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Smallpox in Copper Country, part 2

The rock foundation of the smallpox quarantine hospital, or pest house, can still be found in the woods north of Hancock along Swedetown Creek. This section shows the walls of the basement, which measured 28 feet by 78 feet. The view is from north to south. (May 2019 photo courtesy Dana Richter)

As mentioned in last week’s article, a smallpox quarantine hospital known as the pest house operated in the Copper Country from 1901 to the mid-1930s.

Only one photo of the Houghton County pest house has been found, this being from the archives of the Houghton County Historical Society. It is a postcard with handwriting on the back identifying the building. A lady born in 1922 grew up on a farm near the facility and delivered milk there with her sister when she was a child. In a 2017 interview, she confirmed that the picture postcard of the pest house looked like the building she remembers.

She did not know much about the hospital except that she was warned to never go inside. They left the milk on the porch outside the door.

The rock foundation of the pest house can still be found in the woods. The entire foundation measures 28 feet by 132 feet. In places the foundation is several feet high and many trees have grown within it. The foundation with the full basement measures 28 feet by 78 feet. A white tile floor is still evident in the basement, which contains a well approximately three feet in diameter. The part of the foundation with just an apparent crawl space measures 28 feet by 54 feet.

The landowner said that their kids would sometimes bring home medicine bottles they found around the foundation of the pest house. Luckily, the smallpox virus does not persist in soil or survive outside a human host for very long.

Physicians from the Calumet and Hecla hospital administered vaccinations to all mining employees and their families, as well as to other residents within the jurisdiction of the Township Board of Health.

In January 1910, the Calumet News reported that smallpox was the worst contagious disease in the area, with a large number of cases under treatment at the county detention hospital. The article goes on to say that the detention hospital was almost filled with patients from various parts of the county.

In 1910 a second story was added to the smallpox hospital so that an additional 75 people could be housed. Thus, up to 125 cases of smallpox could be treated in the Copper Country at a time. In an annual report of the Calumet Township health officer, February 1911, there were 69 cases of smallpox in the township, and among several other contagious diseases, 35 cases of tuberculosis at that time. (Calumet News, Mar. 21, 1911).

Vaccinations were given free of charge by the mining company. At that time the Calumet public schools also initiated compulsory vaccination against smallpox.

The most extensive early account of smallpox in Houghton County comes from a report to the Michigan State Board of Health in 1903 by Dr. W. H. Matchette. This was shortly after the time of the outbreak, and the report primarily lists the reasons for building the pest house. A pest house was also built in the 1890s at Mackinaw City because it was a port city where travelers from far-away places might arrive with a contagious disease.

The Matchette report (1903) goes on to say that smallpox in the Copper Country was most prevalent among foreign laborers: Finns, Poles, Swedes, French-Canadians and Italians. More cases occurred in Calumet than in Houghton. The following is from the report:

“These foreigners increased the difficulties of the health authorities in every way possible in stamping out the contagion by hiding their cases, not reporting, and their frequent intermingling. In a Finnish locality of Calumet a house to house investigation resulted in finding a large number of cases, some hiding in cellars, others in attics and closets.

The whole district was quarantined and all cases moved to the hospital. The condition would have been more disastrous were it not for the fact that all the adult Finns had been vaccinated upon entering the country. The Canadian French gave us the same trouble by not reporting their cases and not being afraid of the disease, they would rather shield a case than have it dragged off to the pest house.”

Scattered newspaper articles give accounts of cases and deaths caused by smallpox from all localities in the county. As of this writing, no record books, patient logs or journals kept by or about the Houghton County pest house have been found. All of the local historical sources were checked in addition to the Michigan Health Department and the archives of the University of Michigan. Thus, it is not known exactly how long the pest house operated, how many cases were treated annually, total mortality due to smallpox, or when the last case of smallpox occurred in the Copper Country. This will be a task for another historical researcher.

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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