Long before coronavirus, yellow fever ravaged Norfolk and Portsmouth


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Hampton Boulevard connects a series of Norfolk neighborhoods, but at the entrance of West Ghent at Princess Anne Road, a granite grave marker watches our 21st century world of tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles pass with little notice.

Tucked away in a shady corner at the intersection with Princess Anne Road is a grassy plot known as Yellow Fever Park, where historians believe several victims of the 1855 epidemic are buried. There are likely other unmarked graves from yellow fever scattered about Hampton Roads.

Former journalist Lon Wagner, who once wrote a 14-part series for the Virginian-Pilot on this event, told WAVY’s Tom Schaad how yellow fever devastated thousands of families in Norfolk and Portsmouth more than a century before novel coronavirus appeared in the region.

“People were so savaged by this whole thing,” Wagner said. “The whole city was, that people did not keep track of every single death and everything that happened. It’s very likely a mass grave from yellow fever. There are likely several other mass graves from yellow fever that we don’t know about.”

It started June 7, 1855, when the Benjamin Franklin steamship, bound from New York from the Caribbean, docked in Portsmouth for repairs.

It is believed the ship brought mosquitoes carrying that disease, which soon spread through both cities.

“There was a doctor, George Upshur, in Norfolk, and he warned everybody about it, and they joked about it, and they called it the ‘Upshur Disease,’ so they kind of blew off his suggestions also at first,” Wagner said.

They came to learn yellow fever was nothing to laugh about.

Wagner says more than half of the 26,000 people who lived in Norfolk and Portsmouth fled.

In the end, the 1855 epidemic claimed some 3,000 lives, or about a third of the population.

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