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Ontario GenWeb Project: Grosse Île
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Grosse Île
Disclaimer: Information contained in this article is sketchy at best. If errors are found, or you have information you can add, please send it in


"In this secluded spot, lie the mortal remains of 5,424 persons who, flying from pestilence and famine in Ireland, in the year 1847, found, in America, but a grave"

For many immigrants between 1832 and 1937 their first step on Canadian soil was at a small island in the St. Lawrence River called Grosse Île. This island can best be described as the 'Canadian version' of the USA's Ellis Island.

The Medical Board in Québec City petitioned to start a quarantine station in 1831 when the threat of cholera became apparent. It was their hope that having this station would keep the disease out of Canada.

By the summer of 1832 the small island in the St. Lawrence river was ready to receive incoming immigrant ships and their passengers. The station was open from April 1 until November 30. Technical staff were only on duty during that time. From Dec 1 until March 31 they lived inland, except for a few (about 60) who preferred to stay on the island year-round

When the quarantine station was planned and first opened, it was assumed that room for 1,000 (200 in hospital, 800 in quarantine) people would be more than enough. But within the first year of operation it was discovered that Grosse Île was ill-equipped to handle all new immigrants. This became more evident around 1845 when the USA doubled the cost of passage to American ports which encouraged more immigrants to choose Canada as their destination. This suddenly increased the number of immigrants needing Grosse Île clearance to continue onto Canada.

This overload resulted in quick checks of incoming ships, particularly those from Liverpool and Irish ports as they were considered the most likely to carry disease. Ships from other ports were generally sent onto Québec City without much more than a glance. Other ships were sent onto Lévis where 'the railroad could take them to their inland destination'.

During times of epidemics in Europe though, ships were checked with a much closer eye. In 1866 & 1892 ships were checked for Cholera. In 1868 it was Typhus. 1889 Yellow Fever. And in 1902 Bubonic Plague. The threat of smallpox was constant, but the most noticeable threat was in 1912.

Ships will ill passengers were required to stop at Grosse Île and unload their passengers, then be thoroughly cleaned before any passengers were allowed back onboard. The deceased were removed and buried on the island. The ill were placed in hospital and the remainder of passengers were required to live in tents on the island for a minimum of forty days. At the end of forty days the healthy were placed on the first ship that had room and allowed passage to Québec City.

In 1886 a new system for checking ships faster came into being. Steam yachts were used to carry Grosse Île doctors out to incoming ships where they would examine passengers onboard. If the passengers passed inspection the ship was given clearance for passage.

By the early 1900's it was decided a quarantine station was no longer the necessity it was when Grosse Île opened. In 1937 the station closed.

Time Line:

  • 1832 - Grosse Île opens under military control (when civilian volunteers are in short supply, soldiers fill in)
  • 1845-1848 - Irish Potato Famine. The busiest year for Irish Immigrants was 1847.
  • 1857 - Ownership of Grosse Île is transferred from the Imperial Government to the Government of Canada
  • 1930's - Closed
  • 1940's - Used by the Military
  • 1960's - Used as a quarantine for imported animals
  • 1970's - Opened to public
  • 1993 - Declared national historic site

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