Beacon Hill residents celebrate as Seattle's last pesthouse is destroyed on November 14, 1914.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 10/05/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2157

On November 14, 1914, a celebratory crowd estimated at between 300 and 400 witnesses the destruction of Seattle's last pesthouse (sometimes more politely referred to as an isolation hospital). Beacon Hill has served as the home of two different pesthouses since 1892, but increasing development nearby makes it difficult to safely quarantine sick patients at the location; further, the care they receive at the facilities is limited and the conditions generally appalling. A growing antipathy for the pesthouse leads to calls for its removal by 1908, and the development of the Jefferson Park Golf Course on the site six years later makes it happen.

Appalling Conditions

A pesthouse was a structure commonly used by municipalities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to quarantine sick patients, usually those with smallpox, a dangerous and highly contagious disease. They could be found in any community -- Seattle had three in a roughly 30-year period, and even small communities such as Ballard (before it was annexed by Seattle) had their own pesthouses. Residents were often indigent or transients. Smallpox patients with their own houses could self-quarantine during the duration of their illness, provided they placed a yellow flag at or near their home to warn others that the disease was present.

In Seattle's earliest years, patients were quarantined wherever a vacant shed could be found or wherever the city could rent a house or building. This proved unsatisfactory on many levels, and in the mid-1880s the city opened its first pesthouse built solely for this purpose. Descriptions this writer has seen have been vague about its location, other than it was close to the Duwamish River. An 1892 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article says the building measured 65 by 22 feet, while another story from the same year says doctors were generally paid from $10 to $20 a day (equivalent to $290 to $580 in 2020). Nurses received $5 a day (equivalent to $145 in 2020).

The same P-I article describes appalling conditions at the pesthouse, with poor care provided by many of the doctors and either incompetent or "in two instances inhuman and brutal" ("They Showed Cause") treatment from the assistants. The pesthouse was dirty and dangerous. The article describes an instance where vomit was left on the floor for more than a day, but worse is a description of smallpox scabs left by patients on a windowsill and allowed to thickly accumulate. One patient who died was said to have been buried in an unmarked grave along a cow path near the building.

A Faux Improvement

A new pesthouse opened deep in the forest atop Beacon Hill in late 1892. "More comfortable quarters for smallpox patients," cooed a Seattle P-I headline on November 29. The house was indeed bigger, described as 135 feet by 36 feet, and with a large general room that was as big as the original pesthouse. A woodshed and a barn were also on the premises, but by 1899 one of these buildings was in use as a suspect house (to hold suspected smallpox cases) while the other was being used to fumigate clothing worn by smallpox patients. Meals were served twice a day; water was sometimes hard to get. Patients could generally expect to stay three or four weeks, and the pesthouse typically held anywhere between zero and 30 patients. During quiet periods (usually in the summer) when the building was unoccupied, pranksters would sometimes drop by and vandalize the place.

Conditions at the pesthouse continued to leave something to be desired. A scathing letter published in The Seattle Times in 1901 describes it as "... its outside has been covered with paint, the inside looks as though it ha[s] been coated with the ingredients that make a ham brown. The floors were mopped to my knowledge twice during my term of confinement (four weeks yesterday) ..." ("A Kick ..."). By coincidence, the pesthouse burned down the week after the letter was published, though its patients were safely evacuated.

A new pesthouse opened on the site in 1902, a $3,000 structure said by the Times to "be a great improvement" ("New Pest House"). The new building measured 86 by 92 feet, and one section of the structure was two stories tall. But it apparently wasn't much of an improvement at all. A 1908 Times article describes an interview with a former pesthouse resident who said he recovered "in spite of the treatment received, not because of it." Among other conditions, he reported: "... One very small towel must last the patient a week ... the sinks are reeking with corruption and the baths give forth an odor that is worse than the smallpox" ("Isolation Hospital ...").

A Merry Ending

By this time development on Beacon Hill was increasing, and the primary reason for the pesthouse's location -- its remoteness -- was becoming obsolete. Moreover, many considered the pesthouse unsightly and unsanitary, and by 1908 there was a growing clamor for the city to get rid of it. This came to a head several years later when the city began construction of a golf course near and on the pesthouse site; the pesthouse itself was inconveniently located in the middle of what was to be the 4th fairway. A solution was found in 1914 when the city opened an expanded and upgraded Firland Sanatorium north of Seattle. Though the sanatorium was primarily used to treat tuberculosis payments, there was room for the pesthouse's smallpox patients.  

The pesthouse was burned in a happy ceremony promptly at 8 p.m. on November 14, 1914. Several hundred Beacon Hill residents joined hands, circled around the building, and "made merry generally" ("Torch Applied ...") as it blazed. There had been eager plans to open the new golf course on Thanksgiving Day, but "primarily, the smoking ruins of the hospital stood in the way" ("City Golf Links ...") complained a Seattle Times reporter the next week. The Jefferson Park Golf Course finally opened six months later.


Sources:

"Council Room, City of Seattle, July 8, 1875," Puget Sound Dispatch (Seattle), July 15, 1875, p. 1; "The Mayor's Inquest," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 4, 1892, p. 8; "They Showed Cause," Ibid., October 8, 1892, p. 5; "The New Pest House," Ibid., November 29, 1892, p. 8; "New Pest House," Seattle Star, March 30, 1901, p. 3; "To Care for Sick," The Seattle Daily Times, May 30, 1899, p. 5; "A Kick on the Pest House" (letter to the editor), Ibid., March 14, 1901, p. 12; "City Pest House Burned," Ibid., March 22, 1901, p. 2; "New Pest House," Ibid., January 8, 1902, p. 7; "Isolation Hospital Is Criticized," Ibid., June 25, 1908; "City Course Going Ahead," The Seattle Sunday Times, August 23, 1914, p. 38; "Torch Applied To Old Hospital," Ibid., November 15, 1914, p. 28; John Dreher, "City Golf Links Will Open Later," Ibid., November 22, 1914, p. 41; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Firland Sanatorium" (by Paula Becker), https://www.historylink.org (accessed September 15, 2020); "The Inflation Calculator," website accessed September 2, 2020 (https://westegg.com/inflation/). Note: This essay replaces an earlier entry on the same subject. 


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