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Confronting a crisis: How LI united to fight an epidemic in 1898

Thousands of tents erected as part of camp

Col. Theodore Roosevelt had every reason to feel, as he would put it, "bully," when he strode on to the dock at Fort Pond Bay in Montauk.

It was Aug. 15, 1898, and just six weeks earlier, TR had led his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, outside of Santiago, Cuba, in the penultimate battle of the Spanish-American War.

That already-famous charge, and the 39-year-old Roosevelt's energetic, pistol-packing persona, had made him a national hero.

"I am feeling disgracefully well," he told reporters as he stepped off the gangplank of the transport ship Miami. "I feel positively ashamed of my appearance when I see how badly off some of my brave fellows are."

In the summer of 1898, Montauk hills were
Theodore Roosevelt in his camp tent, Camp Wikoff,
William McKinley and several unidentified men, Camp Wikoff,
Clockwise from above: Col. Theodore Roosevelt, in white, and his Rough Riders arrive in 1898 at the 4,200-acre Camp Wikoff in Montauk. Although the future president had his headquarters at Third House Inn, he slept in a tent among some 29,000 soldiers quarantined in Montauk. President William McKinley, center in tent facing camera, journeyed to Camp Wikoff, but his visit was called a "farce" by The East Hampton Star. Photo credits: Montauk Historical Society; Houghton Library, Harvard University; Houghton Library, Harvard University Title photo: Soldiers arriving from the Spanish-American War returned with many tropical diseases. Camp Wikoff, stretching from Fort Pond Bay in the north to the ocean in the south (seen in the distance in this photo), was designated as a quarantine in Montauk because it was far from any population center in 1898. (Photo credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University)

The future president's concerns were justified. In Montauk, where the bulk of the U.S. Army's 5th Corps — 29,500 men, including the Rough Riders — would arrive over the next few days, a new and grimmer story was emerging. The attention of the nation would soon be riveted on the then-remote eastern tip of Long Island; specifically, on an epidemic of diseases that had swept through the troops and the federal government's inadequate response to it. The very name Montauk would become synonymous with disease and death, what is today one of Long Island's most popular summer destination spots becoming a massive quarantine camp.

It was called Camp Wikoff (after an American Army officer, Col. Charles Wikoff, who was killed in the assault on San Juan Hill), and while it provoked a national scandal, it produced other heroic figures not named Roosevelt. Among them were young women from Long Island's East End who volunteered as nurses in the camp hospital — in some cases, at high cost to the themselves and their families.

"It was a really shocking event to the country," says Jeff Heatley, author of a 1998 book, “Bully: Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders and Camp Wikoff” (Pushcart Press). "And it was widely covered."

Indeed, as with the current health crisis, the media of the time both reported the story and became part of it. Although motion pictures, then in their infancy, would preserve fleeting, ghostly images of Camp Wikoff, newspapers were the primary source of information in 1898. Heatley notes that New York City at the time had more than a dozen dailies and was in the midst of a circulation war between two of the largest, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal.

These papers, as well as many newspapers on Long Island, jumped on the story even as Roosevelt's ship, one of more than 40 transports that would eventually arrive, pulled into the hastily erected docks on Fort Pond Bay. "'Floating Hell' was one headline used to describe the condition of the men on the transports," says Heatley, of Riverhead, whose book tells the story of Camp Wikoff largely through news coverage of the time and official documents.

Remote Montauk location

With its salubrious ocean breezes, Montauk was selected by the War Department in large part because it was far from a major population center. Because Montauk was historically used by farmers from East Hampton as a grazing area for their livestock, its residents in 1898 could be counted on one hand, something The New York Times practically did, identifying in one story the sole dwellers as: Long Island Rail Road hands who lived around the train station; the crew of the U.S. Life-Saving Station on the ocean beach (there not to rescue bathers, of which there were none, but shipwreck survivors); the Montauk Lighthouse keeper and his family; and the owner of the Third House Inn, where Roosevelt would make his headquarters.

Nurses standing near hospital tents among a crown
Erected hastily, Camp Wikoff in Montauk, had inadequate
Camp Wikoff, Montauk, a camp that became the
Clockwise from above: Most Army nurses of the day were men, but the need at Camp Wikoff brought many women into the camp as nurses. The very name Montauk would become synonymous with disease and death, what is today one of Long Island's most popular summer destination spots becoming a massive quarantine camp.  (Photo credits: Houghton Library, Harvard University; Montauk Historical Society) 

Across a 4,200-acre site that stretched from Fort Pond Bay on the north to Ditch Plains on the ocean, the returning Army planted its white tents. For most of the men, the quarantine was a precaution — but the condition of many, starting with a cavalry unit that had arrived a few days before Roosevelt, was shocking.

"Almost all the men have fever and their condition is pitiable," a New York Sun reporter wrote Aug. 11 under the headline "In a Bad Way in Montauk." The reporter found appalling conditions in a tent housing sick troops. "We haven't had a single thing but water since noon yesterday," one soldier said. "Good God," another was quoted as saying, about the paucity of food or medicine. "Why should it be this way 115 miles from New York?"

That was a question many were soon asking. The Red Cross, formed in 1881, had already played a role in the war, helping help care for Cuban civilians and prisoners of war. They were in Montauk working with the Army medical corps, but no one was prepared for the numbers of sick men that began arriving. The hospital, built on the site of today's Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course, was simply inadequate.

"They initially thought they just needed a 500-bed hospital," says Heatley. "But so many soldiers came back ill, they were completely overwhelmed."

Col. Theodore Roosevelt riding in with the Rough
Photo of Jeff Heatley, editor of a book
Camp Wikoff medal based on original medal --
Clockwise from above: Col. Theodore Roosevelt riding in with the Rough Riders at Camp Wikoff in Montauk 1898. "It was a really shocking event to the country," says Jeff Heatley, author of a 1998 book, “Bully: Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders and Camp Wikoff” (Pushcart Press). This rendering of the Camp Wikoff medal, based on the original, was created by graphic artist George Bloem for the 1998 centennial and book "Bully." (Photo credits: Houghton Library, Harvard University; Jeff Heatley; "Bully")

Long Islanders rose to the occasion — particularly in the adjacent Hamptons communities, already a popular summer destination for the wealthy. There, says Richard Barons, chief curator of the East Hampton Historical Society, the community mobilized to help the troops. "A sewing group in Amagansett made bandages, knitted scarves," he says. "Summer colony ladies collected medication; families brought milk; farmers donated eggs."

About 200 local women, Barons explains, became volunteer nurses. At the time, most Army nurses were male, but images of young women in white dresses tending to the wounded at Camp Wikoff soon filled the newspapers. "Women Nurses A Blessing," read a headline in the New York Herald.

Disease killed hundreds

By the end of August, 2,140 men were in the hospital, which had been expanded and included a separate "detention" hospital for those with the most serious, communicable illnesses — mainly typhoid and dysentery (it was not yet understood that the other two prevalent diseases, malaria and yellow fever, were spread by mosquitoes). Even then, there were reports of hundreds of additional sick men in camp who were turned away by the hospitals because little could be done for them. These so-called "camp ghosts" wandered the plains of Montauk, some reportedly on their hands and knees.

African American regiment arriving at camp, Camp Wikoff,
In the summer of 1898, Montauk hills were
The remainder of the Army’s Fifth Corps, found
Clockwise from above: All-black troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Units, known as ''Buffalo Soldiers,'' arrived at Camp Wikoff after having taken part in the attack on San Juan Hill alongside Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers died during the summer of 1898 in Montauk. The last of the Army's 5th Corps arrive at Camp Wikoff in 1898. (Photo credits: Houghton Library, Harvard University; Montauk Historical Society; Houghton Library, Harvard University ) 

The criticisms mounted, and the finger-pointing began. After President William McKinley made a much-ballyhooed visit to the camp on Sept. 3, there were bitter words.

"President McKinley's famous visit to the camp was a farce," wrote the editor of The East Hampton Star. "While he shook hands with officers and was shown through the hospitals, men were dying out in the tents … without care and proper medical attention."

Eventually, the federal government responded with the supplies needed; sanitary and medical conditions improved. Engineers upgraded the roads around the camps and even installed electric lights in the hospital.

Meanwhile, the soldiers at Camp Wikoff not affected remained quarantined. These healthy young men apparently did what healthy young people have been doing in Montauk for decades since: They drank, they went to the beach, they fraternized.

And finally, in early October, when the epidemics had abated, the last were sent home.

Still Camp Wikoff and by extension the entire Spanish-American War, took a heavy toll in sickness. "Although it was a U.S. victory, it was a medical disaster for Army personnel," wrote medical historian Vincent J. Cirillo in his 2004 book “Bullets and Bacilli: The Spanish-American War and Military Medicine” (Rutgers University Press). According to another historian, Mark Youngren of Michigan State University, 280 men were killed in action, but 2,565 died from disease.

A total of 340 men died at Camp Wikoff, according to Heatley, and at least 60 died in route to Montauk.

Remembering Long Islanders

There were other casualties, not counted among the uniformed dead.

One of the most poignant stories to emerge from the Montauk quarantine was that of Scottish-born Mary Nimmo Moran, a prominent illustrator who was married to the painter Thomas Moran. The Morans and their daughters, Mary and Ruth, lived in East Hampton. According to Barons, both daughters were among the local women who volunteered as nurses when the troops arrived. The younger daughter, Ruth, contracted typhoid fever while working in hospital. Although her mother nursed Ruth back to health, Mary then became afflicted with the disease.

Mary Nimmo Moran, whose etchings of local nature scenes are today exhibited in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, died in 1899 — an indirect casualty of Montauk's Camp Wikoff.

in Montauk on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. This
Third House at Roosevelt County Park and Nature
Rough Riders Landing Condominum in Montauk on Tuesday,
Clockwise from above, one of the open spaces today where Camp Wikoff once stood in Montauk. A plaque in the lobby at the Montauk Manor at Montauk County Park commemorates those who were quarantined on the East End. Rough Riders Condominium sits where U.S. troops were once quarantined. (Photo credits: Randee Daddona)

Heatley laments the lack of historical plaques in Montauk about the camp — there are just two, one at Montauk County Park, the other in the lobby of Montauk Manor — and would like to see a memorial park created.

The efforts of East End residents during the health crisis of 1898, Barons agrees, should be remembered — and applauded.

"When the government was ignoring the situation, the community turned what could have been an even more horrific situation into something that all Americans could be proud of," he says. "It's an example of what it's like when a community is at its best."

Spanish-American War primer

"A short war, a popular war and a rather cheap war, both in lives and money," is how historian Joseph Stromberg described the roughly four-month-long Spanish-American War of 1898, the grim postlude of which played out on Long Island's East End.

In essence, it was a war in which a fading colonial power, Spain, was pitted against a rising superpower, the United States.

In the late 1890s, American popular opinion, shaped in part by sensational newspaper coverage, supported the insurgents of Cuba fighting for independence against Spain. When, on Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor at the cost of 260 American lives (a tragedy of still-undetermined origin), war drums beat even louder, and in April, war was declared. The next month, a naval task force under Adm. George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines.

Soon afterward, an expeditionary force that included Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders — a volunteer unit that famously included cowboys and Ivy League athletes — and two cavalry units of African American "Buffalo Soldiers," embarked from Tampa for Cuba.

On July 1, in two engagements, including the attack on San Juan Hill, led by the future president and his Rough Riders, U.S. troops forced the capitulation of Spanish forces in Santiago. While trying to escape the port city, the Spanish Caribbean fleet was destroyed by an American Naval squadron, forcing Spain to sue for peace.

It came just in time, according to some historians.

The diseases that would soon be carried to Montauk were already causing significant losses to the American forces. Washington dithered over withdrawal. A blistering letter — believed to have been drafted by a frustrated Roosevelt on behalf of regular Army commanders — was sent to the newspapers. "The army," the letter read, "is disabled by malarial fever to such an extent that its efficiency is destroyed." It concluded that the expeditionary force "must be moved at once or it will perish."

Embarrassed by publication of the letter, the War Department, accelerated the timetable for evacuation.

And so, the final chapter in what Secretary of War John Hay memorably called the "splendid little war" was written in suffering, in the hastily-and-ill-prepared facilities at Montauk's Camp Wikoff.

— John Hanc
Sources: "Bully: Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders and Camp Wikoff," by Jeff Heatley (Pushcart Press); American Heritage magazine;; Independent Institute

The medical battle at Wikoff

Typhoid fever, malaria, dysentery, yellow fever: These were the four main illnesses afflicting troops at Montauk's Camp Wikoff in 1898.

The big concern among Army doctors treating them was that these diseases could spread — not only through the rest of the troops, but to the civilian population.

In the case of typhoid and dysentery, their fears were justified, as both were transmitted through contaminated water and food. "These are severe problems in refugee camps and would have been problems in a military camp like this," says Dr. Edward Ryan, director of Global Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

The symptoms of typhoid were so similar to malaria — fever, headaches, muscle aches — that it was often hard to distinguish. "The old physicians use to call it `typho-malarial syndrome,'" says Ryan, who has also held positions at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "because they often couldn't tell which was which."

But while both are highly infectious, there is a big difference in the two: Typhoid and dysentery are bacterial infections spread through contaminated water and food, but malaria is a parasitic infection transmitted by mosquitoes, a fact not known at the time of the Spanish-American War. The other so-called "vector-born" disease — although caused by a different type of mosquito — was yellow fever (so called because it affects the liver and a main symptom is yellowish skin).

This was the biggest cause for concern, and with good reason: According to Ryan, the mortality rate for yellow fever was 50 to 75 percent — far greater than the other three.

There were few yellow fever deaths at Camp Wikoff, but typhoid, malaria and dysentery were listed as the main causes of death. (Historian Jeff Heatley suspects the yellow fever count may have been kept deliberately low to avoid further scandal or panic.)

Part of the improvements in sanitary conditions at the camp, Ryan speculates, suggests that physicians may have already suspected the link between mosquitoes and these diseases. "They probably said, `let's drain the swamp, let's get rid of standing water, let's move the latrines back a hundred yards,'" he says. "We shouldn't forget the role that simple public health interventions have in breaking the cycle of infection. Basic cleanliness, healthy practices. And that's what we're doing now."

Lacking modern diagnostic tools or antibiotics to fight these diseases, Ryan says, Army doctors of the late 1890s did what they could: in essence, holding out until new treatments and technologies arrived to bring these ancient scourges under control. "They fought that battle without any of the modern tools," he says. "Right now, we're sort of in the same boat. But ultimately, they were successful, and we can hold the line, too, until we get the tools we need."

— John Hanc

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