Death at Danby
By Steve Reyes
Driving east past the “ROAD CLOSED TO THRU” traffic signs on Route 66 casual visitors pass places forgotten by time. Chambless, Cadiz Summit, and then Danby. In Danby, a few buildings and residents remain. The town was situated in three places during its history based on the needs of the railroad, mining and the Mother Road (Route 66). Sitting in the midst of one of these locations are the remains of three distinct graves. History tells us there are others buried nearby which have been reclaimed by the desert. For now, three homemade wood crosses hold vigil over forgotten souls. Yet, the question remains as to who is buried in the desert? A handful of articles from the Daily-Times Index newspaper published in San Bernardino from 1898 and 1998 paint a snapshot of life and death in Danby, California.
On December 28, 1898, a story buried on page five of eight of the Daily-Times Index and Evening Transcript reads “That Smallpox Scare – Hackberry, Ariz., Bagdad and Danby the Afflicted Points.” A Doctor Mackechnie was sent to Danby by County Health Officer Rene to investigate the matter.1” In 1898, smallpox was still a deadly disease and according to the Center for Disease Control Website three out of every ten people died after being infected. Smallpox was not eradicated from North America until 1952.2 It appeared the Sante Fe Railroad was so concerned it sent orders to San Bernardino asking doctors be sent to the camps to care for the sick men. The author went on to quote the below article from the Los Angeles Times.
The initial reports published by the Daily-Times Index painted a stark picture opposed to what was printed three days later. The page one article reads “Only One Man has Smallpox-At Danby Station and He is Isolated and Is Recovering Now.” Evidently, J. H. West of Needles went to “Smallpox Country” and returned overland to report “the scare was greatly overrated.” Although overrated it was clear that smallpox was a feared ailment.3
The later edition printed on December 31st paints a humorous and most likely realistic timeline of events. The article leads with “Was Frightened Out – Dr. Mackechnie Was Afraid of the Smallpox.” Evidently, County Health Officer Rene received word of a potential smallpox outbreak and was allegedly tending to a fatally ill patient. As a result, Rene “deputized”
Dr. Machechnie and ordered him to travel to Danby and determine if there was in fact an infected patient. If the patient was infected he was to be quarantined. The following is an excerpt as described:
Soon after Supervisor West arrived at Danby and found the doctor had fled the scene. Supervisor West telegraphed Barstow and asked for Health Officer Renshaw to come to Danby. Renshaw determined only one person was sick and had a mild case of smallpox. Supervisor West and Health Officer Renshaw then sequestered the patient and paid a local to enforce the quarantine.4
By January 14, 1899 the public health emergency and panic at Danby subsided. The last story written about Danby and smallpox is a short paragraph on page
seven. There is no mention of the patient’s name, age or ethnicity. Did he have a wife, child or family? The author only writes the patient died at Danby and his effects and the tent where he “staid” was burned.5 Most likely he didn’t own the tent and his effects did not amount to much. He was probably one of the “professional tramps” or perhaps a “wandering Mexican.” All that mattered was the threat of smallpox was over. It is impossible to argue without a doubt the remains beneath one of the wooden crosses at Danby is smallpox infected patient who died in the desert. It is plausible to believe a death by an incurable infectious disease would necessitate immediate burial close to ones death bed.
1 The Daily Times-Index and Evening Transcript, San Bernardino, That Smallpox Scare, December 28, 1989, page 5.
2 Author Unknown, History of Smallpox, Center for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html, Accessed March 30, 2020
3 Unknown Author, The Daily Times-Index and Evening Transcript, That Smallpox Scare, December 31, 1898, page 1.
4 Ibid, page 8
5 Unknown Author, The Daily Times-Index and Evening Transcript, The Small Pox Patient at Danby Died Yesterday, January 9, 1899, page 1.