At a time when “white privilege” and immigration are hot topics, it’s worth taking a look back at immigration in the mid 19th century. The idyllic, sanitized version of Ellis Island’s history portrayed in movies is nothing like the brutal reality of the quarantine stations along the Mississippi river through which hundreds of thousands of Germans and Irish passed until the end of the 19th century. Many of those, tens of thousands, didn’t make it further on their journey to freedom and prosperity. Instead they died, were buried in mass graves and were ultimately forgotten.
Along the bluffs of the Mississippi River south of the city of St. Louis lays acres of land overgrown with weeds, the former site of a city-owned quarantine hospital and sanitarium, and the final resting place for tens of thousands of the area’s nineteenth century immigrant poor struck down by epidemics that swept through the area. Currently for sale by the City of St. Louis, the site has entered local legend as being haunted; given its history if any place could be, this site most certainly is.
The city government of St. Louis bought the land in 1854, and used it for a quarantine station and hospital. Its remote location at the time, fifteen miles from the city’s center, was thought to be an ideal one for the isolation and treatment of people with communicable diseases such as leprosy, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, smallpox, diphtheria and other diseases that struck seemingly from nowhere and raged unchecked through the community. The City also used a corner of the property as a paupers’ cemetery. It is estimated that 18,000 men, women and children were buried there between 1849 and 1877 according to a 1983 newspaper article.
For the next 30 years patients with yellow fever, smallpox, diptheria, typhoid fever were sent to the Quarantine Hospital. the bodies of victims of these epidemics were buried on the grounds until by the end of the nineteenth century an estimated 18,000 people were buried at what was then called the Quarantine-Smallpox Hospital. Since during epidemics, bodies were buried en masse in some of the sinkholes on the property, while at other times only wooden headboards marked the graves, little remains to mark burial sites; burial records were destroyed by a fire in the late 1880’s. (source)
After vaccinations and improved sanitation brought many of those diseases under control, focus shifted to using the site as a hospital for tuberculosis patients. In the early 20th Century tuberculosis was the leading public health crisis facing American cities, accounting for ten percent of all deaths in St. Louis.In 1910 the city’s hospital commissioner Dr. John C. Morfit transferred 70 patients from other city institutions to the quarantine station and hospital against the wishes of the rest of City Hall, and was fired. Before he left Dr. Morfit named the facility the “Robert M. Koch Hospital” in honor of the German scientist who isolated the organisms that caused TB and cholera.
For the first half of the 20th century Koch Hospital thrived. Hospital administrators established a farm on the grounds in 1922 and by 1937 it supplied fresh produce including apples, tomatoes and grapes to other City institutions. The hospital published its own newsletter from 1925-1947 providing health care news and tips to the patients and their families. Patients received job training while recuperating, and could take classes in business, sewing and other trades. Bond issues in 1920, 1933 and 1934 allowed the hospital to expand to almost five hundred beds. It wasn’t enough; the facility had a waiting list of 200 in 1939. At that time TB claimed 600 St. Louisans a year, and it was thought that at a ratio of two beds for each death, the city needed 1,200 beds to keep up with the disease’s toll. Plans were drawn up for expansion in 1939, but went unfunded when Congress killed the appropriations bill that paid for them.
During World War II a health care professional shortage lead to the closure of some wings of the hospital. After the war, improved public health prevention measures and better medication reduced tuberculosis infection rates and the need of a specialized facility. Funding for the hospital was cut during the 1950s as the City tried to sell the property. In 1961 the City dedicated Koch Hospital to the care of the indigent elderly, but after trouble with federal and state payments and high running costs, the facility was shut down in November 1983, and its buildings razed in 1989 after a successful nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.
On a personal note, my father worked at Koch Hospital in the maintenance department during the 1970s. Every weekday morning my mother would wake me up and I would crawl into the backseat of our station wagon where I would snooze on the drive taking my father to work. I remember seeing him framed in the window as we dropped him off, a face that’s now a smudge after 30 years of fading memory. One day he collapsed and died on the hospital grounds, ending the morning drives and beginning a long, winding personal journey that didn’t end until I became a father myself decades later.
Is my father one of the souls rumored to haunt the hospital grounds? My intuition, thanks to my Irish blood, emphatically tells me “no”. But what about the souls of those swept off prematurely by cholera, smallpox and TB? Even though I count myself as an unbeliever, I wouldn’t want to test my lack of belief with a nightly trip there.
Maybe the last request of the Dying is to be remembered. Those interred on the Koch Hospital grounds deserve at least that much. In 1866 175 members of a regiment of African-American soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War, the 56th United States Colored Infantry, died of cholera and were laid to rest on the grounds. During the mid 20th century their remains and a monument commemorating their service was moved to nearby Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a well tended memorial for the city’s veterans. While the nameless that remain buried there may not have lived as heroically as those men, they came to our nation from all over the world seeking better lives only to be stricken by diseases that were transmitted easily due to their abysmal living conditions. Their contribution to our nation lives on and deserves not to be forgotten.
Koch Hospital’s main administration building as of April 1984
For more photos and stories about Koch Hospital, please visit The Koch Hospital Historical Society website.