- Associated Press - Saturday, March 1, 2014

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.

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