Columbia River Quarantine Station at Knappton is established on May 9, 1899.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 7/12/2007
  • Essay 8199

On May 9, 1899, the United States government establishes the Columbia River Quarantine Station at Knappton Cove about six miles across the Columbia River from Astoria, Oregon. Construction is completed on December 13, 1900.  The Quarantine Station provides disinfection facilities for ships and an isolation hospital for passengers suffering from infectious diseases.

Astoria was at the time the only point for federal maritime quarantine inspection in the state of Oregon, and the only such point between San Francisco and Port Townsend.  Federal quarantine regulations were first enacted in 1878 and were further defined over subsequent years. 

On June 26, 1894, the United States Senate passed a resolution directing that all correspondence regarding the urgent need for a quarantine hospital at or near the mouth of the Columbia River to support existing quarantine inspection operations at the Port of Astoria be transmitted immediately to the Senate.  Walter Wyman, the Supervising Surgeon General of the Marine Hospital Service, wrote:

"While the inspection of vessels at the mouth of the Columbia River is faithfully carried on, no provision is made there for the care if the sick taken from an infected vessel or the purification of the vessel itself.  The nearest properly equipped quarantine station is at Diamond Point, near Port Townsend, Wash., some 275 miles distant, and should an infected vessel arrive at the mouth of the Columbia River the vessel would have to be remanded to the Port Townsend Quarantine, entailing not only expense, but hardship upon the sick" ("Letter From The Secretary of the Treasury").

Selecting Knappton

From 1876 to 1899 the Knappton Cove site had housed the Eureka and Epicure Packing Company, a salmon cannery owned by Columbia River salmon canning pioneers William, John, and George Hume. 

Astoria residents, eager to distance themselves from contact with those infected, looked across the Columbia to the abandoned cannery site -- sheltered, on a deep channel, with existing buildings -- and saw an ideal site for isolating infectious cases.  Knappton settlers, sparse in number but persistent, objected but were overruled.

Assistant Surgeon Hill Hastings was the establishing physician.  After a few months his duties were assumed by Dr. Bayles H. Earle of the United States Marine Hospital Service.

Maritime Quarantine

All vessels arriving from foreign ports were required to pass through quarantine before unloading or loading cargo or proceeding up the Columbia River.  Outgoing vessels bound for foreign ports were also required to be cleared through the Columbia River Quarantine Station.  Vessels were fumigated in order to kill fleas that might carry bubonic plague.  These fleas lived on rats in the ships' holds, and sometimes also on human passengers.  Passengers were inspected for any symptom of infectious diseases such as influenza, cholera, malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, and leprosy.

Ships arriving at the Port of Astoria raised the international 2 foot by 2 foot yellow signal flag marked "Q," signaling "Quarantine Inspection Required" (also called "Request for Pratique").  Two "Q" flags flown one over the other signified (and still signify) that the ship has illness on board and is under quarantine.  The Public Health Officer (a physician), accompanied by an immigration official, was ferried to the vessel.  They boarded the vessel and, if rats or other pests were found, sent the ship across the Columbia to be fumigated at Knappton.

A quarantine hospital was built near the dock in 1912 to house crew members and passengers who were diseased or suspected of being so.

Ellis Island for the Columbia

A 1921 article in The Sunday Oregonian called the Knappton facility "the 'Ellis Island' for this district."  Ellis Island, in New York harbor, housed the nation's first and largest federal immigration facility.  The article describes the procedure at Knappton:

"There are two quarantine ground where ships are held until given clearance ... ships entering or leaving the harbor must anchor here under quarantine flag until released ... At the quarantine station there is full equipment for fumigating ships, bathing and inspecting immigrants, and cleaning their clothing.  Immense super-heated machines receive the clothing of aliens entering the country, wherein the vermin are exterminated by the application of dry heat ... Immigrants enter the quarters, disrobe, and while bathing their clothing is deloused and all of their belongings are put through the heating drums.  Before receiving their cleansed garments they pass before a staff of doctors and any who are found infected or below the physical standard set are placed in detention quarters aboard the hulk of the former gunboat Concord and held to await deportation ... vessels detained for fumigation at Astoria can be taken to the station and have the vapor so deadly to rats and vermin pumped into their holds from retorts located at the docks.  Most of the fumigation is done, however, by means of sulphur which is burned in huge pots placed in the vessels' holds.  Quarantine officials take these pots aboard ships, place them advantageously so there will be no danger from spreading fire, light the sulphur and batten down the hatches so as to retain all of the fumes possible within the ship.  The sulphur pots are placed in tubs of water, the heat evaporating the water and the moisture aiding materially in getting dense fumes" ("Quarantine Guards Port From Disease"). 

This fumigation process took 48 hours.  During this time the passengers were housed either in the isolation hospital or on board the ConcordThe Concord was a decommissioned ship that had seen action in the Spanish American War.

The 1908 "Gentlemen's Agreement" between Japan and the United States limited immigration from Japan.   (Immigration from China had already been severely curtailed under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Geary Act of 1892.)  In 1921 the United States Congress enacted an immigration quota law limiting European emigrants to 3 percent of the number of foreign-born persons of that nationality living in the United States as enumerated in the 1910 federal census.  The Immigration Act of 1924 changed the quota basis to the 1890 federal census, further reducing European immigration, and cut immigration from Asian countries almost completely. 

Change and Closure

In 1928 the Quarantine Office was relocated from Knappton to Portland, forcing quarantine officers to commute when the part-time U.S. quarantine doctor in Astoria identified a ship that required quarantine.  In 1929 fumigation by sulphur pots was replaced by fumigation using cyanide gas.  This made it possible for ships to be decontaminated at anchor closer to Astoria, and only the most severe isolation patients were housed at Knappton.

The Knappton Quarantine Station was closed in 1938.  In 1950 Clarence and Katherine Bell purchased the site at a United States government surplus property auction and opened a fishing camp and moorage facility at the site. 

In 1980 the Knappton Quarantine Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Since 1995 the hospital building has housed the Knappton Cove Heritage Center, a small museum dedicated to preserving and exploring the Quarantine Station's role in the history of maritime immigration.

Sources: Nancy Bell Anderson, The Columbia River's 'Ellis Island' The Story of Knappton Cove (Gearhart, Oregon: Northwest Heritage Adventures, 2002); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide To History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990, p. 422; Tom Banse, "Family Revives 'Ellis Island Of The Columbia River,'" KUOW Program Archive, May 30, 2007, accessed May 31, 2007 (; "Washington -- Pacific County," National Register of Historic Places website accessed June 8, 2007 (; Nancy Bell Anderson, "The Bells at Knappton Cove," The Sou'wester, Spring 2001, p. 3, Pacific County Historical Society and Museum website accessed June 8, 2007 (; Dewitt Harry, "Quarantine Guards Port From Disease," The Sunday Oregonian, October 2, 1921, p. 6; T. W. Salisbury, The City And Port of Astoria Yearbook 1924 (Astoria: Port of Tacoma, 1921), p. 57, 61; Carlton E. Appelo, Knappton: The First 50 Years, Pacific County, Washington (Deep River, Washington: Appelo, 1975); Marilyn Chase, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death In Victorian San Francisco (New York: Random House, 2003); "Letter From The Secretary of the Treasury," July 9, 1894, Senate Executive Document No. 130, 53rd Congress, 2nd Session, Serial Set 3163; Saddlebags To Scanners: The First 100 Years Of Medicine In Washington State ed. by Nancy M. Rockafellar and James W. Haviland (Seattle: Washington State Medical Association, 1989); "Ellis Island Timeline," The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Incorporated website accessed June 27, 2007 (; "Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)," Our Documents website accessed June 27, 2007 (; "Immigration Act of 1924," Historical Documents website accessed June 27, 2007 (; "History of Quarantine," Department of Human Services Centers for Disease Control website accessed June 27, 2007 (

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