Skip to main content

Fleeing one form of hell in their homeland, thousands of Irish emigrants found another on this rocky island in the St. Lawrence River, 50 kilometres east of Quebec City.

The year was 1847, the peak of the Great Famine brought on by the failure of Ireland's potatoes -- the single staple food for peasants held in virtual bondage by absentee landlords. Some 85,000 Irish headed to Canada that year. Crunched into the dank, dark, dirty holds of sailing ships built for the timber trade, they spent weeks crossing the choppy Atlantic, hoping to find a better life.

Typhus travelled with them. A deadly group of infectious diseases spread by insects, typhus strikes initially with headache, chills and pains, proceeds to a rash and ends with poisoning of the blood. Canada urgently wanted to keep it out, and its primary defence lay at Grosse Ile, the quarantine station serving Quebec City, then the country's main point of entry.

Of 100,000 people sailing to Quebec City that year -- six out of seven of them Irish -- 5,000 died at sea. Another 5,424 were buried on Grosse Ile. Of those, 3,226 died in the island's hospitals. The rest expired on their ships while awaiting permission to go ashore. Thousands of others got past Grosse Ile, only to die in Quebec City, Montreal and Kingston.

Grosse Ile today is a national historic site. And while the Irish are given top billing, many other Canadians have ancestral links to this isolated spot.

Between 1832 and 1937, while the quarantine centre was in operation, more than four million immigrants from all parts of Europe entered Canada at Quebec City. Inspectors boarded all ships, bringing the sick to the island for treatment and some of the healthy for preventative quarantine.

Without realizing it, tens of thousands of Canadians may be descended from someone who spent time here. Others may have a forebear or relative among the 7,480 people who are buried on the island and whose names are listed on a recently-built memorial of glass, stone and rusted metal.

Ironically, English-speaking Canadians are much less likely to visit here than French-speaking Quebeckers. But there's no reason for anglophones to worry about feeling lost. All signs are in English and French, and tours are offered in both languages.

No records exist to show whether my own immigrant great-grandfather, Alexander McArthur, was put off here temporarily in 1851 as he fled a Scotland impoverished by the ruthless Highland Clearances. Death and disease were part of his trip in any case. His mother died en route and was buried at sea. That knowledge added a personal sense of relevance to my visit.

Even in August, I found Grosse Ile to be cold, windswept and foreboding. It was not a place I'd want to spend a lot of time, sick or healthy.

Seen from the tour boat, it resembled a once-chic summer resort abandoned to the elements. The structures include three former hotels designated for first-, second- and third-class passengers. They were built between 1892 and 1914 to house quarantined immigrants in a later, more elegant era. In the black days of 1847, most of the island's temporary residents slept in army tents.

"Beside each tent," wrote a French Canadian priest describing conditions at the time, "lies fermenting waste which nobody has had time to carry away, and inside, in two and sometimes three rows, lie living skeletons with hardly enough straw on which to stretch out their limbs, men, women and children, pell-mell; and so close together that one could hardly take a step without treading on some part of the breathing mass."

In memory of the 1847 victims, an Irish organization erected a traditional Celtic cross of stone in 1909. Set atop a rocky cliff, it proclaims its message of grief to all vessels passing by on the river.

The so-called Irish Cemetery -- the first and largest of three burial grounds -- boasts only a sprinkling of token crosses. They sit atop rows of ridges, but the mass burials -- three deep in individual coffins -- were actually in what time and erosion have turned into depressions.

The cemetery's sense of order fails to portray the panic that gripped the island that dreadful summer when 40 to 50 people were dying each day, and when makeshift wooden sheds could not be built quickly enough to serve as hospitals.

There are three distinct elements to a Grosse Ile visit: a walking tour to the hotels, memorials and the Irish Cemetery; a guided tour by tractor-tram to more distant points; and a self-guided visit to the 1892 Disinfection Building, which serves as a museum.

The Grosse Ile station was originally founded as a safeguard against a cholera epidemic that was spreading from India through Europe to North America. Its busiest year after 1847 was 1913 when 1,720 sick immigrants were treated.

Dr. Frederick Montizambert, medical superintendent in the late 1800s, kept up with medical breakthroughs and opened the Disinfection Building. It held massive ovens for steaming clothing and powerful showers for cleansing bodies. Visitors hear recorded "take off all your clothes" announcements that help them share the sense of bewilderment that greeted immigrants here.

Reduced immigration and medical advances led to the station's closing in 1937. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, Grosse Ile's focus switched from controlling diseases to creating them. During the Second World War, the Defence Research Board developed biological weapons here. More recently, the island was used by the Department of Agriculture.

It has been a historic site since 1984 and is twinned with the National Famine Museum of Strokestown Park in Ireland. Together the two sites, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, serve as bookends for a tragic chapter from Ireland's past.

Grosse Ile National Historic site is open from May 1 to Oct. 31. Croisieres Lachance ( offers boat tours to Grosse Ile with departure from Berthier-sur-Mer, east of Quebec City on the south shore. The standard visit (five hours including the ferry trip) costs $33 for an adult, $16.50 for ages 6 to 16. Phone (418) 259- 2140 or (888) 476-7734. Boat tours are also offered from Quebec City by Les Croisières Le Coudrier (418-692-0107, adults $52.15, children $26.07) and from Montmagny by Ansèlme Lachance (418-248-3397, adults $29.55, children $16.50). The park offers guided tours for $11.50 adult, $5.76 for ages 6-16. Web: . Phone (418) 248-8888 or (800) 463-6769.

Interact with The Globe