A History Minute: What is The Lazaretto?

By Sally F. RSS Mon, August 7, 2017

Almost 100 years before Ellis Island, Philadelphia established The Lazaretto Station. It became the point of entry for all ships and passengers arriving during the quarantine season of June through October.

  • The Lazaretto is the oldest surviving quarantine hospital in the western hemisphere.
  • Maritime quarantine stations were first established in Europe in the 14th century and named "Lazaretto" after St. Lazarus, patron saint of lepers.
  • The original lazaretto was built in 1742 on Fisher’s island, but after the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 the new Philadelphia Board of Health determined that it was too close to the growing city and provided too much contact with local residents to be effective.
  • The new facility was commissioned in 1799 and built on a 10 acre site at Tinicum, about 7 miles downriver from Philadelphia.
  • Tinicum was originally the home of the Okehocking tribe of the Leni-Lenape Indians and became the site of the first European settlement in Pennsylvania when Swedish settlers made it their home in 1643.
  • The Lazaretto had a 500-bed hospital and administration building plus kitchens, bathhouses, living quarters for hospital staff, bargemen and maintenance workers, houses for the Lazaretto Physician and Quarantine Master, quarters for quarantined visitors and a cemetery. The grounds were beautifully landscaped with fruit trees, shade trees, shrubbery,  and manicured lawns.
  • Every ship bound for Philadelphia during Quarantine Season was required to stop at the Lazaretto for inspection. The captain had to answer 21 questions about ports of call, nature of cargo, and any sickness of passengers of crew.  Every person on board was examined and questioned by a doctor and any sick people were transferred to the hospital. The ship and cargo were examined and bilge water emptied and replaced with clean water. Any evidence of disease led to a quarantine of the entire ship for up to 40 days, although non-contagious cargo could be sent ahead to the city.
  • Ships paid a fee for the inspection and were also charged room and board for sick and quarantined passengers with additional charges for laundry. Inspection fees for foreign ships were 25% higher than for American ships.
  • Many fever victims died at the Lazaretto, but thanks to good medical care, many more survived and went on to establish families in their adopted country. It has been estimated that 1 in 3 Americans has an ancestor who was cleared for entry at the Lazaretto.
  • In 1880, the federal government took over the quarantine function from the states and the Lazaretto was closed in 1895.
  • In 1917, the site became the first seaplane base in the US and the Army Signal Corps trained flyers there.
  • Tinicum township purchased the property in 2005 and has plans to preserve the site and put its municipal offices there.

Learn more:

  • The Historic Lazaretto, "Ellis Island's Great-Grandfather" on Youtube
  • Free Library podcast of Dianne McKinney-Whetstone talking about her new book, Lazaretto
  • Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

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From my research I have found that the site of the original Lazaretto was on the west back of the Schuylkill River; at the foot of the Platt Bridge; it was also near this site that Puritans built Blockhouses there in 1642. The original site of Old Lazaretto which was built in 1742 is now the impoundment lot of the Philadelphia Police Department or some place near by. After 1799 the new site for Old Lazaretto was moved to Tinicum where this building remains to this day.
John L Hemphill III - Philadelphia
Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Great information, John. Thanks!
Sally F.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Is there a listing of the passengers that went through the Lazaretto?
Randi Marcus - Philadelphia
Monday, August 21, 2017

Good question, Randi! The Lazaretto was required to send reports of all inspections and quarantined passengers and cargo to the Philadelphia Board of Health, but these did not generally include individual passenger names. Some of these records may be found in the City Archives: After being cleared by the Lazaretto Physician ships proceeded to immigration stations where passengers were processed.Their names would be listed in the immigration records.
Sally F. - Philadelphia
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Here is a link to Lazaretto records in the Philadelphia City Archives: www.phila.gov/phils/docs/inventor/graphics/archser/S037.htm
Sally F. - Philadelphia
Wednesday, August 23, 2017