Tiny township saves, transforms historic quarantine station

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A tiny community near Philadelphia that managed to save the oldest surviving quarantine station in the Western Hemisphere from the wrecking ball is now transforming the 18th-century structure into township offices.

For Tinicum Township, renovating the Lazaretto Quarantine Station was part of a broader plan to draw visitors to the community, to connect it to other historic waterfront sites and create a destination for both locals and tourists. For historians, saving the Lazaretto offers a chance to tell stories of immigration and public health in America’s early days.

Built in 1799, the quarantine station protected the Port of Philadelphia against the introduction of diseases that could lead to epidemics for nearly a century.

“It’s part of American history that we never learn about,” said David Barnes, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is writing a history of the building. “It gives us entry to a lost world, and into the hidden story of how our country came to be and grow, how it accommodated immigrants and dealt with disasters.”

The tiny township of 4,000 people is bordered by the Philadelphia International Airport, the Delaware River and a nature preserve, which together create dichotomies: wildlife and roads, modernity and history and airport noise and bucolic tranquility. The township was the first European settlement in Pennsylvania, founded by the Swedes in 1643, but today, 70% of the airport sits within the township’s boundaries. It’s a place where an index finger pointing to the sky is the locals’ universal sign for “let’s wait for the plane to pass over and then we can continue our conversation.”