Our Chasing Shadows question this week is where was the Apalachicola Marine Hospital located, when did it close, and whether a photograph of the building is available. It would also be useful to know when the Customs Office closed.
If you know, please contact the Times at 653-8868 or Lois Swoboda at email@example.com.
Keepers at the Cape St. George lighthouse from 1833 to 1910 represented the first contacts in a system of revenue for the United States carried out by the collectors of customs in each major port. Until a permanent income tax was levied in 1913, funds received from duties and tariffs represented the largest source of income for the federal government. Because of this crucial role, collectors had considerable power in hiring lighthouse personnel and other agents of the U.S. Customs Service.
After the first lighthouse was built at West Pass in 1833, the Collector of Customs, Gabriel J. Floyd, also became the Superintendent of Lighthouses in Apalachicola Bay. He and later collectors supervised the lighthouses on Cape San Blas, Cape St. George, Dog Island, and Crooked River. As agents of the United States Treasury, customs collectors had access to funds that allowed them to hire assistants who could inspect incoming ships, measure and weigh the cargoes, and assess import duties.
The Marine Hospital System
In addition to the functions noted above, new information about the collectors of customs in Apalachicola turned up during research for the new booklet, “The Cape St. George Lighthouse, A Florida Treasure.” A portrait was found of Hiram Langdon Nourse, Sr., who succeeded Gabriel Floyd as customs collector in about 1841. The portrait depicts Mr. Nourse holding an object that his descendants think may be a metal syringe, implying some connection to health or medicine. The companion watercolor depicts his wife, Abigail Goodwin Nourse.
Typically, customs collectors or their agents asked ship captains to show their manifests, to provide consular papers that assured that the seamen were healthy, and that they were arriving from a port that was free from epidemic disease. A case of yellow fever had been noted in Apalachicola as early as 1826, and one of the earliest actions of the city council was to request funds to build a marine hospital in Apalachicola.
In 1833, Gabriel Floyd issued a contract with Dr. John Gorrie to provide medical care for merchant seamen. Dr. Gorrie took charge of the Marine Hospital Service at Apalachicola for several years. A large, three-story, brick building was known to the citizens of the town as the “Marine Hospital.” However, we know of no records indicating that a Marine Hospital was built at Apalachicola from federal funds. Famously, Dr. Gorrie’s attempts to cool fevered patients at his hospital led to his invention of a means to cool hospital rooms and, serendipitously, to make artificial ice.
Collectors of Customs in all U.S. ports collected fees from incoming ship captains that were used to pay local doctors for care of sick seamen. The fees seldom covered the cost of medical care, and the Treasury Department had to supplement the payments from federal sources. For example, Collector Nourse wrote to the comptroller of the Treasury in 1843 and asked for supplemental funds, because the $900 available that year was only half of what the hospital required. He received some additional funds, but the budgeted amount was never sufficient to cover all patients.
The need to care for sick and injured seamen in Apalachicola continued into the 20th century, and a succession of local physicians and staff fulfilled that need. In 1906, the Apalachicola Times carried the following news:.
“Mrs. Martha Campbell took charge of the Marine Hospital of Apalachicola, September 1, 1871 and she had charge of it up to the time of her death occurring a few months since. Since her death, her daughter, Mrs. M. J. Sharit, has carried on the work in the same efficient way it had formerly. Up to June 30, 1906, 1541 patients were registered to this institution. During the regime 31 deaths only occurred, a splendid record. Of the physicians in charge during this long and faithful administration, there were Doctors Hunter, Wakefield, O'Connor, Alexander, Etheridge, Eldridge, Leonard, Rush, Murrow and Willis.”
The subsequent history of Apalachicola’s Marine Hospital is unclear, but in 1939, the U.S. Congress passed an act to reorganize the government. By then, the Marine Hospital System had become part of the Public Health Service, and management was shifted from the Treasury to the Federal Security Agency. Later, the responsibilities were transferred to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and finally the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Port Quarantine Officer
Because the Customs Collector or one of his deputies was the first person to board an incoming ship after the harbor pilot, he was also the first person who could ask whether the ship had come from a foreign port with an epidemic disease, and if the crewmen were healthy or ill. Because there was little agricultural land around Apalachicola, much of its fresh food was imported from the West Indies, where yellow fever, cholera and malaria were common. The customs collector had the authority to refuse entry to the port, and could quarantine the ship and its crew.
For many hears, Dog Island was used as a local quarantine station. Ships with disease on board could be asked to anchor off Dog Island for 40 days, during which they were required to fly a yellow flag. In addition, the ships would be asked to empty their ballast off Dog Island, and possibly to undergo fumigation.
Given the modest nature of shipping in Apalachicola compared to major ports such as New York and New Orleans, the customs office may not have always had a named quarantine officer. However, a National Quarantine Act was passed in 1878, shifting quarantine powers from state to federal government. The act instituted strict regulations about screening for disease, and Apalachicola did have a quarantine officer at the end of the 19th century, At that time, Charles Lind was the port quarantine officer, and he would meet incoming ships in his schooner and inspect the crew. Lind reported to the Franklin County Board of Health, including Dr. J.D. Rush of the Marine Hospital and the Board’s secretary, local businessman John G. Ruge.
During the subsequent years, shipping into the port of Apalachicola declined as railroads and later highways and air travel provided alternative means of transport. As a result, revenue to the office of the Customs Collector decreased and could not support the salaries of the collector, the deputy collector, the quarantine officer, or other personnel. In addition, when the United States began to collect income tax, it hired numerous tax collectors and began to decrease the number of customs agents.
When the new post office was built in 1923, the building still included space for the customs office. In 1923, records show that Mr. R.L. Rogers was customs collector, but by then steamship traffic along the Apalachicola had nearly vanished. Accordingly, no collector of customs was listed for Apalachicola in the 1930 Official Register of the United States. The office that had been important since 1821 had closed, and its functions relative to the Marine Hospital Service and quarantines had been transferred to agencies that gave rise to the Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control,