As whitecaps splash across the bow of our boat, I clutch the railing and peer through the spray hoping to glimpse my first sighting of Grosse Île through the mist.

While many passengers on this day cruise are headed to the island to sightsee, hike or pay their respects to the Irish Memorial, I’m retracing the steps of my great-grandmother. She spent almost a month here with her four young children (including my grandmother) in 1913 when this isolated island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River served as a quarantine station for the Port of Québec City.

Parks Canada

Parks Canada re-enactors are onsite
to bring history alive.
Photo: Parks Canada and Jean-François Frenette

Lured by the promise of free, fertile farmland, my ancestors were part of a wave of immigrants who came to Canada between 1868 and 1914 when the western provinces opened for settlement. The Port of Québec City was the first port of entry to Canada for immigrants from countries including Ireland, Ukraine, Poland and Italy.

More than four million immigrants passed through this quarantine station. After inspection by immigration doctors, healthy passengers would travel onward to their destinations in Canada. Ill passengers were treated at the island’s hospital or- as many Irish immigrants who arrived during the tragic events of 1847-were buried here.

family in 1916

The writer’s great-grandparents with the three surviving children in 1916
Photo: Kyba Family Archives

Researching Family Roots

My personal pilgrimage to this windswept island actually began several years earlier when I travelled to Ukraine, tracing our family ancestry to the small village of Kapustyntsi east of Kyiv. Now, I hoped to learn more about where they first set foot on Canadian soil.

I turned online to the pros at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax for help. In addition to the museum’s historic artifacts, the centre offers remote research services.

Immigration records showed that my great-grandfather arrived in Canada first, in October 1912. My great-grandmother and the children aged 4, 3, 2 and 1 followed, travelling by train and ship across Europe to Southampton, England. From there they journeyed across the Atlantic on the SS Ausonia, an ocean liner with accommodation for 37 1st class and 1,000 3rd class passengers.

I can only imagine the challenges she faced travelling alone with such young children in an era with rudimentary comforts. According to hospital records, the challenges didn’t end for my great-grandmother upon arrival in Canada in August 1913.

 marina at Berthier-sur-Mer

Boats depart from the marina at
Berthier-sur-Mer
Photo: Michele Peterson

All four children were diagnosed with diphtheria and measles and transferred to the Hospital Sector on Grosse Île, where they spent nearly a month in quarantine. Now, I’m arriving at the same time of year almost 110 years later.

Grosse Île – Then and Now

Designated a National Historic Site in 1974, Grosse Île played an important role in Canadian history. The quarantine station and hospital which operated from 1832 to 1937 were established to combat the spread of deadly infectious diseases, in particular cholera.

Located 46 kilometres downstream from Quebec City, it’s one of 21 islands in the Isle-aux-Grues archipelago. Today, it’s administered by Parks Canada and is open to the public seasonally.

Restored Catholic Chapel

Restored Catholic Chapel in the Village Sector
Photo: Michele Peterson

Because it’s accessible only by boat or plane, most people visit as I am, on a day trip from the village of Berthier-sur-Mer on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. The tour company Croisières Lachance offers a narrated round-trip cruise to the island, where passengers are met by Parks Canada guides who share the history of the 2.7 km long island on an escorted tour.

During my visit, the sun breaks through the clouds as we approach Grosse Île. Wave action from two tides a day have carved deep into its bedrock to create steep cliffs and rocky shores topped by shrubby red cedar, oak and maple.

We disembark from the ship, as most immigrants would have, at the western wharf where we’re met by a Parks Canada guide who escorts us first to the Disinfection Building. This wooden building erected in 1892 was where passengers and their personal belongings were disinfected upon arrival.

Grosse Île

It’s possible to walk inside the buildings of the Hotel Sector on Grosse Île
Photo: Michele Peterson

The facility was part of a modernization program (that included microbiology, epidemiology, disinfection and vaccination) introduced by Dr. Frederick Montizambert, who was the station’s medical director from 1869 to 1899.

Passengers would have been examined for signs of infectious disease by a station doctor. Then they would have proceeded to the shower area. While the long rows of metal shower stalls appear grim by today’s standards, during its time it was intended to be comfortable with warm running water and electricity.

Following disinfection, passengers would have been transferred to the first, second and third class hotels on the island to wait out their quarantine.

The Irish Tragedy

Earlier immigrants, especially the Irish arriving in 1847 after the Great Potato Famine, weren’t so fortunate. More than 5,000 Irish immigrants died in the ocean crossing, suffering from typhus and malnutrition. Others arrived in such a weakened state they died awaiting disembarkation and on Grosse Île itself.

Horse drawn ambulance

Horse drawn ambulance used to transport patients
Photo: Michele Peterson

Our group walks to the western sector of the island, where rows of white crosses of the Irish cemetery line a grassy knoll. An estimated 5,424 people died on Grosse Île in 1847-1848. At the peak of the Irish tragedy, the dead were buried in mass grave trenches.

An evocative memorial created by artist Lucienne Cornet records the names of the Irish, other immigrants and medical staff who lost their lives in that deadly period. Rows of Brennans, Briens, McCarthys and McDonalds name entire families wiped out by typhus and other illnesses.

At the western promontory we come to the stone Celtic Cross, erected in 1909.  It soars into the sky, honouring the memory of the Irish who perished.

Memories of the Past

Memorial

The Memorial commemorates the memory of the Irish and other immigrants who perished on the island, and of those who sacrificed their lives to nurse and comfort the sick immigrants
Photo: Michele Peterson

A shuttle takes us to the eastern point of the island, passing the Village Sector, intended to protect station staff by segregation. The Hospital Sector at the island’s furthermost point is where ill passengers, such as my grandmother and her siblings, were treated.

Originally patients were housed in tents and then hastily constructed shelters in an open field. By 1913, permanent hospital quarters provided well-ventilated lodging. Patients were transported by a horse-drawn ambulance from the eastern wharf to the hospital where nurses cared for patients.

I stand in the treatment room where almost certainly my grandmother and her siblings convalesced. It’s an eerie place. In 1913, medical professionals believed sunlight was harmful to patients with smallpox so all the windows and lightbulbs were painted red.

My great-grandmother, who wasn’t ill, would have stayed in separate living quarters near the Village Sector. I imagine her visiting the Catholic chapel which still stands overlooking the desolate waters of the St. Lawrence.

Hospital Sector Grosse Île

The writer at a building within the Hospital Sector
Photo: Francisco Sanchez

What did she think of as she waited for her children’s recovery? What did she think of the St. Lawrence and her first look at Canada?

While they were fortunate to eventually leave the island, continuing their journey by land across Canada to be united with my great-grandfather, their hardships continued. The farmland they received in Saskatchewan was poor and the youngest, baby Olga, didn’t survive.

By 1916, during World War 1, my great-grandfather had enlisted in the 44th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, arriving in France in January 1917. He would be dead less than six months later, his name memorialized on the Vimy Ridge monument.

As I left Grosse Île, I reflected that it is more than a historic site. It’s a living memorial to the individual stories of hope, fortitude and hardship of Canada’s immigrants, one that continues to this day.

More Information: Plan your trip, get maps and more at the official Québec City Tourism Website, www.quebec-cite.com/en

Croisières Lachance: Cruises to Grosse Île operate from May 10 to October 8, 2023 with two daily departures. Boats depart from the marina at Berthier-sur-Mer, a one-hour drive east of Québec City. The cruise fare includes admission to the Parks Canada site. Pre-order a picnic lunch as there are no restaurant facilities on Grosse Île. https://croisiereslachance.com/home

Where to Stay: The Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is a world-renowned landmark hotel with resort amenities including a fitness centre, swimming pool and outdoor terrace. Located in the heart of Old Québec, it’s conveniently located for a day trip to Grosse Île.

Parks Canada: Plan your trip at the official Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada.

Michele Peterson is an award-winning writer who specializes in sun destinations and culinary travel. Get travel tips, destination guides and global recipes at A Taste for Travel.

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