Smallpox strikes Columbia County in the fall of 1881.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 5/16/2006
  • Essay 7764
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In the fall of 1881 a smallpox epidemic strikes Columbia County. The epidemic rages from October through December, and becomes such a threat that the town of Dayton is quarantined for 10 days in November. One hundred and sixty-seven cases of smallpox and 21 deaths resulting from the disease are reported countywide.

The Disease

Smallpox (variola major) was a constant threat to public health in the nineteenth century, frequently resulting in epidemics that caused death and disfigurement. A person with smallpox infects others by passing the virus through the air by coughing or physical contact. One to two weeks after infection, the first symptoms occur with headache, fever, and pains. About two days later, rashes appear as red spots on the face, hands, and feet. Smallpox symptoms last about two more weeks, with the red spots spreading across the body and becoming pustular lesions. These lesions look like blisters. Eventually they dry up and fall off, but survivors are left with deep scars or pockmarks on the face and body.

It takes about one month from the initial infection for the disease to run its course. Fatality rates to people never before exposed to smallpox can run from 30 to 70 percent of the population. Those who survive the illness are immune for life from further outbreaks.

Signs of Trouble

Dayton in 1881 was a budding town with a population of about 1,000. Columbia County (which in the early fall of 1881 included the future Garfield and Asotin Counties) had a population approaching 7,000.

The first signs of trouble appeared around the first of October. Some doctors diagnosed as smallpox several cases of illness reported in the county, but other doctors disputed the diagnosis. On October 2, Dr. Marcel Pietrzycki (1843-1910) pronounced the disease to indeed be smallpox. Although other doctors and citizens in the county initially tried to dismiss the potential threat of an epidemic, Pietrzycki remained insistent that further action needed to be taken. His aggressive position was later credited with saving many lives.

A Board of Health consisting of 13 county citizens was formed and first met on October 15. The threat was deemed greatest in Dayton, and the board divided the town into wards. Individual committees were assigned by the board to insure that the sick were quarantined and proper care was provided for them in the wards to which the committees were assigned.

A "Pest House" Built

Local business people quickly raised $400 to purchase an acre of land, and a "pest house" (isolation hospital) was promptly built on this land to care for the victims of the epidemic. Despite these efforts, some in the town continued to downplay the threat of an epidemic and failed to take the proper precautions.

By November there was no longer any doubt that a smallpox epidemic was stalking the county. The Columbia Chronicle reported on November 5 that three people had died from smallpox, but noted that all other patients were reported as improving and hoped that the worst was over. But the worst had only begun.

Quarantine of Dayton

By November 12 three more people had died, and a number of families who had not been previously infected were now reporting cases of smallpox. The epidemic began to spread more rapidly in terms of both numbers of people infected and severity of the cases. On November 17 the Board of Health and its executive committee issued joint orders quarantining the town of Dayton, effective at 3 p.m. on Thursday, November 17, 1881.

The terms of the quarantine were as follows:

  • That the board of health in joint session with the executive committee, prohibit any person or persons from coming into, or leaving the town without permission of the chief of patrol;
  • That all business houses, offices and saloons be closed daily from 4 o'clock p.m., to 8 o'clock a.m., except drug stores, hotels, livery stables, and restaurants, and that the bars in the hotels be kept closed between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., as in other business houses.
  • That the health officer, on giving a pass to any of his employees, and if approved by the chief of patrol, the said employee be permitted to pass the patrol.
  • That the above proceedings be published in the Dayton papers and that posters be distributed through the town.

The quarantine came during the same week that a dozen new smallpox cases and six deaths were reported in the county. But the quarantine worked. Only one death was reported for the week ending November 26, and conditions in Dayton improved so rapidly that the quarantine was lifted on Sunday, November 27. Conditions continued to improve, and the December 3 Chronicle reported that no deaths from smallpox had been reported in the preceding week, with only two new cases reported.


But the effects of the epidemic lingered until for two more months. The Dayton postmaster was unable to deliver local mail from November 16 until January 1, 1882. In addition, the towns of Walla Walla and Waitsburg refused to accept mail sent from Dayton through the end of 1881, (although Waitsburg qualified its prohibition by accepting mail that had originated in areas other than Dayton and had merely been routed through Dayton). Schools in Dayton remained closed until January 2, 1882.

The smallpox threat continued to fade from the county as December progressed. By December 17 "there were only three residences in town flying the yellow flag" (Shaver). The yellow flag (typically hung from a pole in front of the home) signaled those in the home were quarantined.

A few new cases of smallpox were reported in the county in December 1881 and January 1882, but these cases evidently were not serious and the threat continued to diminish. By mid-February 1882 the last traces of smallpox were gone from Dayton.

The Dayton Board of Health issued its final report to the city council on January 2, 1882. Dayton reported 100 cases of smallpox and 11 deaths; Columbia County as a whole reported a total of 167 cases and 21 deaths. Many cases of smallpox were reported to be mild, but it was also suspected that many more mild cases of smallpox went unreported as those with the illness did not wish to be spirited away to the "pest house."

Dr. Marcel Pietrzycki, who had been the first to alert the citizens of Dayton and Columbia County to the outbreak's potential, went on to become a leading citizen of Columbia County and served as Dayton's mayor in the 1890s.

Sources: F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), 352-355; W. F. Fletcher, Early Columbia County (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1988), 123-125; online encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Smallpox Epidemic Ravages Native Americans On the Northwest Coast of North America in the 1770s" (by Greg Lange), (accessed May 9, 2006).

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