I have always thought of Yellow Fever as a tropical disease and not something people in our more temperate climate would have ever needed to worry about. How wrong I was.
I was right about the usual places the disease can be contracted. I was wrong about it never happening here. Because in 1878 an epidemic occurred in a town about 50 miles from where I live. I had not heard about this terrible incident until Larry and I stopped in the pretty river town of Gallipolis, Ohio one afternoon in June and happened on this monument while strolling around the park.
At the time, Gallipolis, Ohio was a growing, thriving river town with brisk steamboat traffic and a busy dock. The summer of 1878 was unusually warm, according to a report on the epidemic, with the mean temperature in July 87 degrees and extremely high humidity. Kind of reminds me of this July as we have had so many days of over 85-degree temperatures and uncomfortably high humidity.
A steamer called the John Porter was making its way up the Mississippi to the Ohio River, with its final destination to be Pittsburgh. The first sign of trouble occurred the day after the boat left New Orleans, when a fireman became ill and died within a few days. Several other deckhands soon became ill; they were sent to a hospital at Vicksburg and diagnosed with malaria. The John Porter continued on its way but one man after another became ill. Some recovered, others died and were buried on the riverbanks. By the time the boat reached Louisville, there were many more cases of the illness which was by then recognized as the dreaded yellow fever. Some crew had left the boat and scattered to hospitals, to their homes and other places. A new crew came aboard to augment the diminished numbers; no one was sick at that point except one fireman.
Rumors of the sickness on board the Porter spread along the river. A Cincinnati sanitary inspector decided that it was his duty to inspect the boat before it landed in the city, and took a steamer downriver to meet up with it. He found the crew very uneasy and wanting to leave the boat at Cincinnati. The inspector also determined that some of the barges being towed had been stored for several months in the part of New Orleans where there was a bad outbreak of yellow fever, and informed the Captain that he could not allow the boat to dock at Cincinnati or allow the crew to leave, as several were now ill and if they were allowed to leave could spread the fever widely. Two doctors were sent on board to treat the sick crew members. Can you imagine how they must have felt, knowing that they could contract the disease themselves? And yet they went, and stayed with the boat to the end; somehow both doctors avoided catching the fever.
The boat continued upriver with no port being willing to receive them. Their food supply dwindled and condition of the sick men became dire. Several died and were hurriedly buried in secret on the riverbank. The weather was hot, humid, and often the river was engulfed with fog. They reached Gallipolis, but could not go further because of the wreck of the steamer Brilliant in the river and then a rocker shaft in the engine broke, so they dropped back to just below Gallipolis where they tied up buried more victims on the shore.
A better image of the memorial from the website Waymarking:
Some money arrived and the Captain, who was recovering from the fever, and some crew who were still well left the boat and headed for their homes. One body was still on the boat; weights were tied to it since it was decomposing rapidly in the conditions, and it was thrown overboard.
Finally the Porter's engine was repaired. The boat left its barges moored because the barges were believed to be the source of the infectious disease; they were to be disinfected. The Porter continued up the river, although I am unclear as to why. But flooding caused the barges to break loose and they floated downriver, smashing bridges and into piers and causing havoc. Since these barges were believed to be carrying the fever (it's carried by mosquitoes, which were probably breeding in the dank, fetid water inside the barges) there was great fear all along the river, as you can imagine. More cases of yellow fever had cropped up in Cincinnati and other towns. The Porter, with its owner Captain John Porter at the helm, had to come back to round up the loose barges. The boat had been disinfected several times, as had the barges that had been caught and tied up. Some local men from the Gallipolis/Middleport area assisted in cleaning the barges; other men and possibly some women visited the dreaded barges out of curiosity.
These visits proved deadly. Some of these men and their family members became ill and many died. Some of them became infected by wearing clothing that had been taken from the John Porter while it was docked; one lady tried to feed some starving birds that were on board and caught the fever and died. In all, 66 people died of the fever in the Gallipolis area.
The barges were all later burned at Cincinnati, and the Porter itself was sunk. Captain Porter left the steamboat business and became a successful businessman with several enterprises in West Virginia's northern panhandle. He died in 1922 and is buried at Newell, WV.
As far as I can find, the yellow fever did not find its way across the river into West Virginia.
Today, Gallipolis is a beautiful, thriving river town. Its park is a beautiful spot to spend time along the river and contains other memorials with other stories. Barges continue to travel the river, and the only reminder of those frightening days of the epidemic is the memorial to those lost.
Huntington (WV) Public Library files
National Institute of Health report
Captain John Porter, gravesite, owner of the ill-fated boat that bore his name
Captain John Porter biography, which contains a brief mention of his boat's role in the epidemic
Fever on the Ohio River, New York Times article
James Myers, Victim
Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.