Shown above is a depiction of the second Parkersburg hospital, aka Pest House. This building, first occupied in 1872, was destroyed by fire in 1918. The house was drawn by Christy Little, based on specifications found. The trees were added by Whitney Milhoan.
Parkersburg's House of Horror!
by Bob Enoch
During a city council meeting in January of 1872, “the city dads, Mayor and council, suddenly, as if electrified, rose and went out, out into the fresh air, and then into a friendly storeroom,” thus read an excerpt from a newspaper article the next day. The quick change of venue was caused when a stranger walking into council chambers stated that he had small pox!
Parkersburg had been spared in recent years from a major outbreak of the dreaded disease, but the outbreak of small pox cases in the early 1860s, were still all too fresh in the minds of Parkersburg residents.
In the early months of 1861 a few cases of small pox had been reported. By November of that year cause for concern increased, fueled by reports that the military hospital in town had cases of small pox. Realizing the need for action, city council asked Dr. Safford, who had been appointed as Health Officer, to investigate and make arrangements to have small pox patients sent to a quarantine house on the bank of the Ohio River above town where other small pox victims were being cared for.
Apparently the “house of quarantine above town” didn’t work out, for in the spring of ‘62, as small pox cases increased, Dr. Safford was again requested to find a suitable place, out of town, for small pox patients to be cared for.
Council records indicate that Dr. Safford made arrangements with Andrew Galvin to rent a house from him, to be used as a ‘pest house.’ Rent for November ‘62 thru January ‘63 was $7.50. It is believed that this house was in the Marrtown area, where Galvin owned property.
However, in the spring of 1863, council appointed a committee to search for suitable land on which to build a city-owned pest house.
In May of 1863, councilmen Smith, Peadro and Clark were appointed to “settle with Andrew Galvin for his house used as a pest house.” It is not clear what the word ‘settle’ meant.
Small pox cases continued, but it wasn’t until July of 1865, that another special committee of council was appointed ‘to ascertain and report the best situation that can be procured for the erection of a pest house.’ Apparently small pox was near epidemic stage, for the months of July thru December of ’65, city council records show the city paid more than $400 for the care of small pox patients.
In February of 1866, a petition, signed by scores of Parkersburg’s “obedient” citizens was presented to the Mayor and Council.
The petition read: “we pray the honorable Mayor and Council make provisions for the small pox sick, to find a building and cause that good care be taken of our small pox sick and that they offer their speedy attention in this emergency.”
Though people were being vaccinated, small pox continued thru 1866.
It was during this period that the County purchased over 200 acres at Cedar Grove to build a county ‘poor house.’ Realizing the small pox situation, the County offered the city 10 acres and to pay one-half of the cost of erecting a hospital building. Though the offer was initially accepted, it did not see fruition.
In February of 1867 another committee was appointed to look into property that had been offered by Henry Logan, to be used for “sanitary” purposes.
Logan’s offer was accepted and the City of Parkersburg purchased 21 acres on the east ridge of Fort Boreman hill. The property fronted on what was then Lubeck Avenue (today Fourth Avenue); the only building area was high atop the ridge, over looking Lauckport. Access up the steep hill eventually proved to be a stumbling-block to what became known as the “city hospital property.”
In March of 1867 approval was given to build a “pest house,” with the cost not to exceed $1,000. Building of the house was completed on May 31st, at a of $1,150. In June, the Mayor contracted with John W. Faut (sic) to occupy the pest house. However, in July of that year, John W. Thompson was approved as keeper of the pest house.
Other problems at the “hospital” were the lack of water and an occupant who would properly care for the building. In November of 1867, just six months after completion, at the request of Mayor Peadro, Dr. Rezin Davis was asked to visit and evaluate the hospital. An excerpt from his report follows: ‘The hospital building is in a very bad and dirty condition. I cannot say that it is the fault of the occupants as they are compelled to carry their drinking, as well as washing water, over one-half mile, there being no water nearer.” The Mayor had authorized that a well be dug in July, but apparently no water was found, and although a cistern had also been built, that source was apparently inadequate.
The appointment of John W. Thompson as overseer at the pest house didn’t work out. In January of 1869 the city began action demanding Thompson to vacate the house. On February 25, Thompson surrendered the City Hospital to the city sergeant.
“Fire.- The City Infirmary, or as it was commonly called, Pest-House, was destroyed on Thursday night by fire. The cause of the fire is not ascertained, but there are grave suspicions that the fire was the work of an incendiary,” thus read an item in the Parkersburg Daily Times, February 22, 1869.
John Thompson, the disgruntled ex-caretaker, was arrested and indicted for arson. However, in June of 1869, he was found not guilty and released.
Small pox cases continued to be reported. At a March 5, 1869, city council meeting, the hospital committee ordered that a ‘pound’ [a place of impoundment?] be built as soon as possible. Adding grave concern to the situation, small pox cases up and down the Ohio River were increasing, and as more ‘strangers’ frequently came into town, council adopted a small pox ordinance requesting, not demanding, that all persons be vaccinated.
Though a replacement for the pest house was wanted ASAP, building the second City Hospital was not approved until January of 1872; the contract awarded W.W. Tucker. The building was ready for occupancy on March 26. Note: Design specifications for this building were found in the Parkersburg collection at the Division of Archives and History in Charleston.
Although this building was much superior to the one built in 1867, proper access, maintenance and caretaker issues still created headaches for the city of Parkersburg. With the reduction of small pox cases and better and increased vaccinations, city authorities began renting the hospital property. In January of 1891 Mayor and Council had requested another evaluation of the hospital property. Part of the report by C. T. Caldwell and E. O. Hiehle reads:
"On examination of the building your commissioners find that the roof is in a very bad condition, and must be replaced with a new one.
The second floor of the porch is rotten and needs repairs.
The lower part of the house is used as a cow stable because there is no stable on the premises.
There is no road from the county road.”
After getting rid of the current tenant, the committee suggested that, “the contract be awarded to the applicant, who gives the lowest and best terms with a bond to the amount of $250 as security.”
In November of 1901, a committee, including the Mayor, visited the ‘hospital.’ Their observations were quite similar to that of the previous inspectors. In addition to more repair work, they suggested “building a new addition to the Hospital thereby enlarging the space for small pox patients that in this manner the hospital may become as near as possible, self supporting.” The addition was not built.
Though occasional small pox cases continued to be sent to the pest house, an item in the May 4, 1918, edition of the Parkersburg Sentinel records the demise of Parkersburg’s ‘house of doom’: “One of the buildings owned by the city as well as one of the old landmarks of the community disappeared this morning when the pest house on Fort Boreman was consumed by flames. According to the city authorities, this ancient structure was built a few days after Christopher Columbus landed on the western continent. A family named Snyder took possession of the structure some two years ago and has since held forth against all newcomers. It is not known whether spontaneous combustion, rats or incendarism was responsible for the conflagration. No insurance was carried and the loss is estimated at about $2.73.”
Though utilized for a couple years after the fire as the site of a “piggery,” the 21+ acres known as the City Hospital Property lay dormant until 1929, when it was sold to the Nemesis Temple Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for $4,000. The City had paid $3,400 for the property when purchased from Henry and Lavinia Logan, and Thompson and Minerva Leach in 1867. The city used the $4,000 proceeds to purchase two lots on Quincy Street to enlarge the newly created Legion Park. This use of the funds seemed very appropriate, for Legion Park is near the place where during the Civil War, small pox patients were quarantined.