Contagious Diseases Wreak Havoc
During its more than 100 years of operation, the quarantine station was the final destination for many passengers. Before the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s, many people died of complications resulting from contagious diseases.
From 1832 to 1880, the era of the great epidemics, the hospitals on Grosse Île admitted 23,381 patients and the people accompanying them. Of these, 4,815 died. Fevers -- particularly typhus -- were the deadliest illnesses, killing 3,847 people in 1847. Cholera was the second deadliest, claiming 223 people in 1832; smallpox killed 134 victims in 1834; and measles caused 213 deaths, most of them children.
Hospital records from 1881 to 1927 show a very different story, thanks to medical and technological advances. The number of admissions dropped to 10,688, and the number of deaths to 94: three from cholera, four from smallpox, 17 from various fevers, and 70 from measles.
1847: The Year of Tragedy
In 1847, after suffering through two years of famine, some 100,000 Irish immigrants took ship for North America. Many began the dangerous journey already starving and sick. They contracted various illnesses during the trip, but it was typhus-"ship fever"-that caused the greatest devastation. It was transmitted by body lice living in the seams of the passengers' clothing. The most common symptoms were a high fever, headache, extreme weakness, a rash on the victim's torso and limbs, and pains throughout the body. The employees on Grosse Île were overwhelmed by the huge influx of passengers suffering from typhus and dysentery (caused by drinking unclean water). Medical inspectors counted many dead in the ships' steerage areas.
The cemetery, established in the west sector in 1832, continued to expand, despite the efforts of the dedicated station employees. An average of 40 to 50 bodies were buried daily, and sometimes the toll climbed to 90. Mass graves were dug, and in some places, the coffins were stacked three deep. Even under these extraordinary circumstances, the Catholic priests and Protestant ministers conducted the burials with the greatest reverence. With the help of priests from surrounding parishes, hundreds of orphans were taken in by Canadian families-a strong show of support for the Irish in a time of tragedy.
At the end of this devastating period, the station superintendent, Dr. George Mellis Douglas, established a monument to physicians. It bears witness to the dramatic events that took place on Grosse Île during the widespread epidemics. The monument is engraved with the names of the doctors who gave their lives to help the sick immigrants: Doctors Benson, Pinet, Mailhot, Christie and Jameson, who died of typhus in 1847, and Dr. Panet, who died of cholera in 1834.
The cemetery in the west sector was discontinued after reaching its full capacity in 1847. The dead were buried individually, mainly in the eastern part of the island, and the graves were marked by numbered stakes. As of 1910, crosses made from pipes were used as grave markers. A third cemetery was used in the centre sector from 1866 to 1868. It contains only about 100 graves. All the cemeteries on Grosse Île are divided into two sections: one for Catholics and one for Protestants. Many Catholic workers and their families are buried on Grosse Île.
The Celtic Cross, 1909
A second monument was erected in 1909 in memory of the victims of the typhus epidemic who are buried in the western cemetery. This cemetery is now recognized as holding the largest number of victims of the Great Famine outside Ireland. In 1897, members of the Quebec branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish organization that defended the rights of Irish Catholics, traveled to Grosse Île to mark the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Noting that the cemetery was in a poor state, they decided to take action. Jeremiah Gallagher, the Order's regional president, proposed that a monument be erected in the form of a Celtic cross. Members of the organization across North America were called on to raise the funds necessary for the project.
They were successful, and the monument was inaugurated on August 15, 1909. The 14-metre cross is made of grey granite and is the largest cross of its kind in America. Several thousand people from major cities throughout Canada and New England attended the inauguration. Most were the descendents of immigrants, and others were Irish orphans who had arrived during the famine. There is a plaque on each of the four sides of the cross, engraved with commemorative texts, one of which is in Irish Gaelic. The English plaque reads as follows:
Sacred to the memory of thousands of Irish
emigrants who, to preserve the faith,
suffered hunger and exile, in 1847-48,
and stricken with fever ended her their
Erected by the ancient order of the
Hibernians in America and dedicated
Feast of the Assumption.
The English translation of the Irish Gaelic plaque reads as follows:
Thousands of the
children of the Gael
were lost on this island
while fleeing from
foreign tyrannical laws
and an artificial famine
in the years 1847-1848.
God bless them.
This stone was erected.
to their memory and
in honor of them by the
Gaels of America.
God save Ireland.
The cross stands on the highest point of the island, at the far western end, where British soldiers installed the first telegraph on Grosse Île. The Ancient Order of Hibernians organizes an annual pilgrimage to the island to remind younger generations of the site's importance.
The 1998 Memorial
In 1998, Parks Canada inaugurated a third monument. The Memorial, created by artist Lucienne Cornet, honours all the immigrants who died in quarantine and on board ship, as well as the station's employees who gave their lives to care for and comfort the sick. The monument, which is in the form of a circular mound crisscrossed by corridors, conveys the intensity of the setting. A surrounding glass wall is engraved with the names of the dead. Boats symbolize the anonymous victims. Located near the Irish cemetery, the Memorial represents a symbolic voyage, embodying the fears of a difficult crossing, the end of a merciless famine, and the desire and the hope involved in discovering a new land. Ms. Mary McAleese, President of Ireland at the time, attended the dedication. She praised the generosity of the Quebec families who welcomed some 500 Irish orphans and let them keep their family names.
Visit the Gallery -- Death in Quarantine to see more from the Library and Archives Canada collection.