As I sat in the Les Croisieres Lachance tour boat crossing from Berthier sur Mer to Grosse Ile (Gross Isle), both near Quebec City, I thought about my grandmother’s journey to Canada that culminated at Grosse Ile. She would have been 22 when the SS. Lake Manitoba departed from Liverpool, England on September 1, 1911 with my mother, not quite one, and my uncle who was almost three. She was joining my grandfather who was already in Canada. Knowing that she was prone to seasickness, I can’t imagine caring for two small children in her steerage accommodations for the ten days that it took to cross the Atlantic.
In her memoir, my mother relates,
…we could not leave the boat until I was vaccinated. The first one did not take, so they gave me another one. This one did not take either, so they gave me two more and then they all took. I’m sure I was not a very pleasant child with such a sore arm.
My mother would not have realized that her first stop was Grosse Ile in the St. Lawrence River, the main port of arrival for immigrants to Canada. The public health facilities on the island were constructed in 1832 at the time of the worldwide cholera pandemic, and continued as a way to quarantine those passengers who were unvaccinated, ill, or who traveled in close proximity to individuals who were sick. More than four million immigrants stopped here from 1832 to 1937.
My grandmother would have been detained at Grosse Ile until my mother’s small pox vaccinations ‘took.’
My visit to Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site retraced their introduction to Canada. Grosse Ile (which is French for “big island”, even though it’s only a 1/2 mile wide and about 1-1/2 miles long). As the only English-speaker on our boat, I was a tour of one as I visited the different sectors of the island.
The first building I encountered as I disembarked would have been the first stop for my grandmother and her children, as well as the other 1060 passengers – the disinfection station.
When I think about my various experiences going through customs, it pales with the immigration process during that period of time. How terrifying and overwhelming it must have been for her to leave the ship, holding a baby with one arm, probably a suitcase with their worldly possessions in the other, and a toddler hanging on to the edge of it. They would have first been examined and questioned by a doctor and nurse team and, if healthy, they proceeded onto the showers. In the shower stall they had to remove all of their clothing, put it in a sack that was tagged and placed with their luggage in a mesh basket where it would roll through a hot steam disinfectant process. Their clothes would have been returned to them after they had showered.
I couldn’t help think about a similar exhibit I had seen at the Holocaust Museum – where the outcome was different.
If there were sick people on the ship, the healthy passengers would be detained on the island until the incubation period was over. Originally, all of the passengers were housed together. Eventually, separate dormitories were built to simulate their ship accommodations. My personal tour guide received permission to take me in the third class dormitory, used today for the seasonal employees. My grandmother and her children would have shared a small room with five other women. The children undoubtedly shared a bunk with their mothers. Like today’s hostels, there were communal cooking facilities. The first class accommodations were called a hotel, where they had private rooms and a chef that prepared meals.
In the midst of a thunder shower, I was the only passenger on a trolley with an English-speaking guide that toured the eastern quarantine section. As we walked through the hospital ward, the guide showed me where notes that had been written on the wall were preserved with a clear plastic shield. In a few cases, the scrawls were a nurse’s notes of a patient’s condition. Others marked the stay of patients, e.g. John Andrew, 9 Oct. 1847.
A Celtic cross stands on the island’s highest point, honoring the 5,424 Irish immigrants who died here during the 1847 typhoid epidemic. In a small valley at the base of the hill there is a cemetery where most of these immigrants are buried in mass graves. Nearby is a listing by year of all of the immigrants that died on Grosse Ile. My Irish ancestors arrived in Canada in 1812, so pre-dated Grosse Ile.
As our tour boat left the dock, two of the costumed guides waved good-bye
and I again pondered my grandmother’s voyage. On September 13, 1911 she and her children would have sailed on to Quebec, where it took two and a half hours for them all to disembark – steerage passengers going last. The ships manifest notes that the Canadian Pacific Railway passengers, which would have included my grandmother who was meeting her husband in Nova Scotia, departed at noon – their journey to a new life almost over.