The old wooden ships carried more than rum, molasses, coal, settlers and livestock. They transported dread diseases as well.  When European settlers arrived in America, they brought smallpox and other germs that wiped out up to 90 percent of the native population.  If not for this Armageddon, some believe that North America could not have been conquered.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected]

Hundreds of years later, disease-carrying ships were still a threat.  I took a ride last weekend on the Mary E., which is a small Bath-built schooner owned by the Maine Maritime Museum.  The captain pointed out a cove on the Woolwich side of the river that had once been used as a quarantine zone for incoming ships.  All ships would have to stay there, he said, until a doctor rowed out to examine the crew.  Only if they passed inspection would the ship be able to dock and the sailors come ashore.

This morning, a friend gave me a copy of a Bath paper called the Maine Gazette, printed in June 1822.  Coincidentally, the front page contains a Health Office notice that talks about the ship quarantine.  Other than customs officers, nobody was allowed to board a ship until it was visited by the Health Committee. Nobody was allowed to leave arriving ships without permission or a certificate from the Board of Health. Fishermen and all other persons were requested not to throw “any fish or anything in the dock whereby the health of the town is endangered.”

A cholera epidemic came 10 years later, according to “Owen’s History of Bath.” The Health Committee understood that the best precautions were quarantine and cleanliness, and they directed that “… all the docks, streets, vaults, cellars, drains and other places in this town be forthwith and thoroughly cleaned and purified.” Dr. Israel Putnam was named as the ship-boarding physician in 1839.  Noah Crooker came down with smallpox in 1840, and the old Crooker house on High Street was quarantined and became a temporary hospital.

While the Health Committee may have prevented incoming ships from infecting the city, at least one Bath ship caused an epidemic in another part of the country.  According to “Ships, Swindlers, and Scalded Hogs,” by Frederic B. Hill, the Swanton was a ship owned by the Crookers and captained by Charles Crooker Duncan. The Swanton was headed to New Orleans carrying 250 mostly German immigrants. One passenger died of cholera, then another. Fear swept the ship, and 11 more immigrants died before they made New Orleans.  Once there, the Swanton was not subjected to a quarantine check, and the ship’s agent advised the captain not to report the outbreak “to avoid panic.” The disease spread to the city, and 3,000 to 4,000 people died.

Ship quarantines date back to 14th-century Venice, when foreign ships were required to wait in the harbor for 40 days before docking. Indeed, the word quarantine comes from the Italian words “quaranta” and “giorni,” which mean 40 days.  It was not until the 20th century, however, that the U.S. federal government took over the role of quarantining and inspecting foreign arrivals.  Before that it was up to local groups such as Bath’s Health Committee to stop the spread of incoming disease.

Note: Two weeks ago, in this column, I mentioned a science teacher from my junior high days who accidentally left me behind in Portland during a field trip. I suggested that this mistake might have led to his subsequent retirement. I received an email from the gentleman, and he assured me that his retirement had been long-planned and had nothing to do with that unfortunate incident. My apologies for the insinuation.

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