Editor’s Note: This column is part two of a three-part series on the history of The Little Theatre of Walla Walla, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
A series of smallpox pandemics swept North America beginning in 1865-66, re-emerging in 1871-75 and again in 1881-83.
Though quite distant from major centers of population, Walla Walla was not spared from this recurring scourge, and those found or suspected of having contracted the disease were quarantined in pest houses, poorly- or non-equipped isolation facilities that were solely to contain the spread of smallpox.
This disease continued to plague Walla Walla through the early years of the 20th century. Words fall short of expressing the irony that in 2020 the nation, indeed the world, is again facing the spread of a deadly pandemic, the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The Little Theatre of Walla Walla has joined with other local establishments deemed non-essential that have closed for the time being, and postponed its final two performances of the season, “Godspell” in March and April and “Romantic Comedy” that had been scheduled for May and June until such time as it is determined to be safe for people to congregate in closer proximity to one another.
Speculation has circulated that the plot of land where The Little Theatre is located was once the site of a pest house, and information, though veiled in carefully worded language, appears to lend veracity to this rumor. A smallpox epidemic broke out in Walla Walla in 1869, and plagued the city off and on through 1907. An 1874 trust deed in which Dr. Edward Sheil, an early owner of acreage that included the site of The Little Theatre, sold part of the acreage, excluded one acre that had been previously deeded to the City of Walla Walla for a hospital, the word hospital possibly having been a euphemism for pest house, despite the fact that it seems there was likely a pest house already located in the area of The Little Theatre five years prior to this sale.
F. T. Gilbert summed up the affliction in his 1882 Historic Sketches of Walla Walla, Whitman, Columbia and Garfield counties, “W.T. and Umatilla Co. Or.,” thus: “Small pox visited the city in the fall of 1871, when many cases occurred, and it nearly became epidemic, but careful measures prevented this, and the scourge
was stamped out after
it had claimed five victims.”
Newspaper accounts tended to be vague regarding specific locations for pest houses, so as not to raise the alarm of citizens who might live nearby. Nonetheless, from newspaper accounts that
could be located the following chronology is presented.
On May 20, 1864, the Walla Walla Statesman wrote, “The city authorities have procured [a] house one mile north of the city, whither all cases of small-pox will be removed should any hereafter make their appearance.”
In an article published Jan. 29, 1869, the Statesman noted, “Some objection having been urged against the locality selected for the pest house, we publish the following communication as justifying the action of the Council: To the Hon. Council of the City of Walla Walla: — Gentlemen: As requested by your Honorable body, we inspected the premises purchased by the City Council for a Pest House; and in our opinion, under the circumstances, we consider that — with the necessary care which you bare [sic] to guard against — the locality on which it is situated is a good one, and that there is no danger of communicating disease from it to any resident citizens.
s/ L. H. Goodwin
s/ W. S. Minker
s/ J. Dobson
Walla Walla, January 29, 1869”
A week later, Feb. 5, 1869, the Statesman published the following: “On last Saturday an application was made by D. S. Baker, B. F. Stone, C. Eells, David Whitney, J. F. Boyer and others … to restrain the city from using the building just outside the city limits as a Pest-House, which has been recently purchased for that purpose. … The injunction was asked on the ground that the pest-house would endanger the lives of the plaintiffs, and was therefore a nuisance. After examination of medical and other witnesses, and argument of counsel, the court held that under Section 2d, Article 1st, and Section 3d, Article 5th, of the ‘Act to incorporate the city of Walla Walla,’ the Council had the right to purchase a building as a pest-house beyond the city limits, and to cause all persons
within the city limits affected with contagious diseases, to be removed thereto.
“That the Court had the power to grant injunctions in case of nuisance, but the exercise of the power rested in the sound discretion of the court, and an injunction would be granted only when it was a plain case of nuisance; and that mere fears or apprehensions of danger, though more or less reasonable, would not warrant the exercise of this power.
“That from the proofs and showings made in this case, the pest-house in controversy was not a nuisance, and the application for this writ must therefore be denied.”