LE HAVRE DE BERTHIER, QC — In the early morning light, I and about 60 other passengers board a small boat in this tiny port town that straddles the St. Lawrence River Estuary, 46km downstream from Québec City. An air of pleasurable anticipation fills the vessel as we set sail for the National Historic Site of Grosse-Île, which sits under blue skies across the mighty river.
Our festive mood might seem a little strange to some, though, considering where we’re going and what we’re going to see.
That’s because in the 19th century, a visitor to Grosse-Île would not be expecting enjoyment, for this was the mandatory stop for all immigrant ships coming to Canada.
Underscoring the seriousness are the three cannons positioned on the island —just in case a captain decided to skip the formalities. None did.
Every ship was stopped here and inspected for disease, especially smallpox, typhus (ship fever) and cholera. All disembarking passengers had their belongings disinfected. After a precautionary shower, the healthy were lodged in one of the island’s three hotels: first, second or third class, according to means. The sick were taken to infirmaries for treatment. Family members were reunited when everyone was well, continuing their journey to Canada, landing at Québec or perhaps going as far as Montréal.
Today, our young Parks Canada guide entertains us with stories of growing up in these islands, like the time his grand-mère gave birth in an ice canoe on the way to hospital.
Above: The simple graves on Grosse-Île tell visitors of its haunting past.
Twenty-one islands make up the Isle-aux-Grues archipelago, their coastlines indented with coves. Hunters come here for snow geese, fishers for white sturgeon and eel. Wealthy vacationers fly into private landing airstrips and stay in chic cottages. To our left we see the popular Mont-Sainte-Anne ski resort.
After a pleasant trip of 40 minutes, we thank the weather gods for calm waters. We’re told that yesterday’s waves were two metres high.
On docking we approach the quarantine station, just steps away, and immediately enter a vanished world. In 1832, cholera-stricken soldiers returning from British-governed India were hastily detained here, launching an inspection station that lasted until 1937, when Grosse-Île, having outlived its purpose, was shut down. In its over 100-year history, ships would dock at the island, the doctor in charge would board and identify the sick (disease-free ships could proceed), and passengers then filed into this building, where their baggage was placed into wire baskets on the way to steam chambers, while the immigrants read notices posted in English, French, Dutch and German that demanded: ALL IMMIGRANT BAGGAGE MUST BE DISINFECTED.
Boots, shoes, gloves, leather and rubber goods were cleaned by hand, with a solution of mercury chloride.
After 1875, immigrants from 43 countries passed through the centre. Before that, groups were mainly British troops or starving Irish, who were escaping the Great Famine of the mid-1840s.
Above: Guides welcome people to the buildings where the new Canadian arrivals were housed when they first arrived in Grosse-Île.
Today’s restored building shows Grosse-Île at the height of its efficiency. Using the American model, Dr. Frederick di Montizambert, superintendent from 1869-99, drew up the plans of the island's steam chambers, which, heated by massive boilers, reached temperatures of 115C. So well made were these iron machines that they outlasted the great waves of immigration and were later used to disinfect clothing arriving from Europe during World War II. In the 1950s, they sterilized army equipment when Grosse-Île was a secret test site for antidotes to anthrax.
Following the path of countless immigrants before us, we troop upstairs to the waiting rooms, that resemble schoolrooms with long wooden benches. On the walls, posters advertise “Canada: The Promised Land.” Slogans like these enticed millions of newcomers across the seas.
Next we enter a series of cage-like shower stalls. In each, triple rows of “needle showers” (for their needle-sized holes) sprayed bodies with a mixture of river water and mercury bio-chloride. Immigrants then sat on wooden stools, waiting the return of their garments. Exiting, we receive a card that replicates the proof given in the old days: “DISINFECTED.”
Hurrying down the stairs, we stop at a display showing the history of world epidemics, which is not only fascinating but acts as an antidote to the feelings of personal indignity associated with our glimpse into the brusque disinfection process.
Yet, the protocols at Grosse-Île signalled an enormous scientific advance for the times. When stricken soldiers first arrived here in 1832, they were victims of a cholera pandemic. Little could be done to prevent the transmission of the disease until the discoveries of Louis Pasteur in France and Robert Koch in Germany were known and acted upon.
Above: There are plenty of reminders left on Grosse-Île. that show how the passengers aboard the fever ships were treated.
When the “fever ships” full of Irish settlers started arriving, everything was done to aid passengers weak from starvation and ill from filthy conditions on the ships. Very little helped until the sick were strictly segregated from the healthy at different ends of the island, well after the worst year of Irish suffering, 1847. In that year alone, 5,424 died on Grosse-Île. Another 5,000 Irish died at sea during the voyage here.
In 1909, the first commemoration of the Irish who perished was erected here by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. At 15m in height, the tallest Celtic cross in the world stands on a promontory overlooking the St. Lawrence.
Dr. George Douglas headed the island's small medical team in 1847. Like many of his colleagues, he grew sick. Unlike many, he survived. Today, in a secluded green field dotted with white crosses, bees buzz loudly in the silence surrounding the memorial to the Irish dead and those who tended them — it's a place of peace and pilgrimage now.
Douglas honoured the four doctors who died in 1847 with a monument that concludes, “All of typhus fever contracted in the faithful discharge of duty upon the sick.”
Québec artist Lucienne Cornet’s 1998 memorial by the old graveyard honours all the immigrants by name who died on Grosse-Île. Her graceful design of stone, iron and glass mimicks the ocean waves. Visitors point to names etched on a glass wall that records all the known dead, finding among them dozens of Murphys and McRaes.
On a trolley ride around the rest of the island, we pass the nurses’ residences, three churches and Telegraph Hill, where Marconi tapped out his messages.
Grosse-Île is truly a place that honours the past. •
For more information on Grosse-Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site, go to www.parcscanada.qc.ca or www.chaudiereappalache.com