Today if you heard the term pest house, you would probably think of a house with a serious bug or rodent infestation. From the 17th century until the early 1900’s, before the modern hospital was invented, most towns had what was known as the pest house. These pestilence houses were used for people who had highly contagious diseases such as smallpox, scarlet fever, and typhus, and didn’t have family nearby who could quarantine and care for them in their own house, or those who could not afford the private hospitals if the town even had one. They were often located just outside of the city limits, away from the general population, and many of them had a cemetery nearby to quickly and easily dispose of the dead without exposing the people of the city to disease.
People who were sent to the pest-house remained there until they recovered, or died from their illness. Often times the sick were expected to mostly care for themselves. Some articles stated the people confined there were expected to bring their own clothing, food, and bedding, others said this was all provided by the city. There was always a caretaker at the pest house, some had no formal medical training, but had previously been exposed to diseases such as smallpox and were, therefore, immune to reinfection.
There were two pest houses located in Weber County at the turn of the 20th century. The first one was located near 44th Street and Washington Blvd, in South Ogden, then known as Burch Creek. It was established in 1882 and a man known as “Daddy Waldram” and his wife cared for the patients. I did some research and found that Daddy Waldram was Lorenzo Waldram, Sr. Born in England in 1826, he and his wife Mary ended up settling in Ogden and in 1882 they became caretakers of the Burch Creek pest-house and cared for those who were quarantined there. Unfortunately for those that needed to stay at the pest house, the land nearby was also used for dumping of dead animals and leftovers from the slaughterhouse. I can’t imagine the area was very appealing. By 1898, Dr Alfred A. Robinson assumed care of those being treated at Burch Creek.
By 1900, there must have been a discussion by city officials of the need for a new pest house building, but the people who were now living in the area that was once distanced from the rest of the city were not happy with this idea.
It seems that some people who were confined to the pest house in South Ogden complained about the lack of decent bathroom facilities. In response to these complaints, City Sanitary Inspector George Shorten answered these complaints in an article published March 13th, 1912 in the Evening Standard the pest house was described as:
“a brick building containing seven rooms and a kitchen. The bedrooms are supplied with iron cots and good springs and good coverings. The supplies are furnished by the county and the place always has plenty of good food and ample fuel. The house is connected by telephone with the public offices of both the city and county so that it is not difficult for the inmates to make their wants known at any moment.”
The article went on to state that he wishes the pest house had better lavatory and bathing facilities but the lack of a sewer connection made that quite impossible. It seems likely that the age of the building, the poor conditions reported by people who were quarantined there, and the fact that there was now a school located less than half a mile from the pest house, and new houses nearby led to the abandonment of the Burch Creek pest house. By April of 1915, the pest house was closed, and city officials immediately began discussions for building a new pest house north of the city limits.
The second pest house was located in the north part of Ogden on 1100 North, about one mile east of Washington Blvd, at the foothills of the mountain. Prior to January 1959, this road was known as the Old Pest House Road.
The area is currently surrounded by houses and hiking trails. Interestingly enough, the spot where I am fairly certain the pest house was located is now a “Jeep Trail” and is the only part of this area that is unincorporated. Coincidence?
I visited the area with a local historian last summer to see if we could find any evidence of the old pest house and so she could dowse for unmarked graves. We found what looked like it could’ve been part of an old foundation, and also a spring located very nearby. There was an area surrounded by a few pine trees that looked eerily similar to sunken graves…and the dowsing rods did “hit” on two areas. Dowsing rods have been used for many years to locate things such as water and graves. For more information about dowsing for graves click here.
While I was unable to find any solid proof of people being buried at the pest house north of Ogden, a man who lived at the pest house in Burch Creek gave a tour of the premises in 1895 and pointed out the area where the poor with no family were buried.
Lorenzo Waldram went on to dispute this claim in a later newspaper article, but also refused to let the local reporters look at the pest house records. While I haven’t come across any documents definitively saying people were buried at either location, it would not surprise me if this occurred. The smallpox virus would stay active in bedding and clothing. If the sick died leaving no money or family nearby, I could see city officials not wanting to go to the expense of paying for the undertaker and burial, and also possibly risking further infection.
I wasn’t able to find information on when the pest house north of the city limits closed, but it seems mention of it ended after 1920 / 1921, probably because Dee Memorial Hospital was in use and better infection control methods were known by that time.