Canadian Immigration and Grosse-Île History
The island of Grosse-Île, which is a part of the Isle aux Grues archipelago, is situated in the St. Lawrence River’s centre, about 48 kilometres (30 miles) downstream from Québec City. A quarantine facility was established on the island in 1832 as a result of worries about contagious diseases.
Once freshly arrived potential immigrants had finished their quarantine, they were allowed to proceed to the port of Québec City to complete the immigration process. Between 1832 and 1950, more than 4 million immigrants travelled through Grosse-Île.
Immigration Growth and Infectious Diseases
An increasing number of people began leaving the British Isles to start new lives in North America when the Napoleonic Wars in Europe came to an end in 1815. By 1830, the port of Québec, which served as the principal entry point into what is now Canada, saw an average of 30,000 new immigrants per year, with almost two-thirds of them hailing from Ireland.
Major epidemic outbreaks occurred in Europe and Great Britain at the same time that immigration to North America was rising. In 1831-2, Britain saw what is known as the second cholera epidemic (1829–1837). Authorities decided to establish the quarantine station on Grosse-Île in 1832 as a result of the sickness that these immigrants were bringing to North America.
A law passed by the Lower Canada (now Québec) Parliament in 1832 designated Grosse Île as a quarantine area in an effort to stop the cholera epidemic from spreading throughout the territory. The law mandated that inbound travellers with symptoms of disease stay on the island for the duration of the presumptive incubation period.
The epidemics peaked in 1834 with a second cholera outbreak, peaked in 1847-8 with a fatal typhus outbreak, peaked in 1854 with another cholera outbreak, and then peaked in 1854.
1847 Typhus Epidemic
More than 1 million people died and fled Ireland as a result of the devastating Irish Potato Famine, which started in 1845. The worst year of the famine, 1847, also happened to be the year that typhus broke out across Europe.
On crowded ships with unclean circumstances that allowed the disease to spread unchecked, an unprecedented number of Irish immigrants (approximately 100,000 sailing for Québec in 1847) set sail. More than 5,000 immigrants lost their lives in transit, and many more were sick or weak from starvation when they reached Grosse-Île.
The island lacked the resources to care for a large number of sick immigrants, and at the time, little was known about the transmission mechanisms of infectious diseases or the most effective ways to treat them. Thousands of immigrants perished at Grosse-Île in 1847 as a result.
Treatment of Infectious Diseases Advances
Following 1847, knowledge about how to treat infectious infections was gained, and efforts were made to update the facilities. Comfortable first-, second-, and third-class hotels were built on the island starting in the late 19th century, and the procedure for processing immigrants through quarantine was improved.
Up to the First World War and the Great Depression, which significantly reduced immigration, large numbers of immigrants kept arriving and passing through the facilities. The Grosse-Île quarantine station was shut down in 1937 after it was decided that, in the majority of cases, quarantine was no longer necessary because any illnesses could be treated immediately upon arrival at the Immigrant Hospital in Québec City.
Canadian National Historic Site
Today, Grosse-ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada honor both the significance of immigration to Canada (primarily through the entry port of Québec) and the awful experiences Irish immigrants had, particularly during the typhus epidemic of 1847. The Grosse Île quarantine station has been under Parks Canada’s management since 1993 and was designated as having national historic value in 1974.
Making Travel Plans to Grosse-Île, Quebec
From Québec City and Rivière-du-Loup, respectively, it takes 45 minutes and 1.5 hours to get to Grosse-Île.
Directions to Grosse-Île
There are only two methods to get to the island: by plane or by boat, however, it goes without saying that boat travel is more popular. Private ferry operator Les Croisières Lachance offers trips to Grosse-Île, Quebec, from Berthier-sur-Mer on the St. Lawrence River’s southern bank. Tickets for the cruise must be reserved in advance and include admission to Parks Canada.
From Québec City, go south over the Pierre-Laporte Bridge and follow Highway 20 East in the direction of Rivière-du-Loup. Take exit 364, head south toward Berthier-sur-Mer, and then follow the marina signs. It takes roughly 45 minutes to travel from Québec City, 2 hours 50 minutes to travel to Montréal, and 1 hour 25 minutes to travel to Rivière-du-Loup.
There are a variety of cruises available from late May to early October, depending on when you want to go. There was only one cruise per day while we were there in June, departing from Berthier-sur-Mer at 9:45 am and arriving at Grosse-Île at roughly 10:30 am. We were given 4 hours on the island before the ship left once more at 2:30 p.m. In peak season, there are typically two cruises offered per day. For available dates and times, view the cruise schedule online.
What You Must Understand
- The site is open seasonally from late May to early October (May 18–October 10, 2022), with limited hours on Saturdays and Sundays through June 23 and daily from June 24 to September 5. From September 5 through October 10, the park is accessible Wednesday through Sunday. The duration of the visit is determined on the private ferry company’s timetable (generally about 4 hours).
- The price the boat business charges includes Parks Canada admission costs.
- Always use sturdy walking shoes.
- Since you’ll be spending a lot of time outside on the island, wear proper clothing. Even when the weather is nice on land, the boat journey can still be chilly.
- Although there are picnic tables and interior dining space, there isn’t a complete meal service, so bring your own food or place an order in advance with the boat operator.