The following article by Charles Hartley originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 1 August 2012. It is archived here for your reading enjoyment.
Approximately half of Americans today were born after smallpox was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980, but many of us still remember being vaccinated for the virus, and some remember seeing its awful effects.
Today smallpox remains a nagging worry with regard to bioterrorism, but a century ago its effects were being felt around the world. And in 1899 it came to the small railroad town of Lebanon Junction.
For a hundred years doctors had known that vaccination with a virus similar to smallpox could protect against it. The biggest problem was convincing people to get vaccinated, and this was the case in Lebanon Junction when the virus came to town.
By 1899 Lebanon Junction was likely the most populated community in Bullitt County, having grown up where the L. & N. railroad added a branch eastward to Lebanon in the late 1850's. This Lebanon branch was later extended on to Corbin and Williamsburg, and by extension on to Knoxville.
In 1895 Lebanon Junction was incorporated with a population of over 700. It was a terminal for the railroad where many railroad people lived, and where a number of others stopped over between runs.
Near the beginning of March 1899, a railroad employee whose usual run was between Lebanon Junction and Corbin contracted smallpox while in Louisville. He returned home to Williamsburg just as the symptoms were beginning to show, but the disease was not immediately recognized, and as soon as he was able to travel, he returned to Lebanon Junction where he infected several of his fellow employees.
There are two main versions of the virus that cause smallpox. This particular epidemic appears to have been of the milder version. Patients became quite ill until the eruptions appeared, and then in a few days felt well enough to walk about, having little fever. Many did not even send for a doctor, but they were still infectious.
Because Lebanon Junction was such a busy place with railroad people coming and going constantly, the virus spread to Corbin, Horse Cave, and into Nelson County before the state health department became aware of it.
On April 17, the state board of health issued a proclamation which read in part, "It has come to the knowledge of this Board that smallpox is epidemic at Lebanon Junction, that practically all the inhabitants and railroad employees at that place have been exposed to said disease, and that very many of them are not only unprotected by vaccination, but appear not to appreciate the importance of this and the other recognized precautions to be used against this disease. ... The conditions and railroad connections at this place are such as to endanger the health and business interests of a large portion of the state. ... The State Board of Health hereby declares the town and suburbs of Lebanon Junction, and each of the inhabitants thereof, temporary and permanent, to be in quarantine."
The railroad cooperated fully with the health department. While trains continued to take on coal and water at Lebanon Junction, no employees were permitted to enter the town, and no passenger service was allowed there. The town's businesses began to feel the pinch quickly, and effort was made to eliminate the threat. Those infected were quarantined either in their homes, or in the local pest house. Many others were vaccinated to prevent its spread. Some, however, continued to try to avoid the quarantine by walking or riding horseback to nearby stations to board the trains.
This led the railroad superintendent to complain in a letter to the state health department that local officials were not doing enough to halt this epidemic. This seemed to spark quicker action, and on May 1 a letter from most of the Lebanon Junction businessmen stated in part, "We, the undersigned, physicians, business men and citizens of the town of Lebanon Junction feel that the business interests of the town are being greatly damaged by the quarantine now existing here. We think the situation has greatly improved here."
R. M. Hocker, proprietor of the local hotel, also wrote, saying "I have had both my houses thoroughly renovated. Have burned everything that was in the rooms, re-papered them and painted, scrubbed the floors, and now my house is in first-class shape."
The quarantine was lifted soon afterward and life returned to normal. This would not be the only outbreak in the county. In September 1901, Dr. Barnett, chairman of the County Board of Health, reported that within the previous four years, there had been four outbreaks of smallpox in the county with a total of 94 cases and one death.
But Lebanon Junction had learned its lesson and would prosper over the next three decades until the depression led the railroad to move the terminal to Louisville, costing fifty men their jobs, and beginning the town's slow decline. You can learn a lot more about the town in Railroad Town: A Pictorial History of Lebanon Junction. Copies are available at the Bullitt County History Museum.
Today the old hotel and the depot are long gone, but memories linger on. Stand where Main Street crosses the tracks and you can imagine you hear one of those old steam locomotives coming down the tracks amid the sounds of a noisy railroad town.
Copyright 2012 by Charles Hartley, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.