Tinicum Tonwnship’s Lazaretto is the oldest surviving quarantine station in the Western Hemisphere and the seventh oldest in the world. It served as the gateway to Philadelphia in a crucial period of the nation’s growth (1801-1895) and guarded the city against the introduction of epidemic diseases such as yellow fever, typhus, and cholera.
Yellow Fever and Quarantine
Philadelphia instituted a maritime quarantine ground on Province Island at the mouth of the Schuylkill River in 1743. A series of devastating yellow fever epidemics in the 1790s led the city’s Board of Health to buy property for a new quarantine station a few miles downriver in Tinicum Township, farther away from the city, in 1799. Two years later, the new ten-acre Georgian-style complex opened, dominated by the large Main Building, which housed the hospital as well as offices and staff quarters. The Lazaretto physician and quarantine master each lived in identical two-story houses symmetrically framing the front of the Main Building. Several smaller outbuildings (including an additional hospital building added in 1805), kitchen gardens, and a burial ground completed the campus. Much of the site still remains visible today. During the warm-weather months, Philadelphia-bound ships stopped here for cargo to be inspected and passengers to be screened. Suspect cargo was ventilated, fumigated, or destroyed completely. Sick passengers were brought ashore to the Lazaretto hospital to await recovery or death. The Board of Health of the City of Philadelphia operated the station and enforced the local quarantine regulations until the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania assumed authority for enforcing quarantine regulations in 1893. The Lazaretto ceased quarantine operations for the last time at the end of the 1895 quarantine season.
In 1898, the Athletic Club of Philadelphia leased the Lazaretto site for use as “The Orchard,” its summer resort and country club. Wealthy and well-connected Philadelphians enjoyed games such as baseball, lawn tennis, lawn bowling, and quoits at the club, along with banquets and musical entertainment.
Philadelphia Seaplane Base
In 1915, with war raging in Europe, Philadelphia banker and stockbroker Robert Glendinning joined with several friends to purchase a fleet of Curtiss “flying boats”—the first seaplanes—to be based at the Lazaretto site. Pilot, flight instructor, and mechanic Frank Mills was hired to operate the base. The following year, Glendinning opened a flying school there, offering free tuition to any college student who agreed to volunteer for military service if the United States joined the war.
When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, the army took over the flight school as an induction center and training ground for pilots. Many pilots trained at what became known as Chandler Field went on to illustrious service in Europe.
At war’s end, the Philadlephia Seaplane Base reverted to civilian status and continued to operate a flight school, owned and operated by Frank Mills, and later his sons. The base and school continued in operation throughout the twentieth century, alongside a marina also owned by the Mills family.
Threatened with Development
In 2000, the Mills family sold the property to a local developer, who planned to level the buildings and use the site for commercial purposes. Tinicum Township officials and local preservation and historical groups challenged the development, and in 2005 the property was purchased by the township for preservation. The terms of the purchase provided that the township build a new fire station and banquet hall on the northern half of the site, away from the surviving historic buildings.
Under the leadership of the Tinicum Township Board of Commissioners and the Lazaretto Preservation Association of Tinicum Township, preservation work has begun to bring the Lazaretto back to its former glory and reopen the buildings for public use. Visit our Preservation Blog to see recent updates and future plans.