In an election year a deadly contagious virus crept into the country from overseas. A few ships that held both seriously ill passengers as well as some corpses were anchored offshore. Doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore urged federal intervention to halt travel into the country as a large foreign city was infected and many people already dead. Soon the president issued travel restrictions and mandated a 20-day quarantine of many. The confinement and travel restrictions were considered by supporters as effective measures for containment of the disease and slow its progress. Some critics perceived the measures as xenophobic and ineffective in an age of globalization. What year am I discussing?
While you may have guessed the present year, I was referring to 1892. That is why learning about our past allows us to understand our present and make decisions for the future. The president was Benjamin Harrison. The disease was cholera, not coronavirus. It has been said that sometimes the picture is the same, but the frame is different.
Schuylkill County suffered periodic epidemics over the years that terrified residents. Cressona suffered a typhoid epidemic in 1891 with Mount Carbon a target in 1894. The Pottsville Hospital was soon built after that epidemic by concerned and generous citizens. Scarlet Fever hit the Tremont area in 1894 and two year later it struck Shenandoah, Girardville and Mahanoy City with several houses “posted.” The toll of the flu of 1918 was catastrophic in the county, particularly in Minersville. In the 1940s and 1950s the summer season was dreaded by parents of small children as summer warmth brought the polio plague. A mid-October 1952 ban on all public gatherings was placed in effect in Girardville. All children under the age of sixteen were forbidden to attend school, church, theatres or other events.
Quarantine and personal liberty restrictions as tools to overcome an epidemic, by their very nature, require vigilant attention to avoid prejudice, intolerance and abuse. Communication and dialogue between the government and the public is the key to gain trust. The study of history is important. History does seem to repeat itself. Ever evolving viruses have plagued the earth for centuries. We are now living through the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. As former Beatle George Harrison wrote and sang, “it’s not always going to be this grey, all things must pass away.” Americans are resilient and we will get through this mess. Hopefully we will learn enough from this turbulent event – physically, economically and morally- to prepare us for the next global outbreak. Some will say the government did too much, others will say too little. Fingers will be pointed left and right. Books will be written.
….speaking of books, if you are hunkered down for a while, try reading up on history. You will discover that people from our past are not that different than we are today, and they faced similar challenges. Our on-line gift shop should still be open, and it has a large assortment of books. Meanwhile stay in contact with the Society by checking our Facebook page regularly or send in an email. Come visit the Society when the coast is clear and check out the new exhibits.
Lastly and most importantly, the Board and Staff of the Schuylkill County Historical Society hope that all our members, volunteers and friends stay safe and well. See you soon!
To all those with coal region roots, remember that a diamond is a chunk of coal which did well under pressure.