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Quarantine history from the late Capt. Robert Johnson


Editor’s Note: The late Capt. Johnson wrote a history of The Boca Grande Quarantine Station during the COVID-19 outbreak for the Beacon. We are reprinting the May 2020 story.

The Boca Grande Quarantine Station, located on the south end of the island, was built in 1892 on the beach next to the Boca Grande Lighthouse for the Florida State appointed quarantine doctor.

Ships that had been placed in a quarantine status in ports that they had previously been to were required to notify their next port of call of that status and were required to fly a quarantine flag, which is yellow in color, so the quarantine doctor in that port would know beforehand that a certain ship was under quarantine and would need to be checked on arrival. The quarantine doctor would have an employee go up to the cupola of the house and scan the horizon for all incoming vessels to see if they were flying a yellow flag. If so, the doctor and his employee would row or sail a small boat out to the ship when it anchored in the harbor.

Above, aerial showing proximity to the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse.

After the boarded the vessel and determined the extent and degree of the illness, he would in most cases require the ill crew members remain aboard the vessel. After a sufficient period of time, during which the status of the crew is monitored by the doctor, he would release the vessel with no further restrictions. Contrary to common belief, the Quarantine Station was not used for housing patients.

In 1904, The federal government built a Quarantine Station at the northern end of Cayo Costa Island. At that time, the quarantine doctor’s house on Gasparilla Island was declared surplus and acquired by Iredell and William Johnson.

Iredell and his brother William were the first harbor pilots of Charlotte Harbor. They piloted ships into the harbor which were coming to load phosphate. The phosphate was transported from where it was originally discovered in the Peace River to the deep water inside Boca Grande Pass.

From the time the house was acquired by the aforementioned brothers, six members of the Johnson family over three generations followed in their predecessors’ footsteps as Harbor Pilots.

The house has been in the Johnson family ever since and is now occupied by four generations of the Johnson family headed by Capt. Robert Johnson, grandson of Iredell Johnson.

Though we no longer watch the horizon for yellow flags, it is nothing short of ironic that we Johnsons find ourselves sequestered here during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wishing the best of health to you all in these trying times.