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How Kansas City came to fear ‘Pest House Island’

This view from the Chouteau Bridge reveals some of the sandbars that can crop up in low water. At one time, one such island held a hospital for smallpox victims.
This view from the Chouteau Bridge reveals some of the sandbars that can crop up in low water. At one time, one such island held a hospital for smallpox victims. kmyers@kcstar.com

Once, from the coffee-with-cream waters of the Missouri River, emerged amorphous piles of sand and silt called “Pest House Island.”

Kansas Citians were terrified of them.

This was long before the Corps of Engineers straitjacketed the once wide and slower-moving river. Then, the weary stream would careen around the curve, bounce off our bluff and drop little bits of the Black Hills and Big Horn Mountains.

When Francois Chouteau set up on the south bank in 1821, his fur warehouse was roughly across from the foot of an island named for him. Old-timers placed it 2 miles below downtown where Cleveland Avenue hit the river. Which Cleveland doesn’t. Monroe Avenue in the East Bottoms must be close.

When the current kidnapped the sleepy slough separating Clay County from Chouteau Island, it also drowned the island.

Come the late 1830s, maybe a tad downstream, a mile-long sandbar materialized, this time named for John K. Mensing, who’d got a mule over to cultivate its 131 acres.

But you’re not reading this for hydrology. Back to terror.

Everyone dreaded smallpox, a vicious, disfiguring contagion now eliminated from the world. Custom was to bury victims at night.

An old history recalls how pioneer doctor Isaac Ridge, “at his own expense and with the help of his negroes … built on the island in the Missouri river, Kansas City’s first pest hospital, which remained there in use until late in the ’80s.”

On exactly what island Ridge isolated his cases until recovery or death isn’t clear. But out on Mensing’s, the city situated St. George’s Contagious Disease Hospital, a grand name for a wood building, at one point supplemented by repurposed city voting booths.

In 1886, a medical journal told of a flood sending 35 pox-infected coffins “gently floating down the waterway to the Gulf of Mexico.”

During the great deluge of 1903, the pest house itself sailed by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul crossing (later the Chouteau Bridge).

Five years later, two infected girls with nickels for candy wandered off from St. George’s. “It might be advisable,” opined the Kansas City Journal, “if you are not equipped with a fumigating apparatus, for you to climb a tree or jump in a well until they have passed.”

Within months another flood knocked the hospital off its foundation. Locals were afraid to salvage so much as a potentially contaminated plank. The city burned it and moved patients to high ground for good.

When the channel was stabilized, Mensing’s Island accreted to the south shore and lost its identity, such as it was, behind the levee. Today, it’s pocked with ugly light industry.

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