Secrets of its past may help pay for historic Delaware County building's future

What secrets does the historic Lazaretto building conceal? Paranormal investigators, shown here with an electromagnetic detector, are willing to pay to find out. And that may help preserve the former quarantine hospital once known as "Philadelphia's Ellis Island."
What secrets does the historic Lazaretto building conceal? Paranormal investigators, shown here with an electromagnetic detector, are willing to pay to find out. And that may help preserve the former quarantine hospital once known as "Philadelphia's Ellis Island."
Posted: July 17, 2010

The searchers were in a nearly pitch-dark, third-floor room in the abandoned Lazaretto quarantine station and hospital when the flashlight on the floor flickered on, then off.

No one had touched it.

The black-clad group sitting on the dusty floor clocked the time: 10:15 p.m.

"We're here to learn about you. We're here to learn from you," said Mark Davis of the Pennsylvania Anomalous Society Team (PAST), a group that researches the history and paranormal activity of area buildings. "Can you turn the light back on for us?"

The eight team members waited for several minutes, recording every sight, sound and temperature change, looking for evidence of a ghostly presence.

Though their results were far from conclusive, the quest - and similar ones by other groups - could help change the future of a historic yet nearly forgotten 210-year-old building on the banks of the Delaware River in Essington, Delaware County.

The Lazaretto is the oldest surviving quarantine facility in North America. Opened in 1801, its hospital was the first stop of ships carrying immigrants, who were checked for infectious diseases before they were allowed entry into the country.

Over the years, the site, which also includes three smaller structures, became a social club for Philadelphia's elite, a seaplane base, and a flight school for the Army. Now, the three-story red brick building that some call Philadelphia's Ellis Island awaits its next role.

"We're trying to reestablish its grandeur," said Edward Rubillo, a member of the Lazaretto Preservation Association of Tinicum Township. "But it's an uphill battle."

Part of the answer may lie upriver, at Fort Mifflin.

The base, where troops held off the British navy for two months during the Revolutionary War, was in dire financial straits until groups interested in paranormal activity began paying to visit.

Those groups now account for most of the funding that keeps Fort Mifflin solvent, said fort bookkeeper Lorraine Irby, who started bringing in paranormal groups in 2004.

"Even though it doesn't fit our [history-based] mission statement, it is considered a fund-raising program," Irby said. "The paranormal program is making the money so we can pay for our programs."

Members of the Lazaretto Preservation Association of Tinicum Township are paying attention. Paranormal groups that want to investigate what they call possible anomalous activity at the Lazaretto frequently contact the preservation group, said association member David Barnes, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the Lazaretto.

Firemen serving at the station next door have reported seeing inexplainable lights and movement in the building, said Tony Selletti, a history enthusiast and PAST member who attended the nighttime investigation.

Opened after a series of yellow-fever epidemics of the 1790s, the Lazaretto was "the homeland security, the front line of defense against imported epidemics, which were deadly and devastating," Barnes said.

The 10-acre site included a graveyard where hospital patients who died were buried. The bodies later were moved to Arlington Cemetery in Upper Darby. The site was closed as a quarantine station in 1895.

After years of fits and starts, during which the Lazaretto was nearly razed and then saved from the wrecking ball, the preservation committee is now primed to begin restoration efforts in earnest. A kickoff ceremony was held last month.

A recent feasibility study suggested using the site, at least in part, as office space. Others have suggested using it as a school for maritime professionals. Exhibits and tours focusing on the building's history also will play a major part, Barnes said.

But more than $1 million is needed to preserve the facility that the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects this year named one of the most historically important buildings in Pennsylvania and one with international significance.

The preservation committee will be looking to foundations and charitable groups in its fund-raising efforts. Members plan to film a documentary about the site for the Precious Places Community History Project, an initiative of the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia.

And paranormal groups may soon play a role in the site's planned resurrection.

On Oct. 16 and 17, members of PAST will lead an investigation of the Lazaretto that is open to the public.

In a preliminary study, members of the group spent from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. July 12 inside the building.

Led by Davis, an HVAC engineer from Glen Riddle, the group is made up of paranormal investigators as well as history enthusiasts and genealogists such as Selletti and his wife, Barbara, who research documents and census records.

The group arrived at the Lazaretto with video and still cameras, dowsing rods, digital voice recorders, electromagnetic-field detectors and infrared thermometers.

In the end, Davis suggested that there was no meaning to the flashlight episode, because the bulb clicked on and off randomly and not in response to his questions. A pounding stomp on the floor also made the light flicker.

The group is still analyzing data gathered during that night, including assertions by several members who said they heard voices and one who felt something momentarily lift, and then drop, a small flashlight in his shirt pocket.

"We don't know what it means," Davis said. "I'll look at the measurements and tell you what we have, but I"m not going to say whether the place is haunted."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or

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