By Mitchell Smyth
Meridian Writers’ Group
Québec—Row after row of white crosses mark the saddest place in Canada, a
cemetery on this island in the St. Lawrence estuary downstream from Quebec
Melancholy seems to ooze
from the hard soil for this is the burial place of thousands of dreams... the
dreams of a people escaping starvation and eviction. In one year alone, more
than 5,000 men, women and children died on this island.
Today the island is a
National Historic Site, with memorials to the thousands of emigrants, mostly
Irish, who died here. And a museum tells the whole tragic story.
Epidemics such as typhus
and cholera, which ravaged Europe, were brought to North America on the
emigrant ships in the early 19th century. Quebec City was the gateway to Canada
— and for many bound for the United States, too — and to stop the
spread of disease the colonial authorities established Grosse Île as a
quarantine station where emigrants would be examined before landing. That was
Its biggest test came in
1847 during the Great Famine in Ireland. Ninety thousand emigrants poured in
that summer; six out of seven of them came in the “coffin ships” —
so-called because thousands died on the way — from Cork, Limerick, Galway
In the famine years of
1845-1849, the Grosse Île record shows, 7,556 people died here, 5,424 in the
year 1847 alone, when the ships brought an unwanted passenger: typhus. Their
names are engraved on a Plexiglas wall of an outdoor memorial near what is
still called “the Irish Cemetery,” in the western corner of the island. Eight
of the 11 panels in the wall record the grim toll from ’47.
The island was
overwhelmed by the massive human cargo that summer. Ships queued up for
kilometres to land the healthy, the sick and the dying, and the disinfection
units and the hospitals bulged at the seams.
Grosse Île was in use as
a quarantine station for 105 years, until 1937, by which time medical advances
had made it obsolete. Later it was a government agricultural research station,
then in the 1980s it became a National Historic Site, called the Irish
Today visitors tour about
30 buildings, such as the disinfection quarters, the three “hotels” where healthy
passengers stayed until they got clearance to proceed, the Anglican and
Catholic chapels, and the lazaretto (quarantine hospital). Park rangers give
guided tours and a trolley takes visitors around the site.