JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — This is a story about death carts, orphans, yellow flags, mosquitoes and a battle for survival inside a diseased city.
It's a story you probably haven't heard, unless you're a Florida history buff, because it's a tale generations old.
It's been more than a century since the state's worst yellow fever epidemic swept through Jacksonville, killing about 450 people and infecting about 4,700 more. The outbreak was so bad it prompted nearly every city in the South to ban Jacksonville residents from seeking refuge.
As a result, state leaders created the Florida State Board of Health on Feb. 20, 1889, which was forerunner to the Florida Department of Health . County health departments across Florida marked the 125th anniversary recently.
There are no living eyewitnesses to this era, but the history books tell the tale of the 1888 epidemic that turned Jacksonville into a war zone against an invisible enemy.
The deadly illness crept into the city at a time when businessmen and families with stability on their minds were moving to the big city of Jacksonville, which had about 19,000 residents near the urban core and tens of thousands more in surrounding areas.
Richard D. McCormick, a salon owner from Tampa, was visiting the bustling north Florida port and business center that July. He was resting in his Grand Union hotel room when the telltale symptoms began.
Sudden chills, agonizing pain, a yellow tinge in his eyes. It was yellow fever, a swift and experienced killer.
Health workers tried to isolate him in time, but new cases sprang up days later. They, too, were rushed into quarantine in secret.
Within days, hundreds of residents fled town. They crowded on trains, on boats and on roads. Few knew or cared where they were going.
Tallahassee rejected the refugees first. Then St. Augustine, Palatka and Fernandina. Next, Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and Mobile, Ala.
As word, and the disease, spread, nearly every Southern town kept people out by force.
City after city sent a clear message: Don't come here. Keep your infection out. If you try, we'll shoot you.
"It is pitiful to see the crowded cars as they come in, everyone calling for something to eat or for a cup of coffee, which they can get only through windows," a Times-Union reporter wrote from Waycross, Ga., a town that initially only let Jacksonville residents pass through on train and later banned them altogether.
People kept an eye out for cars trying to slip into town.
"A carload of Jacksonville refugees who were en route to Chattanooga were met at the depot by the mayor and Board of Health, and not permitted to remain," the Times-Union reported on Aug. 12, 1888.
In Nassau County, as in other parts of the South, residents stood guard at train stations.
"The citizens were armed and would not permit the train to stop, and threatened to fire on the engineer if he permitted it," the Times-Union wrote about Callahan.
Boats were little help. One group of refugees, led by an East Side carpenter, sailed to Lake Worth but was forbidden to dock. They sailed to St. Augustine, but they were kept from landing there, too.
They tried one more time, in Fernandina. The docks were guarded by armed men, who refused to let the group dock even when their children cried.
The group turned back to sea and was caught in a powerful storm. It is believed that none survived.
Only a few cities, including Atlanta and Hendersonville, N.C., welcomed the desperate refugees.
Those residents who were trapped on all sides struggled. Business froze once trains stopped carrying goods in and out of town. Even mail stopped.
No one in the city knew what carried the disease, and they fought this invisible killer the only way they knew how.
The city stunk of smoke and disinfectant. Disease, it was thought, was spread through filth.
Families hung yellow flags to warn neighbors, and black ones soon after.
Neighbors took care of orphaned children. A newspaper employee found one young boy wandering the streets and crying. His parents were dead, he told the man, and he hadn't eaten in a day.
Residents tried everything they could think of to stop the spread of disease. They burned infected clothes, scorched homes and lit bonfires of pine and tar in the streets — a type of purification by fire. They even blasted off cannons every night, hoping the reverberations in the air might kill the infection.
The creeping sickness made Jacksonville eerily quiet at night. Windows shut and doors locked, few left their homes. It was almost as if they were keeping watch against "Yellow Jack," as the fever was nicknamed, for fear it would break in like a burglar. Only the rattling carts carrying fever victims broke the silence.
Most who chose to stay got sick. A special group was formed to fight the disease, the Jacksonville Auxiliary Sanitary Association, to clean up the city. Its president died of yellow fever.
Doctors and nurses stood their ground and tended to their patients, even as their colleagues fell ill around them.
"I shall never forget the horrors of those first two weeks as long as I live," a nurse at St. Luke's Hospital told the Times-Union in 1888.
Times-Union reporters, editors and printers who refused to leave came down with yellow fever, and some collapsed at their desks when the illness struck.
The editor, Edwin Martin, was among those who died of yellow fever. In a letter to a friend, he stated: "I fully appreciate the dangers we incur here. . But I had rather fall at the post of duty than to live with the conscience of having deserted it."
After months of illness, city leaders decided to get everyone out of Jacksonville. Refugee camps were set up in the country in every direction, and residents went there in droves.
New cases kept pouring in until, finally, a winter chill came through town. Week after week, temperatures got colder, killing the mosquitoes that were spreading the disease.
Frost covered the ground on one November morning, and weary residents took it as a sign the worst was over.
By December, the epidemic was declared to be over, and residents in camps and other cities returned home.
During the outbreak, only a handful of scientists suspected the true cause: a specific type of mosquito.
In 1900, it was confirmed these tiny bugs, not airborne germs, spread yellow fever, and preventive practices changed.
Instead of burning homes, health officials focused on killing mosquitoes with insecticides. Epidemics of the virus continued to affect U.S. cities until 1905.
Yellow fever still rages across tropical areas, such as South America and central Africa. Today, there is a vaccine to prevent the disease, and cases in the U.S. are very rare and are contracted while traveling internationally.
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com