Efforts to contain the coronavirus are garnering plenty of headlines now, but in the United States, at least, it looks as if quick preemptive action may forestall the type of widespread outbreak that has affected China.
Historically, as a bustling entry port along the West Coast, Astoria has contended with several other serious epidemics.
When the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along the lower Columbia River in 1806, they recorded meeting a Native woman who had been severely scarred by smallpox as a child. It probably stemmed from contact with the early European explorers who had come by ship to the Pacific Coast back in the 1770s. Never before exposed to the smallpox virus, Native Americans had no immunity to the disease. Their communities all along the Northwest coast were hit hard, decimating the overall population by as much as 30 percent, leaving many survivors blinded and disfigured.
A temporary exhibit at the Clatsop County Heritage Museum brings to light some of the other contagions that have swept through the area in the two-and-a-half centuries since then. The exhibit, “Held for Observation: the Evolution of Medical Care in Clatsop County,” addresses several local outbreaks of disease, including episodes of scarlet fever and typhoid, and especially the influenza pandemic of 1918, more commonly known as the Spanish Flu.
The exhibit spotlights some of the local institutions and personalities who were affected by these events, whether as patients or as medical practitioners.
By the dawn of the 19th century, the United States Congress had become increasingly mindful of the potential of the shipping trade to spread disease, so a Marine Hospital fund was established and a network of hospitals along the East Coast and inland waterways. With the nation’s westward expansion, this network gradually extended to the West Coast too. Astoria was the site of the initial Marine Hospital built to serve Merchant Marines working in the Columbia River region. But during the Civil War, the management of these facilities nationwide became fragmented and disorganized, so the entire Service was reorganized, and by the mid-1870s, the Marine Hospital was moved to Portland.
For a few years, until St. Mary’s Hospital was opened in Astoria in 1880, local citizens and seamen alike were left without much in the way of medical support. And as the exhibit points out, even when St. Mary’s was opened, customary health practices included reusing bandages, rubber gloves and needles.
It’s little wonder that despite the best of intentions, it was difficult to control the spread of disease.
One of the more drastic methods of containment used then is something we’re seeing happen again as a response to the coronavirus outbreak today: quarantine.
This was one tactic employed by Dr. Nellie Smith Vernon, who already had been serving as Astoria’s city health officer for a decade when she was asked to assume that role for all of Clatsop County with the outbreak of the Spanish flu.
The virus was believed to have been brought to the United States by the doughboys returning from Europe after fighting in World War I.
But in late September 1918 the Morning Astorian was boasting that not one person in Oregon had yet been struck by this disease that was spreading rapidly elsewhere.
But at that very same time, doctors at Camp Lewis outside of Tacoma had discovered cases of Spanish influenza among the soldiers there. So when three trainloads of soldiers arrived at Fort Stevens from Camp Lewis just a few days later it was as if, Clatsop Heritage Museum archivist Liisa Penner writes, “the influenza virus booked passage on the trains.”
Even so, the Morning Astorian wasn’t ready to relinquish its cheery outlook. Its October 2, 1918 headline read, “Spanish Influenza Nothing More than Old Fashioned Grippe and No More Dangerous.”
Officers at Fort Stevens, too, were putting a spin on the sickness suddenly overwhelming the soldiers stationed there – admitting only to the men having “bad colds” or perhaps pneumonia.
On Oct. 8, three soldiers died at the Fort hospital. They were the first of over 150 people to die in the area over the next four months, while many hundreds more were attended to in overcrowded hospitals and makeshift clinics.
Perhaps it was because she was a woman, or maybe it was because her advocacy for restrictive measures to slow down the spread of disease was perceived to be harmful to business, but Dr. Vernon was initially met with significant resistance. Ultimately her advocacy prevailed when Astoria Mayor Charles Johnson ordered the city’s theaters, dance halls and poolrooms to close on Oct. 12. A few days later, he extended the order to all gatherings in Astoria. The town of Seaside followed suit.
The issue of quarantine had come up before in Astoria. In 1903, a local scarlet fever epidemic resulted in the closure of Astoria schools for some weeks.
But quarantines had been most broadly applied to outsiders.
In the final decade of the 19th century, Congress was becoming increasingly concerned with the spread of disease not only via the shipping trade, but also with the influx of immigrants from both Europe and Asia. As a result, legislation was passed that called for quarantines and mandated that the Marine Health Service screen all arriving immigrants. The government language was brutally direct, announcing the intention to exclude “all idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease and criminals.”
Astorians were eager to have a local hospital and quarantine station to deal with the ships crossing the Columbia bar and coming upriver – it would be like their own West Coast version of Ellis Island. But they didn’t want it in Astoria.
A search committee zeroed in on an abandoned cannery in Knappton Cove, then called Todd’s Bay, on the north bank of the Columbia. They learned the property was owned by an Astoria resident who was willing to sell. Despite objections raised by some Washingtonians, the committee prevailed and the land was acquired.
By 1900, all ships that sailed into the Columbia dropped anchor at Astoria. An inspector came onboard and deemed whether the vessel was free of infestation, and its crew free of disease. If so, the ship could dock in Astoria or proceed upriver.
If not, the vessel was directed across the river to the Columbia River Quarantine Station at Knappton Cove for fumigation. This was a full-on process. Everyone onboard had to disembark at the end of the dock and disrobe. While apparel and luggage were loaded into big vats to be deloused with a continuous blast of high heat, the arrivals were given hospital gowns, then sent to shower and go through a health inspection. If they passed, they could go ashore and wait in tents for 48 hours while their ship was fumigated.
Those who were suspected of disease were detained in isolation – but it wasn’t until 1912 that an actual quarantine hospital, called a lazaretto, or “the pesthouse” in common parlance, was built to accommodate the unfortunate souls. Although the lazaretto was designed with isolation wards, each of which had its own entrance, the patients were expected to share a bathroom.
In 1915 a decommissioned ship from the Spanish-American War was moored at the west end of the dock to serve as temporary lodging for those who had passed their inspections.
While in service, the Columbia River Quarantine Station saw some 100,000 immigrants pass through.
As immigration practices changed and some services were transferred upriver to Portland, the need for the facility decreased. It was closed down in 1938 and the property was declared surplus and put up for auction in 1950. An enterprising Portland teacher bought the parcel and turned it into a popular summer sports fishing camp.
Today his daughter, Nancy Bell Anderson, owns the property where she spent summers as a little girl.
In 1980, the pesthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1995, Anderson opened the Knappton Cove Heritage Center at the site. As a museum, the building is loaded with artifacts from its different turns as a cannery, a quarantine center, and a sports fishing camp. It displays posters and photographs, quarantine flags, uniforms, a self-contained field desk that can be buckled up like a trunk, and rudimentary puzzles that were used by early health inspectors to determine whether an immigrant was mentally competent to enter the country.
“(There are) onsite archaeologists who are at work all the time,” Anderson said.
In the front lawn are molehills. The activities of critters, along with the tidal action on the beach, constantly turn up additional artifacts from yore, such as old trading beads, shards of ceramic dishes owned by the old Marine Hospital Service and pieces of distinctive crockery that had been used by Chinese cannery workers.
“But the building,” Anderson says, “is the best artifact of all.”