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Smallpox in Copper Country part 1

A postcard from the Houghton County Historical Society of the Houghton County pest house built in 1901 is pictured. No identification or date from the publisher is printed on the card. Handwriting on back of this card says, “Contagious Hospital, Hancock, Michigan, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Wheeler, Nurses.” A second story was added to the building in 1910. (Used with permission of the Houghton County Historical Society)

A smallpox quarantine hospital operated in the Copper Country from 1901 to the mid-1930s. Smallpox is a gruesome subject, so maybe that is why it has been forgotten. The hospital was called a “pest house” which comes from the word “pestilence”, and was on the Lake Annie Road about a mile north of Hancock. A few people still remember when the hospital was in operation.

Whenever a hospital for communicable diseases is mentioned in the Copper Country, the locals think of the tuberculosis sanatorium which operated on the Houghton Canal Road around the same time period, but closed a little later than the pest house.

Like tuberculosis, smallpox was a very contagious disease that killed many people throughout history. Infected individuals had to be separated from healthy people so as not to spread the disease.

The severe form of smallpox killed about 30% of the people who contracted it, but a mild form developed in North America that was less lethal. Once a person had either form, they were immune to the disease for life. It was the mild form that was more common in the Copper Country, but still there were many deaths.

Worldwide vaccination against smallpox began to control the disease by the late 1800s. It was the first use of a vaccine against a disease and was developed in England by Dr. Edward Jenner in 1798. Vaccination against smallpox became mandatory in almost all countries, although it was less effective in the early days of its use. Some of us born before 1970 still bear the quarter-inch round scar of a smallpox vaccine on our upper arm or thigh. In 1977 smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide, and it is one of the diseases we no longer have to fear.

The first case of smallpox in the Copper Country occurred in a sawmill worker in Dollar Bay in 1900. The disease then spread to Houghton and Hancock lumber and railroad camps. Within a short time, smallpox was found among workers in Calumet and Lake Linden, and by 1903 Houghton County had 280 cases of smallpox. Something needed to be done to control the outbreak.

The health department first tried to quarantine entire homes where smallpox occurred. During the quarantine period of about two weeks, no one was allowed to go in or out of the home.

It was time-consuming for doctors to make inspections of the homes, and unfortunately, workers sometimes hid the disease, not wanting to miss work. The best alternative was to build a detention hospital where individuals with smallpox could be housed until they recovered or passed away.

With help from the State Legislature a quarantine facility was built in 1901 to house approximately 50 cases of smallpox at a time. The quarantine facility was located in Quincy Township about a mile northeast of Hancock

Sometimes the locality is referred to as Franklin. It was approximately one mile north of current U.S. 41, near Swedetown Creek on the Lake Annie Road, approximately 200 yards north of the Mineral Range Railroad grade, which is currently a snowmobile and ATV trail between Hancock and Calumet.

The pest house was on the south side of the creek; however, the site is on private property and one must have permission to go there.

Reprinted from the May 2020 Superior Signal (the Keweenaw County Historical Society triannual publication)

Editor’s note: Dana Richter is a resident of the Salo area about two miles north of the pest house location. He has conducted historical research on Big Louie Moilanen, the giant of the Copper Country, and the Finnish Farmers Milling Company of Hancock Township. The author acknowledges help received from the landowner of the site, the Keweenaw National Historical Park, Houghton County Historical Society, Michigan Technological University, and Finlandia University in writing this article, which is condensed from a longer report submitted to those entities.

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