What Travel Writers Say

Where immigrants landed

© By Pat Brennan
  It was one of the finest hotels in Canada but you wouldn't want to stay there. Although it was the first building in Canada to be built with reinforced concrete and one of the first in the country to have electric lights, its guests couldn't wait to check out. It even had a classy name, the First Class Hotel.
     Reluctant guests lounged on the long verandah with its spectacular view down the St. Lawrence River and dreamed of checking out so they could continue their voyage to a new life in Canada. This historic hotel still stands on Grosse Ile, a beautiful, but tragic island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, about 48 kilometres downstream from Québec City.
     It was the first stop in Canada for more than four million immigrants and for many thousands, their only stop. They are buried in mass graves on the rocky island.
     Grosse Ile operated for 105 years until 1937 as a quarantine station for immigrants arriving by boat from Europe. In the 1800s the cheapest fare to the new world was via Québec City and the immigrants that passed through Grosse Ile spread throughout the continent to create the North America we see today.
     In the early 1800s most of those immigrants were fleeing a Europe rife with infectious diseases, particularly cholera. To try and maintain a healthy colony in Québec City, government officials opened a quarantine station on Grosse Ile and all vessels coming up the St. Lawrence were required to stop there for inspection. Grosse Ile was not the largest island in the area, but it was the highest and that meant cannons could be placed high enough to blast any vessel trying to sneak past the quarantine station.
     Life was rugged in the early days of the quarantine station that opened in 1832, as little was known about infectious diseases and hygiene was a low priority. Sick passengers lived among healthy passengers on the island, as did the island's staff and their families.


     The tragedy of the Irish famine had a big impact on Grosse Ile. Nearly 100,000 starving Irish left their homes in 1847 to sail to Québec City. Thousands died at sea of typhoid and their bodies were carried on to Grosse Ile. Several thousand died on the island too during their quarantine period.
     About 6,000 Irish immigrants are buried on the island and many of their names are etched into glass murals erected amidst the trees beside a peaceful meadow. Their unmarked graves lie beneath the green.


     The Irish tragedy triggered major changes on Grosse Ile. Sick passengers were sent to hospitals built on the east end of the island. Healthy passengers and sailors went to the west end and staff of the quarantine station and their families lived in a village between the two immigrant camps. Armed guards stood watch to enforce the separation.
     Ship operators eventually demanded that the west-end barracks be replaced with hotels to house healthy passengers during their quarantine observation time, which lasted up to 40 days. Three of those hotels still stand on the island, which in 1984 was declared a National Historic Site, maybe the most impressionable in Canada.

Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.

Photo Credits
Parks Canada
Pat Brennan

If you go
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Quebec Tourism: http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/accueil0.html
Grosse Isle: http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/qc/grosseile/index_E.asp
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grosse-%C3%8Ele,_Quebec

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