Once there was a “pest house” in Laramie.
That was the actual name used in the published minutes of the city and county when bills were paid for the services provided.
That term was common throughout America to describe places where contagious patients were brought to isolate them so their diseases would not spread. Even after Ivinson Memorial Hospital was opened in 1917, the pest house was the preferred place for local residents with smallpox or diphtheria.
There are over 350 references to pest houses in Laramie newspapers between the 1870s and 1921. Some report on pest houses in Cheyenne, Sheridan, Lander, the Black Hills, Denver, Omaha, Memphis and New York City. Many local governments were forced to provide one.
Although Rawlins had a pest house in 1875, the first mention of Laramie’s was in 1878. It was set well back into the prairie east of what is now 30th Street and Grand Avenue. In 1886, the city dump was established behind it, thus isolating the two in the same area.
There was no permanent staff so the pest house often stood vacant. No doubt children were admonished to stay away from the tempting empty building, though there are references in the paper to wanderers taking refuge there. Bedding was burned after use—two men were arrested in Cheyenne in 1879 for the egregious crime of trying to sell “blankets that had been used at the pest house” according to the newspaper.
In Colonial America, it was known that isolation could help contain smallpox. Inoculating healthy people with the actual disease was an effective treatment used by George Washington for his troops. It wasn’t the same as a vaccination because it actually caused a mild (and contagious) case of the disease, but it did confer immunity. It worked as long as those inoculated were isolated until recovered.
An actual vaccination for smallpox that didn’t cause the disease but conferred immunity was developed in the early 19th century. Starting in 1843, the state of Massachusetts began requiring smallpox vaccinations. Apparently vaccination was optional in Wyoming because there were still smallpox cases being treated at the Laramie pest house as late as 1921.
A Laramie smallpox epidemic in 1894 filled the pest house and the Boomerang reported that “doctors’ offices are crowded with people seeking vaccination.” It is likely that all Laramie doctors and nurses had either been vaccinated or had recovered from smallpox so they could treat patients with immunity.
On orders of the county health officer, a yellow quarantine flag was flown whenever the pest house acquired patients. The dreaded yellow flag was posted at private homes too. In one 1894 home quarantine, the Boomerang reported that “Charlie McGill is stationed outside as a watchman.”
Despite criticism about the location, the city and county opened a new pest house in 1911 also on the east side of town but close to the county hospital which was at 16th Street and Grand Avenue (now occupied by UW dorms). The Laramie Republican editor complained that a new pest house there would discourage development along east Grand. However, it was built and there are frequent references to it throughout the next decade. The last newspaper reference was in 1921 when a baby was born at the pest house to Mrs. W.J. Stewart. The very pregnant mother didn’t have smallpox, but her husband did and she insisted on accompanying him to the pest house. Mother and child are “doing well,” the doctor reported.
The term “pest house” went out of use in 1922 in Laramie, when a new county hospital was built at 18th and Custer Streets (where Laramie Care Center is today). Its name was one that almost no one ever used: “Albany County Hospital and Contagion Ward”—or, as it was more commonly called, the County Home. It probably mostly housed the elderly sick and impoverished, who were the responsibility of the county then.
It is unlikely that anyone born in America after 1972 has been vaccinated for smallpox. The last US case was in 1949, and it was declared eradicated world-wide in 1977. As for most of the other contagious diseases that once warranted a stay in the pest house, most have been controlled with vaccinations (diphtheria) or treatment with antibiotics (scarlet fever). Now hospitals have developed isolation techniques that protect other patients while treating those with contagious diseases.
By Judy Knight
Caption: The August 1, 1904 issue of the Laramie Semi-Weekly Boomerang reports on the pest house that was jointly operated by the city and county from at least 1878 through 1922. There were many newspaper announcements like this about the Laramie pest house (in two different locations). It was important news that the pest house was occupied again by someone with a contagious disease, (though the copy editors weren’t sure what this man’s name was).