Grosse Ile Quarantine Station - Beginnings

Western Approach to Grosse Ile
Approaching the rocky shore and modern wharf at Grosse Ile from the southwest

With 60 000 immigrants entering the colony through the port of Quebec in 1831, it was recognized that there was a serious threat of disease, particularly cholera. As a defence against this danger, the Assembly of Lower Canada passed a resolution on February 25, 1832 establishing a quarantine area east of the city. Grosse Ile was rented for that purpose.

When she immigrated to Canada in 1832, Susanna Moodie visited Grosse Ile and she described the quarantine station in Roughing it in the Bush (1852). Her account reflects both an English gentlewoman's romantic view of Canada's wilderness and her prejudices against the Irish immigrants:

". . . I looked up and down the glorious river; never had I beheld so many striking objects blended into one mighty whole! Nature had lavished all her noblest features in producing that enchanting scene.

The rocky isle in front, with its neat farmhouses at the eastern point, and its high bluff at the western extremity, crowned with the telegraph--the middle space occupied by tents and sheds for cholera patients, and its wooded shores dotted over with motley groups--added greatly to the picturesque effect of the land scene. Then the broad glittering river, covered with boats darting to and fro, conveying passengers from twenty-five vessels, of various size and tonnage, which rode at anchor, with their flags flying from their masthead, gave an air of life and interest to the whole. . . .

It was four o'clock when we landed on the rocks, which the rays of an intensely scorching sun had rendered so hot that I could scarcely place my foot upon them. How the people without shoes bore it I cannot imagine. Never shall I forget the extraordinary spectacle that met my sight the moment we passed the low range bushes which formed a screen in front of the river. A crowd of many hundred Irish emigrants had been landed during the present and former day and all this motley crew--men, women and children, who were not confined by sickness to the sheds (which greatly resembled cattle-pens)--were employed in washing clothes or spreading them out on the rocks and bushes to dry.

. . . . The people who covered the island appeared perfectly destitute of shame, or even a sense of common decency. Many were almost naked, still more but partially clothed. We turned in disgust from the revolting scene, but were unable to leave the spot until the captain had satisfied a noisy group of his own people, who were demanding a supply of stores.

. . . . Could we have shut out the profane sounds which came to us on every breeze, how deeply should we have enjoyed an hour amid the tranquil beauties of that retired and lovely spot!

The rocky banks of the island were adorned with beautiful evergreens, which sprang up spontaneously in every nook and crevice. I remarked many of our favourite garden shrubs among these wildlings of nature: the filigree, with its narrow, dark glossy-green leaves; the privet, with its modest white blossoms and purple berries; the lignum-vitae, with its strong resinous odor; the burnet-rose; and a great variety of elegant unknowns.

Anxious as we were to return to the ship, we were obliged to remain until sundown in our retired nook. We were hungry, tired, and out of spirits; the mosquitoes swarmed in myriads around us, tormenting the poor baby, who, not at all pleased with her visit to the new world, filled the air with cries, when the captain came to tell us that the boat was ready" (22-27).

Rosky Shore of Grosse Ile
Inlet near the western end of Grosse Ile with the guardhouse that separated the workers' community
from the quarantine area for healthy immigrants in the latter part of the nineteenth century

In the same year, Catharine Parr Traill passed the island and she describes it in a letter that became a part of The Backwoods of Canada (1836):

August 16 --We reached Grosse Isle yesterday evening. It is a beautiful rocky island covered with groves of beech, birch, ash, and fir trees. There are several vessels lying at anchor close to the shore; one bears the melancholy symbol of disease, the yellow flag; she is a passenger-ship, and has the smallpox and measles among her crew. When any infectious complaint appears on board, the yellow flag is hoisted, and the invalids conveyed to the cholera-hospital, a wooden building that had been erected on a rising bank above the shore. It is surrounded with palisadoes and a guard of soldiers.

There is also a temporary fort at some distance from the hospital, containing a garrison of soldiers, who are there to enforce the quarantine rules. These rules are considered as very defective, and in some respects quite absurd, and are productive of many severe evils to the unfortunate emigrants.

When the passengers and crew of a vessel do not exceed a certain number, they are nbot allowed to land, under a penalty to both the captain and to the offender; but, if on the contrary, they should exceed the the stated number, ill or well, passengers and crew must all turn out and go on to shore, taking with them their bedding and clothes, which are all spread out on the shore, to be washed, aired, and fumigated, giving the healthy every chance of taking the infection from the invalids near them. The sheds and buildings put up for the accommodation of those are obliged to submit to the quarantine laws are in the same area as the hospital.

Nothing can exceed the longing desire I feel to be allowed to land and explore this picturesque island; the weather is so fine and the waving groves so green; the little rocky bays and inlets of the island appear so tempting . . . (19).

Go forward to the Emergency of 1847

Go forward to the Age of Modernization at the Quarantine Station at Grosse Ile

Visit the website for Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site from Parks Canada

The background graphic is based on the design of an Irish postage stamp
issued on August 28, 1967 to celebrate Canada's centenial year.

Charbonneau, André and André Sévigny. Grosse Ile: a Record of Daily Events.
Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997.

Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site - Visitor's Guide.
Ottawa : Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997.

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing it in the Bush.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962.

O'Gallagher, Marianna. Grosse Ile - Gateway to Canada.
Ste-Foy, Quebec: Carraig Books, 1984.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.

Urquart, Jane. Away Trade Paperback Edition.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1997.

Reference Materials on Sale from

Roughing It in the Bush by Susannah Moodie

The Backwoods of Canada by Catharine Parr Traill, D.M.R. Bentley (Afterword)

Away: A Novel by Jane Urquhart

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