Grosse Île, Québec

Grosse Île, Québec

A Visit to Grosse Île by Bill Russell

On a beautiful day in late August, the Croisière Lachance ferry ride to Grosse Île is very pleasant. One of the Lachance family points out the islands and talks about growing up in the Île-aux-Grues archipelago, how his grandfather would row to another island to see his sweetheart.

After a while, up ahead, a large Celtic cross atop the high point on the island comes into view, then the dock, the hotels and the disinfection station. Parks Canada guides welcome us in French and English. There is much to see and learn before returning on the afternoon boat.

Since the late 19th century, the island has been divided into three sections. To the east is the hospital zone; in the centre is the small community where the staff and their families once lived; and to the west, the dock where we landed and the quarantine station. Each sector has its attributes: the last remaining Lazaretto at the eastern tip; in the central area, churches, houses and the small museum with its horse-drawn ambulance and the sail-equipped rowboat with a metal strip on the keel that was used for crossing the ice; but most of the visit will be spent in the western area.

At the end of the pier, the Disinfection Building, built in 1892, is an imposing structure, both inside and out. It was designed to stop all incoming microbes: passengers had to shower in a mercury solution while their luggage was steamed. We can vividly imagine an immigrant’s experience by following the path of disinfection.

Exhibits tell of worldwide epidemics, particularly those that reached Canada. In the early 19th century, cholera had broken out in India and was on its way to Europe. The British authorities foresaw that it was only a matter of time before it reached Canada, so they set up a quarantine station in 1832. Grosse Île was chosen for its location and shape. A narrow isthmus provided a spot where a guard house could control travel between the quarantine station and the staff’s living area. The heights of the island were easily recognizable from the river. It was possible to fire a cannon at ensure that all ships checked in. Tragically, the newly installed doctor did not know what typhus looked like. Travellers who carried the disease were allowed to proceed upriver. Thousands died in Quebec City, Montreal, Kingston and Toronto.

In the 1800’s, Quebec City was the centre of the lumber trade with England. At the same time, Irish families were being forced off their land. Ships that carried wood east returned with Scottish bricks for ballast and Irish immigrants for cargo. Conditions were terrible. Maritime law did not require the presence of medical officers. Hence, more and more sick people arrived at Grosse Île, a situation aggravated by the “artificial potato famine” –  “artificial” because there was plenty of food produced in Ireland, but it was forcibly taken away to England. The worst year was “Black ‘47”. Doctors tried their best; some died trying, but there were no medicines. Estimates vary on how many people died trying to get to Canada. We do know that more than five thousand were buried on Grosse Île in that one year alone and that thousands more died in Lower and Upper Canada.

There is also a short movie about the people who grew up on the island and worked there in the Disinfection Station.

Three hotels stand above the shore, one for each class of passenger. They were built at different times: 1893, 1912 and 1914. The newest, the third class hotel, houses the food services. It is wheelchair accessible, as is the path to the Irish Memorial. Unfortunately, the Celtic Cross is not. However, if one is able, the climb up the path is worth the effort.

In 1909, the Ancient Order of Hibernians erected a monument to remember those who had lost their lives coming to Canada. Atop the memorial is the largest cross of its kind in North America, standing fifteen metres above the ground. There are three plaques – in English, French and Irish Gaelic. Each has its own message:

The English message: “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 here their sorrowful pilgrimage.”

The French message: “À la pieuse mémoire de milliers d’émigrés irlandais qui, pour garder la foi, souffrirent la faim et l’exil et, victimes de la fièvre, finirent ici leur douloureux pèlerinage,
consolés et fortifiés par le prêtre canadien. Ceux qui sèment dans les larmes moissonneront
dans la joie. (Psaume 126:5)” Roughly translates as: “To the pious memory of thousands of Irish emigrants who, to keep the faith, suffered famine and exile and, victims of fever, ended their sorrowful pilgrimage, consoled and sustained by Canadian priests. Those who sow with tears will harvest joy. (Psalm 126:5)” (my translation)

The Irish Gaelic message: “Cailleadh Clann na nGaedheal ina míltibh ar an Oileán so ar dteicheadh dhóibh ó dlíghthibh na dtíoránach ngallda agus ó ghorta tréarach isna bliadhantaibh 1847-48. Beannacht dílis Dé orra. Bíodh an leacht so i gcomhartha garma agus onóra dhóibh ó Ghaedhealaibh Ameriocá. Go saoraigh Dia Éire.” Translates as: “Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God’s blessing on them. Let this monument be a token to their name and honour from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland.” (The Irish Gaelic inscription and translation by Sara Goek from thedustbinofhistory.wordpress.com)

Finally, the Irish Memorial at the cemetery is composed of two parts. First, is a horizontal Celtic cross of stacked stone. It is worth passing through it to the far end before contemplating the second part, a glass wall.

Quiet, except for natural sounds: the constant breeze, the odd bird call, the humming of insects. Through the glass is a green field with grown-over trenches where coffins were once stacked and buried in dirt brought over from the mainland. Etched in the glass, from left to right, year by year, are the names of all who are buried here. Where a name is unknown, there is a boat.

Over six thousand Irish are buried here. When a priest or a minister could find out a name, it was meticulously recorded. When a whole family had died, and anyone who knew them had also died, there was no way to know who they were. For 1847 alone, the names of the dead stretch across many panels; and boats, all across the bottom.

Grosse Île is part of the Île-aux-Grues archipelago downriver from l’Île d’Orléans. The Lachance family has been navigating the islands for centuries. The ticket from Berthier-sur-Mer is round trip on the same day; there is no place to stay on the island overnight. Be prepared for any weather, as it can change abruptly.

Categories: News, Opinion

About Author

Bill Russell

Bill Russell resided in Quebec City from 1997 to 2014, but has returned to Toronto, Ontario. A professional folksinger since 1970, he mostly performs in Ontario schools with Mariposa In The Schools. He also calls square dances and teaches figures done with a loop of string. Bill plans on keeping touch with his friends in Quebec City. His primary Quebec City interests are in the Quebec Art Company, the Centre de valorisation du patrimoine vivant, and the Auberge du Mont’s Road Scholars programs.

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