Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site

Grosse Île is an island in the St. Lawrence Estuary, 46 km downstream from Quebec City. It is 2.9 km long and 1 km wide and consists of a wooded Appalachian ridge surrounded by a coastline of coves and capes. It is one of the 21 islands composing the Isle-aux-Grues archipelago. It has also been known as Île de Grâce and Quarantine Island. From 1832 to 1937, it was used as a quarantine station for the port of Quebec City. Over this century of activity, more than 4 million immigrants passed through this station, including nearly 90,000 during the “black year” of 1847. Closely tied to memories of Irish immigration to Canada, Grosse Île is a Canadian national historic site, administered by Parks Canada and open to the public.

The Celtic Cross, Grosse Ile
Built in 1909 under the auspices of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, this cross honours the memory of the Irish immigrants who perished from typhus between 1847-1848.
Grosse Île
Located in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, Grosse Île was a quarantine station for the Port of Québec from 1832 to 1937. At the time, the island was the main point of entry for immigrants coming to Canada.

The Cholera Epidemic of 1832

Île de Grâce was ceded to Governor Charles Huault de Montmagny in 1646. Over time, it came to be known as Grosse Île. In 1832, the deserted island was turned into a quarantine station for immigrants, to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, in particular cholera. During the station’s first year in operation, 51,746 immigrants from Ireland and England were processed out of a total of over 62,000 immigrants to Canada that year. Despite these efforts, a cholera epidemic spread to Quebec City and Montreal, in 1832 and 1834 causing thousands of deaths. The exact death toll varies a lot from one account to the next.

Irish Emigrants
Irish emigrants wait with their few belongings to board ship for North America. Millions were forced to leave by famine (National Archives/C-3904).

The Typhus Epidemic of 1847

Starting in spring 1847, as a result of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland, North America had to cope with an influx of several thousand Irish immigrants, many of them in poor health, suffering from malnutrition and from typhus. (Typhus was also known as “ship fever”, because it thrived under the unsanitary, inhumane conditions on the ships on which the Irish immigrants crossed the ocean.) In 1847, a total of 441 ships (most from the British Isles) carried immigrants to Canada, destined for the port of Quebec City, a crossing that took six to nine weeks. Over 5,000 passengers died on the voyage. At the quarantine station on Grosse Île, Dr. George M. Douglas and his team removed some 2,200 corpses from the ships (the bodies of people who died more than 30 km away from a quarantine station were thrown overboard), examined 90,150 immigrants and buried at least 5,424 dead in the course of the year. Facilities at the station quickly became inadequate, and 12 large new buildings were erected on the eastern part of the island to accommodate typhus patients. Ships were also sent to Pointe-Saint-Charles, in Montreal, where 6,000 Irish immigrants died and are buried. Despite all precautions, typhus spread to Quebec City and Montreal, and doctors, station employees, sailors, priests and nuns died in the line of duty. Other Canadian cities and ports were also hit by the epidemic, including Toronto, Kingston and Saint John. All in all, typhus is thought to have caused 20,000 deaths in Canada in 1847.

Modernization of Facilities and Use for Bacteriological Research

In 1869, Canada passed the Immigration Act, which regulated the number of passengers who could board a vessel bound for Canada and required that they be kept safe during the ocean crossing and upon arrival there (see Immigration Policy in Canada). The Canadian government also established a more reliable, modern quarantine service.

Grosse Île, Québec
The north wing of the disinfection building, circa 1922
Grosse Île
One of the three luggage-disinfecting heat rooms
Grosse Île, Québec
Shelter in the western sector of Grosse Île. The cholera hospital, built in 1832, is shown
Grosse Île, Québec
The Catholic church in the centre of Grosse Île, built in 1874, as well as the presbytery, ancient residence of the military commander, built in 1848, photo ca. 1905
Grosse Île, Québec
Immigration quarantine station, Grosse Île, Québec, June, 1929
Grosse Île, Québec
Western wharf, disinfection building, cabin detention building, water works, Grosse Île, circa 1900-1905

On Grosse Île, Dr. Frederick Montizambert, the station’s medical director from 1869 to 1899, played a major role in transforming the island and modernizing its facilities. His goal was to separate immigrants who were ill from those who were healthy or under observation and to treat those who were ill in different facilities. The centre of the island (known as “the village”) was reserved for station staff. A modern hospital specializing in infectious diseases was built on the eastern part of the island in 1881, and another building was erected in 1892, near the western docks, where passengers and their personal effects were disinfected immediately upon arrival. In the early 20th century, first-, second- and third-class hotels were built on the island to accommodate arriving passengers who were healthy but still under quarantine.

After over a century in operation, the quarantine station closed in 1937. During the Second World War, Grosse Île became the site of secret bacteriological research, and it remained off limits to the public for many years. From 1957 to 1984, it was again used for purposes of quarantine, but this time for animals being exported to Canada.

Official Recognition and Commemoration

In 1974, Grosse Île was recognized as a site of national historic significance. The island’s tragic history is commemorated by the Irish cemetery, the quarantine station building (1847), a monument to the doctors who worked at the station (1853) and the Celtic cross (erected in 1909 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians).

The Irish Cemetery, Grosse Île
The Irish cemetery was laid out in 1832 on a plateau between two crags located southwest of Cholera Bay. Until 1847, individual burials were performed at the cemetery. That year, because of the high rate of mortality from typhus, long trenches were dug to serve as mass graves. According to some accounts, coffins were sometimes stacked three deep in the trenches.
The Catholic Chapel, Grosse Île
The Catholic chapel, built of wood in 1874, is located in the centre of Grosse Île.

Since 1993, this site has been managed by Parks Canada. In recognition of its importance in the history of immigration to Canada, and especially of the immigration experience of Canadians of Irish origin, the Grosse Île site has been officially known since 1996 as Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. The Grosse Île Memorial, created by artist Lucienne Cornet and unveiled in 1998, honours the memory of the thousands of immigrants and the station staff who died on the island. The National Historic Site is open to the public from May to mid-October and accessible by boat only.

See also Irish Famine Orphans in Canada

Read More // The Irish in Canada

Further Reading

  • André Charbonneau et André Sévigny, 1847, Grosse Île au fil des jours (1997).

  • Simon Jolivet, « Une histoire des Irlandais et de leur intégration au Québec depuis 1815 », dans Guy Berthiaume, Claude Corbo et Sophie Montreuil, Histoire d’immigrations au Québec (2014), p. 25-40.

  • Marianna O’Gallagher, Grosse île: Gateway to Canada, 1832-1957 (1984).

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