Friday, April 18, 2014

Yellow Fever!

Mississippi’s Yocona River, which flows through Lafayette County and feeds into Enid Lake before meandering west into Panola and Tallahatchie counties, was one of several river barriers facing U.S. Grant’s army during the Mississippi Central Railroad campaign in the winter of 1862. In an effort to slow the Federal advance, Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton posted units to protect several bridges across the Yocona with orders to destroy the bridges when the enemy arrived. One of the river crossings was at a place called as Free Bridge. On December 3, 1862, men from the 5th Ohio Cavalry (some of whom are seen here), part of a brigade led by Col. Edward Hatch, seized the north bank of the river at Free Bridge and managed to extinguish the fires set by the Confederates. A short distance downstream, the Federals also secured Prophet Bridge, while Confederates guarding the Springdale Bridge, over which the Mississippi Central Railroad crossed the Yocona, were engaged with the remainder of Hatch’s Brigade. Realizing the Federals had secured a crossing of the Yocona, the Confederates retreated toward the Yalobusha River. On December 5, the Union cavalry advance was stopped in a sharp engagement at Coffeeville. Following Earl Van Dorn’s raid on Holly Springs later in the month, Grant was forced to reverse course, choosing instead to send his army down the Mississippi toward Vicksburg, which was his ultimate goal.

Sometime after the Civil War, Lemuel Dallas Jones, a native of nearby Panola County, moved to the Free Bridge area. Born in 1855, Dallas Jones and his wife Mary Elizabeth had eight children. With Jones’ arrival, the river crossing at Free Bridge became known as the Dallas Jones Crossing. It was here in 1898 that locals would again be engaged in a desperate battle with a foe perhaps even more persistent and pernicious than the Union army: yellow fever. During the outbreak, one of many such epidemics which swept across Mississippi in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the towns of Taylor and Orwood bore the brunt of the fever. Orwood was a small community located in the southwestern corner of Lafayette County near the Panola County line, while Taylor was located a few miles south of Oxford on the railroad line. Taylor had already been visited with the disease once: in 1879, a man began exhibiting signs of yellow fever during a revival meeting. The panic which ensued emptied the place and for months Taylor was a virtual ghost town with only a few left to care for the sick and dying.

To combat the latest threat of the dreaded disease, the Dallas Jones Crossing over the Yocona was closed to traffic, as were other bridges and crossings over the river, to prevent the fever from reaching Water Valley and beyond. To try and contain the epidemic, both Taylor and Orwood were quarantined on August 30, 1898. The decision to quarantine the towns was made by Dr. Harris Allen Gant after wiring the State Board of Health in Jackson for advice. Gant was born in 1852 in Columbia, Tennessee. At an early age, his family moved to Mississippi and he was raised in Oxford. After attending the University of Mississippi, Gant moved to Water Valley, where he became a teacher and an apprentice at a drug store. In 1876, he graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania with a medical degree. Returning to Water Valley to practice medicine, Dr. Gant soon found success battling yellow fever. So grateful were the citizens of Water Valley that they presented the good doctor with a gold watch. In time, Dr. Gant earned a wide reputation as someone who could deal effectively with yellow fever. As such, he was elected to the State Board of Health in 1892. In 1897, Gant traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to investigate an outbreak in Ocean Springs. Again successful in fighting the disease, the people on the Gulf Coast gave him a gold-tipped cane in appreciation for his work and he was then appointed by Governor Anselm McLaurin to visit Cuba to study the disease there. It was upon his return home to Water Valley that the epidemic hit Taylor and Orwood. With the river crossings closed and the Dallas Jones crossing guarded by Dallas Jones himself, Dr. Gant took the further precaution of requiring trains to pass through Taylor without stopping and a camp meeting was disbanded on the south side of the river. Aided by another local doctor named W.T. Matthews, Dr. Gant was able to isolate the yellow fever to a thirteen mile area. Of 115 reported cases, only eighteen victims died. In the process, Dr. Gant kept meticulous records of those infected. Because of this, a great deal of information was made available for future outbreaks.

The next year (1899), Dr. Gant again travelled to the Gulf Coast to Mississippi City during an outbreak there. In 1900, he moved to Jackson to open a medical practice with Dr. John F. Hunter, who was the secretary of the Board of Health. Gant, meanwhile, was elected president of the board, where he served for four years. A member of the Masonic Lodge, the Knights of Honor, the Mississippi Historical Society and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Dr. Gant became a prominent and well-respected member of Jackson’s society. More importantly, he was considered a regional authority on yellow fever. According a biographical sketch published in 1907, Gant’s “advice and counsel are much in demand when dangers from the fever threaten. By his prompt action in diagnosing the disease at Orwood in 1898 and by his immediately instituting a legal quarantine, he undoubtedly prevented the spread of the disease to adjacent territory.” Despite being exposed to numerous cases of yellow fever, Dr. Harris Allen Gant lived to the ripe old age of 89. He died in 1941 and is buried in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. Dallas Jones, the namesake of the river crossing, died in 1935 at age 80.

Orwood itself did not survive long after the yellow fever epidemic. By 1905, the little community was extinct. Taylor, on the other hand, recovered from the fever and from subsequent disasters (including fires, crop failures and the Depression) and is today a tourist destination. In addition to a vibrant arts community, the town is home to Taylor Grocery, built ca. 1889, a popular restaurant and music venue.  Taylor’s survival as a community is at least in part due to the dedication and knowledge of Dr. Harris Gant, one of many little known heroes from Mississippi’s past. 

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) 5th Ohio:
(2) Lafayette County:
(3) Yellow Fever victims:
(4) Taylor Grocery:

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