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.
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.
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).
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