Living 2 ½ blocks away from one of the greatest historical sites in the country is a fortunate happenstance. It was part of our neighborhood landscape. Even in my youth, I appreciated the ambiance. Aunt Bess’s house (which then I visited every day, and now inhabit) had a wonderful view of the cupola from her breakfast room, especially at dinner during sunset.
The second story, roof and cupola were in view every time we eased onto Front Street to leave home. The Lazaretto is between our house and where the elementary school used to be. In those days, we walked to school, two trips in each direction unless it was raining and you took your lunch.
Most memorable to me were the seaplanes, taxiing in the river, taking off, flying over and landing. Yes, the commercial planes were constant and dull, but the seaplanes were colorful and fun to watch, especially if you were out in a rowboat and they buzzed closely overhead.
Aunt Bess loved history. She’d seen the world change so much in her lifetime. Her family first came to town from Philly on the weekends in their horse drawn wagons with the dogs running alongside. She lived in Essington before the airport was started. (I so wish I had paid more attention when she’d tell me old stories.) Arthritis confined her in her home but she’d share history and reminiscences over the phone with Ruth Mills (Bill’s wife) who lived in the east wing of the Lazaretto. She used a large room by the back entrance to sell Hummel figurines and display historical artifacts. Her husband ran the marina.
Bob Mills ran the seaplane base. Once, I went for a ride, a present from my sister. It was glorious! Little Tinicum Island is a much different shape than it appears from a boat. I forget the color of the plane but inside I did notice that there were a lot of holes where screws or bolts used to be. The bigger concern was when I saw the airport runway and was worried a big plane might be coming our way.
The large property had enough room for Bob Mill’s daughter, Holly to have a pony! The north portion towards Second Street was used for boat storage. When we’d come home to visit from upstate and my two-year-old daughter saw those boats she’d happily exclaim, “We’re in Essingting! We’re in Essingting!”
When the Mills brothers lived there, the building was in good repair. I’d been in the museum and upstairs to visit Nancy Mills. After it was sold, some of us from Tinicum Township Historical Society members went in to retrieve a few artifacts from the museum left to the Society.
The new owners left windows open, seemingly for the elements to cause damage. It was rumored that they wanted to raze the building to make an airport parking lot. That’s when I realized how much the place meant to me. Every time I heard fire sirens I worried, and prayed for its safety.
Those prayers were answered when Tinicum Township purchased the site. Yes, the new fire house blocks the view from Second Street, but that’s the back of the building, anyway. Originally people arrived by boat, so the front faces the river. Soon everyone will be able to visit the grounds, sit on the porch, see museum displays inside and feel the 200+ years of history.
~Chris Templin, Friends of the Lazaretto Volunteer