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Del. Breakwater Quarantine Station Oyster Shell Painting

It's been a while since our last post but we're back!  This week we'll take a look at one of my favorite objects, a painting on oyster shell of Delaware Breakwater Quarantine tender Winona with East End Lighthouse in background.

Painted in 1899 by an artist who signed his or her name "S. Morse," (about whom we know nothing) the shell measures 10" x 3.5" and is usually exhibited at the Cannonball House Lewes Maritime Museum.   The painting, accession number 1974.10, is the Gift of John Purnell.

At the end of the 19th century, Lewes was the “Ellis Island” of Delaware Bay.  As ships entered the bay, a small boat carrying a doctor would board the ship and examine the passengers who were entering the country as immigrants.   If a person did not pass the physical they would be detained here at the Quarantine Station which was located close to where the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal is today. Names of those brought ashore were not recorded.  When passengers were declared healthy they then would be transferred to the port of entry.  If not, they might be returned to their country of origin.  Official admission into the United States would take place at either the ports of Wilmington, Chester, or Philadelphia.

Opened on October 20, 1884, the Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station was part of the Marine Hospital Service and local physicians were assigned to the Quarantine.   As the 1900s approached and volume of immigrants arriving at Cape Henlopen increased, it was obvious that the quarantine facilities at Lewes needed to be expanded.    The Navy assumed control of the station in 1917 and after 1918 the facilities were kept ready but not active.  Beginning in 1926, the Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station was dismantled and the last building removed in 1931.  There is no official count of people inspected by the station but estimates exceed 200,000.

The painting is beginning to show some severe signs of wear including fading and flaking, especially in the center of the work.  Gene Boemer, a local art conservator who specializes in works of art on canvas and mediums other than paper, is currently working on the piece to stabilize it and correct the flaking by infill painting.  Gene has worked on dozens of other conservation projects for the Society.  Previous conservation work has led him to be part of the teams that conserved the U.S. Capitol dome and Vincent Van Gogh's famous self portrait.  When Gene issues his report and the artifact is returned, we'll fill you in on some of the specifics of restoring this special part of Lewes's maritime past!