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If coronavirus hit Baltimore in the 1800s, early 1900s, patients would’ve been sent down Quarantine Road

Before they could access the mainland, immigrants entering the U.S. through Baltimore were stopped at a Quarantine Station to be screened for illness. The station moved several times before landing at Leading Point, about 8 miles south of Fort McHenry, in 1918.
Before they could access the mainland, immigrants entering the U.S. through Baltimore were stopped at a Quarantine Station to be screened for illness. The station moved several times before landing at Leading Point, about 8 miles south of Fort McHenry, in 1918.(Robert F. Kniesche / Baltimore Sun)

With coronavirus panic in full swing, many of us are heading to wholesale shops to stock up on disinfectant and frozen food in case we’re stuck at home for the next two weeks. Those who, like me, frequent the Costco in Glen Burnie are likely unaware of the area’s historic role in protecting Baltimore from deadly diseases.

Just a few miles away in South Baltimore, in an industrial stretch known as Hawkins Point, there is a road called Quarantine.

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Drive up it and pass the city’s landfill — alarmingly close to capacity — along with a compost facility. At the end of the road there is a factory for wallboard maker United States Gypsum, and a fence with signs warning visitors to keep out. Not far away, the hulls of rusting ships jut, ghost-like, out of Curtis Creek.

It’s here at this isolated outpost along the Patapsco, 8 miles from the rest of the city, that Baltimore’s sick — or those suspected of being ill — were taken for decades. The first quarantine hospital was built here following the yellow fever epidemic of 1794, according to William Travis Howard’s Public Health Administration and the Natural History of Disease in Baltimore Maryland, 1797-1920. Another was built in the late 1800s, operating through the mid-20th century.

At least two other quarantine stations operated off and on in the 19th century. One was in nearby Fairfield and another at Lazaretto Point, in the Canton Industrial Area across from Fort McHenry. But the quarantine station at Hawkins Point was the most enduring.

Patients sent from Baltimore to quarantine made the voyage via boat; the overland roads were too rough and unpaved. (The roads today aren’t much better. A modern driver may wonder if her car will flip over while crossing the next pothole.)

Conditions at the Hawkins Point quarantine station varied over the decades. In 1899, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun, an official complained that the infirm were kept in the same place as people who were only possibly sick — and this allowed the spread of disease.

Officials fought to secure more funding for Hawkins Point. In later years, the quarantine station campus included four buildings, with an isolation hospital that had space for 150 people.

Patients could be a mix of Baltimoreans and international travelers. During a smallpox outbreak in 1900, 10 people arrived to Hawkins Point from Sparrows Point and other parts of the city.

For decades, ships traveling into Baltimore’s port from foreign destinations were required to stop here before docking. They flew the yellow quarantine flag until passing inspection. Public health inspectors who came aboard were on the lookout for one of seven deadly diseases: cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, plague, anthrax, typhus or leprosy.

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In one case, according to a 1950 article in The Sun, a ship was detained because a crewman on board had a rash that doctors couldn’t identify. The entire exterior of the ship and everyone on board were drenched in toxic DDT as a precaution against typhus.

Later taken over by the federal government, Baltimore’s quarantine station became part of a national system meant to protect Americans from deadly diseases. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still operates 20 quarantine stations across the United States at airports and land-border crossings where international passengers arrive.

The federal government closed Baltimore’s quarantine station in 1960, and debate over the site’s future began. City officials attempted to acquire the 20-acre stretch of land and turn it into a park. The Maryland Port Authority protested, with the executive director arguing that a park “could destroy our entire port and industrial development program in this section of the harbor.”

The issue was covered by The Sun’s then-maritime editor Helen Delich Bentley, who openly disdained park proponents. An industrial site, argued the future Republican congresswoman, would be much more beneficial in the long run.

Bolstering that argument were former residents of the quarantine station who claimed that nearby industry had killed off all the wildlife. “When we first moved there, there was crabbing. Now there is nothing because nothing can survive in the water,” said one. Another said the air was so foul that it made curtains rot.

In the end, the pro-industrialists got their way. There is no park at Hawkins Point, and the road name is the only obvious reminder of its past use.

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