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ARCHIVED - In Quarantine:
Life and Death on Grosse Île, 1832-1937

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Banner: Black and white photo collage of a young woman wearing a white blouse, two men with moustaches and suits, two women, a stone Celtic cross, and four people in matching uniforms sitting on a porch railing

The Grosse Île Quarantine Station

Layout of Buildings and Facilities

Early Development of the Island

Colourful hand drawn map of buildings and a wharf on Grosse Île


Map of the western sector of Grosse Île with the primary buildings built in 1832. The wharf hereby shown will be built at another location

Hand-drawn map of Grosse Île showing buildings and topographical elevation


Map of Grosse Île, ca.1850, showing the 12 eastern-sector lazarettos that were built in 1847 to house typhus convalescents, (page 1 of 2)

Black and white photograph of a man standing next to several carts outside a small building with a large brick chimney


The disinfection building after its construction in 1893

Black and white photograph of a large stone building


Built in 1914, the third-class hotel features 280 beds divided in to 52 rooms

In the first spring following the passage of the 1832 Quarantine Act, the colonial authorities quickly sent soldiers from the 32nd Regiment of the British Army to Grosse Île. The only structures present at the time were a house and some farm buildings, located on the eastern section of the island.

The first quarantine buildings were erected hastily in the west and centre sectors, separated by a gate. The temporary wooden structures were set on piles. It was decided that the immigrants would disembark in the west sector, since it was naturally isolated from the island by a narrow piece of land that formed a kind of peninsula. A 48-bed hospital was established there to deal with cholera cases. Nearby were two fenced buildings for healthy persons under observation. These structures accommodated the several hundred passengers from a single ship.

In the centre sector stood wooden barracks for the soldiers. A battery of three guns was set up on the shoreline to encourage captains to comply with the Quarantine Act.

In the years following the establishment of the quarantine station, work was carried out to improve the infrastructure. Accommodations, hospitals, chapels and food storage facilities were added to the west sector. As the tragic navigation season of 1847 began, the station was able to accommodate 200 invalids and convalescents, and 800 healthy individuals. As there was no dock, passengers disembarked on the shore.

Reorganization Triggered by the Epidemic of 1847

Nothing had prepared the authorities on Grosse Île for the tragedy that occurred in the summer of 1847. News of a typhus epidemic in Europe forced Dr. George Mellis Douglas, medical superintendent from 1836 to 1864, to quickly reorganize the station to deal with the thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing poverty, oppression and famine.

A dock was built in the west sector to help passengers disembark. Orders were given for more hospitals, many of which were prefabricated in Québec and then transported by barge and assembled on site by the soldiers. Tents and canopies were also set up around the cholera hospital. Every building on the island would eventually be filled with the sick.

The extent of the tragedy forced authorities to house convalescing patients in the east sector. Twelve 200-foot-long buildings were built for them. A total of 20 new buildings transformed the station's appearance. More than 5,000 immigrants could now be accommodated and hospitalized on Grosse Île. The soldiers built a final large building before their departure in 1857. This wash house provided shelter from the weather and made it much easier to wash the immigrant's belongings and to cook food.

Modernizing the Facilities

When Frederick Montizambert took over the superintendent's duties in 1869, Grosse Île became a permanent facility and began its modernization process. The village sector in the centre of the island began to develop quickly in the 1870s. An eight-unit block of houses was added for the station's boat crews and other employees. A Catholic church was built opposite. A new house accommodated the superintendent and his family. The former house of the British military commander was converted into a Catholic presbytery. A bakery, a hotel for first-class passengers, and a Protestant chapel were also constructed.

The construction of the Marine Hospital in the island's east sector in 1881 marked an important stage in efforts to modernize the facilities and fight contagious disease more effectively. The two-storey hospital was the first brick building at the station and it centralized all the services required for treating some 100 patients: dedicated treatment rooms, a clinic, a kitchen, an operating room, a waiting room, a pharmacy, nurses' accommodations and a day room. The immigrants were cared for in large wards, while private rooms were reserved for first-class passengers. The hospital's outbuildings included two structures for disinfecting bedding, clothing and luggage. Staff housing was built along the river. The new hospital improved the working conditions of the doctors and nurses, and led to better care for patients.

The 20th Century Dawns

The construction of a disinfection building near the west dock and the installation of modern facilities made Grosse Île one of the most advanced and secure quarantine stations in the 1890s. Superintendent Montizambert based the designs for these facilities on the disinfection systems he had seen at quarantine stations in New Orleans, New York, Galveston and Charleston. Montizambert and the architect from Public Works designed the super-heated steam disinfection chambers that would be used in all Canadian quarantine stations. Three of these chambers were located on the main floor of the building to disinfect all of the passengers' belongings. On the next floor, the passengers themselves were disinfected in shower baths using water and bichloride of mercury.

At the beginning of the 20th century, as the number of immigrants continued to climb, superintendent Georges-Élie Martineau, who served from 1899 to 1929, undertook major improvements to provide passengers staying at the station with the same quality of accommodations that they enjoyed on board ship. First-, second- and third-class hotels were built in the west sector. A water supply system and running water were installed in many of the island's buildings, and work began on bringing electricity to the station. The modernization of the station also involved constructing a guard post at the entrance to the village, a school, a Marconi station (radio telegraphy), brick houses for the physicians, a bacteriology laboratory and a nurses' residence.

Visit the Gallery -- Layout of Buildings and Facilities to see more from the Library and Archives Canada collection.