Generations ago, Mobile was in the throws of multiple yellow fever outbreaks and those epidemics helped shape the city we know today.
The city had been dealing with yellow fever outbreaks since the year after its 1703 founding at 27 Mile Bluff. Local historian John Sledge writes in his book “The Mobile River,” that ever since the first Pelican ship brought both young women for the settlers to marry and the disease from France in 1704, Mobile became leary of foriegn vessels entering its shores.
“It’s a problem we’ve been dealing with for centuries,” Sledge said in a phone interview. “It has given me a sobering respect for earlier Mobilians.”
Yellow fever ravaged Mobile through much of its early history. And helped shape it, History Museum of Mobile Director Meg McCrummen Fowler said. In fact, that 1704 outbreak forced the early settlers of Mobile to move the city from 27 Mile Bluff to its current location, Fowler said.
“[Yellow fever] wiped it out,” she said. “That’s why it’s here now.”
In “The Mobile River,” Sledge writes that many “suspect” vessels in the 1800s were routinely quarantined in the “lower bay” to protect the city from “tropical” diseases.
One of those vessels was The Florida, whose crew was subject to quarantine on a return trip from Cuba, Sledge said.
“It was quarantined off of Montrose,” he said. “A dozen men got yellow fever and at least two died. They are buried in Montrose Cemetery.”
The city then faced 11 yellow fever outbreaks from 1819 to 1853, Fowler said. The city also faced the disease in the 1870s and into the 1930s, she said.
“It absolutely gripped Mobile with fear,” she said. “Houses inhabited with residents with the disease were marked with yellow flags.”
Much like the vessels discussed by Sledge, trains carrying travelers from places like New Orleans were not allowed to disembark. We know now that yellow fever is transmitted from mosquitoes, but Mobilans in the 19th century believed “bad air” caused the disease. Because of this, Mobilians built summer homes out west to get away from the “bad air.” Ironically, because Spring Hill is at a higher elevation than parts east, it did seem to alleviate some of the issues, Fowler said. This westward movement led to the founding of the village of Spring Hill, she said.
In the 1920s, a quarantine station was set up on what is now called McDuffie Island, Sledge said.
“Prior to that they did quarantine on Fort Morgan, which was an active military post,” he said.
Known as Sand Island at the time, it was perfect for holding those in quarantine because the comings and goings to the mainland could be easily controlled, Sledge said.
The station had 12 buildings, including dormitories, barracks, a library and doctors’ offices, Sledge said. Any foriegn ship coming to the coast was inspected and sick crewmembers were placed at the station.
The station was in use from 1927 to 1950, Sledge said. The old brick buildings were visible from downtown until the 1990s when they were torn down to make way for the coal terminal that sits there now.
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