how to control outbreaks of disease.

As we go through this novel coronavirus epidemic, we are given what seem to be often confusing messages and directives. This was also the case in the past, as the cause of diseases were not clearly understood by science. Fortunately science has a partial understanding of COVID-19 and the directions are getting somewhat clearer.

One thing that the 18th and early 19th century medical establishment and today's experts did agree on was the isolation of those showing symptoms of affliction.

Early quarantine facilities were called pest houses, derived from the word pestilence. These hospital-like facilities were heavily used during plagues and epidemics to house those with pestilential and contagious diseases such as cholera, smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis.

Many towns and cities had pest houses situated near poorhouses and usually near cemeteries.

Accounts of pest houses are difficult to find because they were associated with sickness and death, usually hidden away on the edges of growing towns — and unlikely to be highlighted in historical records. There are reports of temporary pest houses located in private homes, boarding houses or shacks and outbuildings near major construction sites where disease outbreaks occurred.

By the late 1880s, as medical knowledge about communicable diseases progressed, pest houses became known as quarantine hospitals, although citizens of the area and some official reports still referred to the facilities as pest houses well into the 1900s.

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Niagara County’s first government-sponsored pest house was opened in 1852, on Niagara Street Extension at Gothic Hill Road in Lockport, on the grounds of the Niagara County poorhouse. It remained open until 1915.   

An 1886 report from the New York State Charities Aid Association, noted this about the Niagara County Pest House: “For other infectious cases, the Superintendent has put up a small one-cottage, and intends to erect another, and there is a small house which could be used as a pest-house on another part of the farm.”

The thick-walled stone pest house and poor house buildings on the Niagara Street Extension have since been demolished, though remnants of the poor house buildings and the old poor house cemetery can still be found at the site today.

Prior to the opening of Niagara County Pest House, there must have been other quarantine arrangements for inmates of the founded-in-1829 county poor house, such as isolation in the separate Poor House Hospital or in the 200-person capacity poor house itself. There are reports of people with mental health problems and other conditions who were segregated in that facility.

After 1915, when the poor house was moved to Davison Road and rebranded as the county infirmary, there were more options for quarantining of ailing residents. These included the county tuberculosis hospital (the poor house hospital, converted, and later renamed Mount View Hospital); Lockport City Hospital’s East Avenue-based quarantine hospital, built by local businessman Byron V. Covert in two days in 1918; and the private Flagler Hospital at 291 West Ave., Lockport. Records from the new Niagara County Infirmary showed discussions of the need for quarantine capacity.

In the Cataract City, Niagara Falls Quarantine Hospital opened in 1906 on Porter Road and eventually had 32 beds. Earlier there were crude pest houses just outside Oakwood Cemetery and at large construction projects in the city.

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The old pest house property is where Niagara County Jail was constructed in 1960. Workmen excavating the site uncovered graves that were far away from the poor house cemetery. It appears that they were digging in a smaller graveyard that was used for disease outbreaks.   

This article titled "Earth Yields 9 Skeletons at Jail Site" appeared in the Sept. 1, 1960, edition of the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal:

"Human bone fragments, including several skulls and a lower jaw with one tooth intact, were unearthed about 11:30 Wednesday morning at the site of the new County Jail on Niagara St. Ext.

Pieces of at least nine skeletons were uncovered by an earthmover just east of the nearby completed building.

Records dating to 1852 fail to show a cemetery at the site, according to County Historian Clarence O. Lewis. But, he added, the position of the bones together with bits of wood and square-headed nails also uncovered would indicate that it was a private burial plot.

Earthmover operator Donald Mills, of Fillmore, a resident of DeFlippo's Hotel, 326 West Ave., uncovered the first skull.

The sharp-eyed worker noticed that the blade of his machine 'shaved the top of a skull off and left a hole in the ground,' he told the Union-Sun & Journal. 'At first I thought it was a prehistoric egg.'

On later passes over the ground, he said, 'we uncovered lots of bones. They formed a pattern — they were all laid side-by-side.'

Mr. Mills said the B&M Earthmovers of Hamburg, his employer, had lowered the ground level about three feet before the bones turned up, and that another contractor had previously graded the site."

Clarence O. Lewis elaborated on the mystery find in his Sept. 22, 1960, column in the US&J:

“... I was puzzled as to why the pest house and burials were on the south side of the road instead of on the County Poor House farm across the way. Perhaps it was a village pest house rather than one for county patients. So, I spent two days going through old village records with no results. I had then to conclude that it must have been a county Pest House and that county paupers having smallpox or cholera were isolated there and that burials of victims were close by. ...”

Jim Boles is a Lockport native with a keen interest in local history and cultural tourism. Contact him at jamesboles47@gmail.com.

Poor house accommodations

An 1882 report by the New York State Board of Charities describes healthcare provisions at the Niagara County Poor House thus:

For contagious diseases, there is a pest-house, situated about one hundred rods from the main building, used for small-pox cases; and for lying-in women (who have just given birth), there are separate and convenient rooms; but there is no separate ward for surgical cases. For purifying the clothing of recent inmates, the bath-rooms and disinfectants are freely used.

The attending physician receives an annual salary of $350, the medicine being supplied by the county. A separate diet kitchen is maintained for the sick, and they get what their cases require. There is one male nurse at $2 per week; the other nurses are paupers de-tailed for the purpose. No record of the sick is kept.

The number of deaths during the year ending June 30, 1881, was sixteen, from diseases given as follows: Gun-shot wound, one; stab in neck and lungs, one; consumption, three; dropsy, two; old age, one; softening of the brain, one; chronic inflammation of the bladder, one; heart disease, two; small-pox, one; senile gangrene, one; marasmus, one.

The physician reports that "there were not over eight taking any drugs," July 1, 1881, and adds, "most of the patients have chronic diseases — rheumatism, lung troubles, chronic ulcers — but few fevers or acute attacks."

The number of births reported in the house during the year was ten. ...

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