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In the first half of the 19th century, a rising tide of English, Scots and particularly Irish immigrants left the British Isles, fleeing economic hardship. Many of them sought a better life in Canada. From April to November of each year, the City of Québec, the country's main port of entry, received several thousand immigrants.
Epidemics and Immigration
Immigration on this scale was unprecedented in Canadian history, and it occurred at a time when major epidemics were ravaging Europe. Ships arriving in America carried smallpox, measles, scarlet fever and other fever illnesses. Asiatic cholera, a new and deadly disease that spread like wildfire, had been raging through Europe since 1829 and raising fears on this side of the ocean. Newcomers to Canada were thought to be bringing the disease with them. The colonial authorities quickly passed health control measures for these immigrants. On February 25, 1832, the House of Assembly of Lower Canada passed a law establishing a quarantine station at Grosse Île.
Grosse Île held a strategic position, located in the St. Lawrence River 48 km downstream of Québec in the Île-aux-Grues archipelago. The island was an obvious choice: it was situated near the Port of Québec in the centre of the shipping lanes and it offered natural sites for anchoring. Until Grosse Île was requisitioned by the British army, its only resident was a farmer. It became the mandatory stopping point for all ships so that persons suffering from contagious diseases could be treated. The authorities hoped that these measures would prevent a cholera outbreak in the colony.
Under the Quarantine Act, all ships carrying persons, property or goods from infected ports had to report to Grosse Île for a mandatory medical inspection. Anyone who was ill or had been in contact with an ill person was detained, and the ships and their contents were disinfected.
The Arrival of Ships at Grosse Île
As a ship entered the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the pilot who guided the vessel presented the captain with a copy of the Act. A medical inspector boarded the ship when it arrived off Grosse Île. The doctor checked the passenger manifest and the ship's log, which contained information about any illnesses and deaths during the crossing. Any ship that did not stop could be fired on by the quarantine station's guns.
Passengers suffering from Asiatic cholera, smallpox, typhus, the plague and yellow fever had to be quarantined. Serious cases of measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria, and other so-called minor illnesses were also treated at the station.
The doctor assembled the passengers and crew on the upper deck to look for any early symptoms that might indicate disease, such as a fever or rash. He then examined any sick persons confined to the steerage area or in the ship's infirmary. Lastly, he determined the state of health on board the ship. Based on this information, the doctor decided whether to issue the ship the necessary certificate to enter the Port of Québec and let it continue, or place it under quarantine.
Over the years, technological advances improved the ship inspection process. As of 1886, a steamer replaced the rowboat that transported the doctor to the ship anchored offshore. A major change occurred in 1924: after a reorganization of the quarantine station, ship inspections moved from Grosse Île to Pointe-au-Père, near Rimouski, the point at which the St. Lawrence pilots also guided the boats.
The Quarantine Station
Once the ship had been quarantined, the sick passengers in steerage were taken to the station hospitals. Passengers who had been in contact with the sick disembarked and were placed under observation. People were not necessarily held for 40 days, as suggested by the word "quarantine" (from the Italian quaranta giorni, or 40 days). This period actually relates to the story of Jesus fasting for 40 days in the desert. In reality, steerage passengers were quarantined from three to 15 days on average, based on the recognized incubation period for each of the diseases. However, the quarantine was extended as cases broke out. Cabin or first-class passengers disembarked only if they had a contagious disease. On the island, patients and passengers under observation were separated from each other, and all contact between them was prohibited.
The Quarantine Act stated that ships which had experienced a disease outbreak had to be disinfected at Grosse Île before being allowed to continue to Québec. The disinfection process involved the ship and all its contents. Initially, disinfection meant airing the ship and using powerful substances such as sulphur to eliminate the offensive odours associated with the presence of contagious diseases at the time. Passengers were asked to wash themselves and their belongings in the river.
Making Quarantine Effective
The discovery of the cholera bacterium by Robert Koch in 1884 and the development of proven methods of destroying it-such as superheated steam, bichloride of mercury, sulphur dioxide and formaldehyde-ensured that the disinfection process was effective. Known in the quarantine stations as "scientific disinfection," the introduction of this new process took place during the 1880s and 1890s and was the result of concerted action by Canada, the United States and Mexico to stop a serious cholera epidemic from breaking out in North America. The Grosse Île quarantine station, the largest in Canada, was the first to be equipped to handle the process. Medical superintendent Frederick Montizambert oversaw the reorganization of Canada's quarantine stations.
The station at Grosse Île operated for just over 100 years and saw tremendous changes in that time. The early decades were marked by haste, trial and error, and ignorance, compounded by the behaviour of lax ship captains who wanted to circumvent the law or pressured authorities to attenuate its application. From the 1880s onward, Grosse Île was transformed. Structured according to the latest knowledge, well-planned and meticulous, the quarantine station made an effective barrier.
The Decline of the Grosse Île Quarantine Station
Following the First World War, immigration dropped sharply, the costs of operating Grosse Île were high, and there were fewer patients. Minor contagious diseases were treated at the Parc Savard Hospital in Québec from 1924 onwards. In 1927, smallpox patients were the last to be treated at the quarantine station. Tremendous progress in the field of bacteriology and the crash of 1929 resulted in Grosse Île becoming simply an emergency facility. Its closure was announced in the summer of 1937.
Visit the Gallery -- The Creation of the Quarantine Station to see more from the Library and Archives Canada collection.