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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

Life and Death in Quarantine

Life in Quarantine

Activities at the Station

Black and white photograph of long wooden buildings surrounded by trees


These buildings in the western sector were used during the typhus epidemic in 1847, photo ca. 1905

Black and white photograph of three women and a man sitting on the porch of a large building


Built in 1912, the first-class hotel is the most luxurious of the detention hotels

Black and white photograph of a large, two-storey brick building


The Marine Hospital is part of a modern building complex with laundry room and outbuildings, ca. 1905

Black and white photograph of a woman with her face and hands covered in blisters


Woman infected with smallpox, ca. 1909

Immigrants stayed at Grosse Île for various reasons. Some were hospitalized until they recovered from illness; others who might be carrying a contagious disease were placed under medical observation; and still others waited for their relatives to be released from hospital.

The length of their stay varied greatly during the 100 or so years that the station was in operation. Initially, it depended on the recognized incubation period for the various contagious diseases. For example, quarantine was 15 days for smallpox and seven days for cholera. Each new case that broke out extended the stay. With the advent of scientific disinfection in the years 1880-1890, immigrants were released earlier and allowed to continue to Québec because the authorities were certain that all bacteria had been destroyed.

From Makeshift Housing to a Spacious Hotel

In the 1830s, quarantine facilities could accommodate the steerage passengers from only one ship, totalling about 300 persons on average. The next ship had to wait for them to leave before disembarking its passengers on the island. The construction of a large number of facilities over the years meant that the station was able to increase its capacity. Up until 1892, as many as 2,000 people could be housed in the eight older buildings available. In 1893, a hotel was built for first-class passengers that met the modern standards available on board ship. Other modern hotels were built for second- and third-class passengers after 1910.

Activities at the Station

Passengers were required to wash themselves and their belongings daily. They also had to line up for inspection by the station doctor. He checked for the outbreak of fever or rashes, warning signs of contagious diseases. When a case was found, the patient was transferred to the hospital sector.

During the early years of the station, immigrants spent much of their day preparing and cooking meals. They cooked in the open on wood fires along the shore. The wealthier passengers could buy food from the island's store. It carried bread, flour, vegetables, meat, sugar, oats, biscuits, beer, salt, eggs and butter. The poorer passengers, however, received rations from the station authorities.

As of 1857, cooking was done indoors in a new wash house equipped with eight ovens. The ships' cooks and bakers had a kitchen as of 1893 and a bakery around 1905 for preparing the immigrants' meals. The food, utensils, bedding and crew from the ship followed the immigrants onshore. According to the regulations, shipping companies were responsible for their passengers during their stay at the quarantine station.

Sanitary Conditions

Up until the end of the 19th century, the immigrants' toilet facilities consisted of small wooden structures along the high-tide line. With the construction of first-, second- and third-class hotels between 1893 and 1914, travellers had indoor washrooms and baths.

Recreational Activities

Even though they were confined to the island, the immigrants who were in good health were able to amuse themselves. The west sector was set aside for them, and they could go for walks in the forest and on the rocks. They spent their days dancing, playing music, reading, napping, writing letters or keeping a diary, saying prayers and doing the readings for the day's religious services. They were not able to attend the village churches, however.

The Sick

Between 1832 and 1880, of the 1,335,633 passengers bound for the Port of Québec, 23,381 were admitted to the station's hospitals. Of these, 14,094 had fevers. This number includes the thousands of Irish immigrants who suffered from typhus in 1847. The diagnosis of fever was the most common at the time because fever was a symptom of all contagious diseases, and several illnesses were often confused. Measles led to the hospitalization of 1,914 patients, mostly children. Smallpox accounted for 1,818 patients, while 312 persons suffered from Asiatic cholera, most of them in 1834.

Between 1881 and 1921, the Port of Québec recorded 2,029,017 arrivals. Of these, 10,688 were admitted to the Grosse Île hospitals, including 3,335 cases of contagious diseases, 687 cases of non-contagious diseases, and 6,646 persons who were accompanying patients. Measles accounted for 1,831 patients; diphtheria, 201; typhoid fever, 157; and smallpox, 106.

The sick were treated in the east sector. As of 1889, they were carried by horse-drawn ambulance from the east dock to the Marine Hospital or the smallpox hospital. Patients were placed in large wards, intended for the treatment of specific contagious diseases. Occasionally, children with various illnesses, such as measles, scarlet fever and chicken pox, were kept together so that they could build up immunities.

Passengers and crew members who had contracted smallpox were quarantined in a building that dated back to 1847 and was set apart from the other structures. The disease was so contagious that station employees had to be immunized, and special measures taken for preparing meals and disinfecting the premises. Smallpox is known for covering its victims in pustules and leaving permanent scars. The treatment room was painted red in 1904, as daylight hurt the patients' eyes.

As soon as they recovered, all hospital patients were disinfected one last time before boarding a small steamer for Québec City and continuing from there to their final destination.

The Immigrants' Destinations

From 1830 to 1850, the immigrants travelling by ship to Québec were English, Scots and primarily Irish. They settled in Lower Canada and Upper Canada. Between 1829 and 1851, nearly 700,000 passengers disembarked at Québec. The majority came from Irish ports (58%) and the others from English ports (27.5%).

As of the 1850s, many German and Scandinavian immigrants passed through the port, heading for the American states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. From 1852 to 1867, the Port of Québec received some 400,000 people: 28.3% of them Irish; 21.2% Scandinavian; 19.2% English; and 14.2% German. The proportion of English immigrants grew to 47.2% over the next 20 years.

Between 1892 and 1913, 60% of the 1,514,452 passengers entering Canada were of British origin, while 14.6% were from Eastern Europe, 10.8% from Scandinavia, 8.3% from Western Europe and 2.8% from the Middle East. They came in response to Canada's huge campaign to colonize the West.

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