Grosse Île

Quebec, QC, Canada

August 05, 2001

One of the most interesting side-trips that we took while in Québec was our boat ride to an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River called Grosse Île. In order to get to the Island one must take a boat from a nearby town on the south bank. We chose to take a boat from Montmagny. From 1832 to 1937 Grosse Île served as a quarantine station for the port of Québec. At the present day it is owned by parks Canada and operated as a tourist attraction, revealing for the first time in many years the secrets that were held by Grosse Île. In the 1800's the Canadian Government sent representatives to Europe to try to get settlers for their vast country. Many people came enticed by the promise of free land. A group that came in large numbers were the Irish because their country was going through an especially difficult time of famine and disease. As the immigrants started arriving, some after a voyage of 45 to 60 days on poorly equipped sailing ships, the Canadian Government realized that they were bringing all sorts of diseases with them. So, in 1832 the British army hastily erected buildings that could process the incoming people. Grosse Île was chosen as the location due to its proximity to the port of Québec, distance from the local population, and location along the shipping route. The first structures were temporary and built of wood. They had three buildings. The first was the quarantine building, which was to house those who were "obviously" sick. A second building was for those who were "under observation" and the third building was for those who were well. These buildings were separated by only a few feet apart and were separated by a simple fence to keep those who were well from communicating with those who were sick. The immigrants that came in were found to be suffering from a number of diseases which included typhus, small-pox, and something called Asiatic cholera. Over the years they realized that it would be necessary to separate the immigrants even more, so they built more permanent structures and put them much further apart.
of the problems that contributed to so many people arriving sick was the fact that the people were transported by the sailing ship in the hold like so many cattle. So, if anyone on the boat was sick when they got on board the chances are the sickness would be spread to most of the people that were with them. From information we read, the people were allowed on deck, to see sunlight, only a few minutes out of every day and then only when the weather permitted. There was little or no fresh fruit and the food and water was very limited. It is a tribute to the hardiness of the immigrants that any of them survived at all. But the dream of having their own land as well as escaping from famine and disease in their own country is a powerful motivator.
The great famine in Europe spanned the period from 1845 to 1849 but reached its peak in 1847. As a result in the port of Québec and at Grosse Île, its effects were dramatic. In the space of a single season, Québec received more than 100,000 immigrants, compared to just 25,000 or 30,000 in previous years. The travelers, mostly Irish, were packed on board insanitary sailing ships. Many were struck down by typhus, which rapidly reached epidemic proportions. Despite improvements, the quarantine facilities were barely sufficient to meet basic needs. The staff were overworked. Off the island, ships queued up to await inspection and proper medical care. In 1847,
the scene was described by immigrant Robert Whyte. "Another, and still more awful sight, was a continuous line of boats, each carrying its freight of dead to the burial ground and forming an endless funeral procession." In 1847 of the 441 ships registered in Québec, 398 were inspected at Grosse Île, including 77 carrying more than 400 passengers. They came mainly from the large British port of Liverpool, but also from Limerick, Cork, Dublin, Sligo and Belfast in Ireland, Glasgow in Scotland and Bremen in Germany. The quarantine stopover lasted an average of six days. However, many ships were anchored at Grosse Île for more than 20 days. This dark period in immigration history produced more than 5,000 deaths at sea, 5,424 burials on Grosse Île and thousands of deaths in Québec, Montreal and Kingston. There are three cemeteries on Grosse Île. The largest of these is located in the western section. Also know as the "old cemetery" or the "Irish cemetery", it was in use from 1832 to 1847. Of the 7,480 people buried on Grosse Île more than 6,000 have their grave here. In 1847 alone, 5,424 people were buried here, including 3,226 who dies in the hospitals. The other victims came from the ships awaiting quarantine. The burial ground is divided into two sections: the individual graves (1832-1846) and the mass graves (1847). The latter took the form of long rectangular trenches. It must be remembered that many of the people who were buried in these cemeteries were the health care workers that gave their lives ministering to the immigrants. On our tour we saw a smaller graveyard that the tour guide explained was for children only.
The parks Canada had set up an exhibit in the original quarantine building that was
very well done. It treated you as though you were an incoming immigrant and had you set your clothes and belongings aside so they could be run through the steam chambers used to sterilize them. While this was being done you were required to go through a shower which consisted of several chemicals. As you entered the building you were issued a headset that picked up transmissions from each room as you moved through the building. The headset is one of the newest methods of introducing facts to the public that we have seen. It does an excellent job of presenting facts without the public having to do a lot of dry reading.
There are several trails around the island, one of which takes you out to a point of the island that contains a huge Celtic Cross to commemorate the thousands of Irish men, women and children who are buried on the island. In
addition to the buildings I have already mentioned there were several buildings used to house the immigrants and the health care workers. Also, all of the other buildings needed to support that many people living on an island. There was a bakery, several churches, plus administration buildings. They finally divided the island into the east where they confined the sick, and the west where they housed the well. In the center was the administration housing. There were also guard posts to make sure that the sick and the well were kept separated.
You would think that it would be very depressing to visit a place such as this, but as I stood there I couldn't help but feel a real sense of the strength and vision that the people who passed through this island must have had. I could only imagine what it must have been like to leave everything and everyone that you knew to go to a strange country only to be put into quarantine on an island and perhaps separated from your loved ones. To me the island itself tells a story of the strength and fortitude that our ancestors had. I just felt a lot of appreciation for what they went through to found the areas in Canada and the U.S. that they founded and passed along to us as our legacy.
I would definitely recommend this to be placed on your list of "must see" if you ever get to Québec.
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Good Luck! Have Fun! and Stay Safe!