The Calais Pest House

There is no question the coronavirus seriously disrupted our social and economic life. Mandated social distancing and self-isolation imposed by the government to slow the spread of the virus are certainly taxing and were seen by some as too extreme but for those with the virus it could be worse. In the past those with communicable diseases were often confined to the Calais “pest house” which is shown on the 1874 map of the city. The part of town shown on the map is below Knight’s Corner where the railroad roundhouse, trestle and Salmon Falls railyard were located.

The pest house was established about 1872 beside the poorhouse which was, of course, where those unable to support themselves were kept by the city. The poorhouse can be seen in the photo above to the left of the locomotive approaching the water tower in a photo of the railyard at Salmon Falls taken from the Canadian side pre 1900. Salmon Falls is in the foreground. The “pest house” itself is shown in the second photo sitting on a rock ledge beside the falls. The crack in the glass side runs directly through it.

In the 1800’s all the larger towns had a pest house. Eastport’s was near the battery and the list of communicable diseases which could possibly result in forced incarceration in the pest house was long indeed- diphtheria, cholera, smallpox, leprosy, scarlet fever, tetanus, measles and yellow fever although alternate isolation arrangements were sometimes allowed although never for smallpox and cholera. Infectious diseases usually arrived aboard the many ships docking at Calais’ busy waterfront. Before 1872 city health authorities usually responded to the outbreak of a communicable disease by requisitioning a home in town for use as a pest house.  However, during a smallpox epidemic of 1872, the citizens reacted so angrily to this practice that the city government was forced to establish the pest house at Salmon Falls. From an Advertiser editorial October 1872:

“We see another importation of smallpox on Saturday last. It came on the schooner Jed Frey from New York. A man by the name of Enos Downes had the disease on him. He was taken to Mrs. Watson’s pest house where Leonard Eye is. We understand he is a very sick man.”

After discussing how other towns handle such situations by the quarantine of the ship and its crew the Advertiser goes on:

“Instead of that they are put into a house in the midst of a number of families with children. It is an intolerable outrage and if any retaliatory outrage takes place the authorities may blame themselves for it.”

A citizen, writing to Advertiser, said:

“I should like to inquire through the medium of the Advertiser who is responsible for the gross outrage which has been perpetrated on the citizens of Calais in establishing a smallpox hospital in the midst of a thickly settled neighborhood on one of our principal streets…there are no taxpayers I have heard speak of the matter but would be willing to pay something extra in taxes, if necessary, to have a suitable place built to keep smallpox out of their immediate neighborhood.”

In 1874 the pest house appears at Salmon Falls on the Calais map adjacent to the poor house although we suspect the building had always been there and had simply been repurposed for use as a pest house. As the conditions in the poor house were usually described as shocking it is likely the City fathers thought having neighbors with all manner of deadly communicable diseases was not a great imposition on its inmates.

Phot the ledge

Another deadly and highly contagious disease of the early years was cholera. If a case of cholera was known or suspected on an inbound vessel the vessel was quarantined below Devil’s Head at the “Ledge” on the Canadian side. The small St. Stephen community known as the “Ledge” is just across and upriver from Brand Livingstone’s Stone House seen above. Quarantine usually lasted 40 days and when cholera or smallpox were prevalent in Europe or in New Brunswick the City of Calais ordered not only a complete ban on all vessels above Devil’s Head but also decreed that no ship was allowed to anchor “within 400 yards of low water mark, in said Calais, below said point (Devil’s Head) nor shall any person land from any boat or vessel…” (1832)

The Ledge on the Canadian side had quite a reputation in the 1800’s-many vessels dropped anchor there to wait for a high tide to navigate the narrows and crews took advantage of the 14 saloons and associated facilities in the tiny community.

In 1834 the Eastern Democrat, Calais’ first newspaper, gave some helpful advice on prevention and cure for cholera which may not sound unfamiliar today. The paper recommended social distancing- “avoid crowds and meetings especially in the evening”, don’t drink (cholera attacks the tippler) unless already sick with the cholera in which case “a dose of 50 drops of laudanum(morphine) in a wine glass of hot brandy is recommended, repeat every 15 minutes for an hour.” As to food bread, eggs and fresh meat are fine but absolutely no pickles, preserves or pastry. Avoid fruit except strawberries in a little wine The article also recommends getting out of the city as “we believe the pure air of the country to be more salutary” and suggested “those who have the means of selecting their residence, to quit the frequent walks of men and seek retirement and sequestration during the presence of the epidemic”.   

Finally, the article recommends a good conscience and fearless performance of duty, as the best of all preservatives against the disorder, prayer and a devotion to the sick and suffering.

Bunker photo:

Many communicable diseases such as measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria have been eradicated by vaccines or are easily treatable today with antibiotics. This was not always the case. The legendary Dr. Bunker, Woodland’s first doctor, tells of his experience when arriving just as the Woodland mill was being built in 1905:

First sick child I attended was Frankie Lydic, then a puking baby. First three years many cases of small-pox, diphtheria, typhoid and scarlet fever, mostly severe cases. One case of small-pox and diphtheria each, I laid out, buried and read the burial services, assisted by my faithful friend ole Bob Preston. Usually gave him a bottle of whiskey (price then $1.25) to assuage his grief, and mine too. My first pneumonia case, a laborer, in a tar-paper stable of 27 horses, Jan. 1906. Cold, temperature 10°, no stove. He was in an empty stall, very cold days but horses kept him warm at night. Kept on his cap, mittens, and boots all the time. I took him in soup 3 times daily. He got well – survival of the strong and the DIRT.

Gordon lord photo:

Scarlet fever was one of the diseases which ravaged not only communities but sometimes took nearly all the children in a family.

From the 1921 St. Croix Courier:

Woodland – The sympathy of the entire community is expressed to Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Hannigan in their recent bereavement, the loss of three of their children by scarlet fever, which is claiming a number of victims in town.

Gordon Lord, well known Calais businessman and historian seen above holding his son Ricky with Hoodie Seeley to his right wrote of his experience in the 1940’s when he contracted scarlet fever:

Another less known, but contagious disease, was scarlet fever. At the age of 14, I was one of the unfortunates to have been stricken with this illness. To protect my family I was quarantined to my parents’ upstairs bedroom for exactly three weeks, then it was considered safe for me to come in contact with people. The rest of the family was quarantined to our house for the same time. Dad still worked because his work was out of doors and had little contact with others. My parents’ bedroom was chosen because it was the most isolated room in our home. Our kitchen was a one-story add-on room. My mother, by way of a ladder to the kitchen roof, brought food to me while wearing gloves and a mask. She would leave the food and drink on the windowsill for me to retrieve after she was gone. I still remember the painful look on her face when she was leaving. I do not remember whether or not I was taken to Dr. Miner. Because the disease was prevalent in our area at that time I suspect he was contacted for advice. I do remember however, that every single inch of the skin on my body peeled, even my tongue. Most likely the reason I recall my tongue peeling, is that my poor mother, not thinking, brought up a dish of soft boiled eggs, normally a good idea, only she added salt. Of course salt and a skinless tongue do not belong together. When she discovered what she did, I’m sure she felt worse than I did. My biggest worry soon became my concern about passing into the junior class at Calais Academy. When returning in early June, I soon learned all my teachers decided to average my previous ranking periods for which I was very grateful.

Diphtheria was another disease which devasted families in the past. Within a month in 1864 the Machias Union and Eastport Sentinel reported:

Diphtheria has prevailed at Dennysville during the winter, and in many cases has proved fatal. Elijah Wilder, proprietor of the Dennysville hotel, has lost five children by the disease. Eastport Sentinel 1864

Diphtheria is prevailing to a serious extent among the families in Northfield. Mr. O. A. Andrews lost two daughters five years and eighteen years— and a son, Ephraim, aged nearly seventeen years. In Mr. Israel Andrews’ family all of the children were sick, Mr. Alvin Averill lost two. Machias Union. 1864

Soldiers photo:

More recently of course there was the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. Millions died worldwide. The photo above shows Calais boys being greeted at the Calais railroad station returning victorious from the war. Some were probably carrying the virus or had recovered from it. Some victims of the flu are buried in the Calais cemetery. The Calais Advertiser headlined an article on October 9th, 1918 “Is this Mysterious Infection a New Kind of German Offensive”. After some discussion of the possibility the Kaiser was even more evil than previously claimed the Advertiser concluded “ it seems hardly conceivable that, if Germany undertook  an offensive of this kind, she would choose such a mild and humane sort of disease” The Advertiser hadn’t reckoned with the even more virulent and deadly return of the disease the following year. Certainly, it was serious enough even in 1918 for a note to be found in the records of St Anne’s Church reading “Influenza epidemic necessitates the closing of churches.” Oct 1-Nov 9th and on October 2, 1918 Eastport ordered all places of amusement closed and postpone the opening of school. Eastport also reported “A dozen sardine factories are crippled by the large number of employees ill and not enough help available to handle any large amounts of fish which may arrive this week.”

While we can learn from history it may be dangerous to draw too many parallels with our present crisis. In the past it was usually difficult for a virus to infect the entire planet. Most outbreaks were local as people “didn’t git out much”. The likelihood an infected person from Wuhan China would travel much beyond their neighboring village were slight. The Spanish Flu would not have traveled the world were it not for the millions of soldiers crossing oceans and borders while fighting the Great War. Today however we are a global community and even the emergence of a new virus in deepest Siberia could spread around the world. Perhaps the advice given by the Eastern Democrat in 1834 remains the best- be a good and responsible citizen, act with a good conscience and devote yourself to the relief of the sick and suffering.

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