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Hospital Island

 

By Ann Breault

Map_of_Hospital_Island.gif

Shrouded in mist and mystery is a tiny island, less than three acres in size, sitting in the north-east section of Passamaquoddy Bay, three and one half nautical miles from the port of St. Andrews. Just west of Hardwood Island, it was originally called Little Hardwood Island; later, Quarantine Island, and Hospital Island.

In 1832 it was chosen as the site of a quarantine station and cholera hospital to serve Charlotte County, part of a province-wide attempt by government to control the importation of infectious diseases, particularly cholera, an epidemic which was then raging in Europe.

Bills and receipts in the Provincial Archives give details of the building materials and labour costs. They refer to the Lazaretto of Little Hardwood Island. They also show that passengers from the vessel Susan from Cork were cared for there as early as June, 1832.[1] Another early detainee was a male passenger of the brig Hibernia suffering from smallpox.[2] There are no reports of cholera victims on the island, the overwhelming condition being typhus, or ship’s fever.

Buildings on the island consisted of a hospital (lazaretto) described as 60 by 25 feet, two stories, with plastered walls, two chimneys and a cellar. Later additions included a summer hospital, or pest house, 50 by 25 feet, a doctor’s house, keeper’s house and a shed. There was also a sailboat. There being no potable water on the island, it was ferried from nearby Hardwood Island.[3]

Sign_of_Welcome.jpg

Most passengers detained on Hospital Island, and buried there, were from Ireland. Then a bustling port, St. Andrews had the added appeal of being a short ferry-ride across the St. Croix River from the United States, the ultimate destination of thousands who arrived during the years of the great famine.

Among the many returning timber ships laden with Irish immigrants for St. Andrews were the Maryiana, the Mary and the Robert Watt; from Cork, the James and the Pallis; from Londonderry, the Elizabeth Grimmer; from Sligo, the Magna Charta; and from the Wicklow estates of Earl Fitzwilliam, the infamous Star.[4]

So great was the influx of Irish immigrants to St. Andrews that by 1851 fifty-two per cent of the heads of household in the Loyalist Town were Irish-born.

Foremost among the physicians who cared for the sick on Hospital Island was Dr. Samuel Frye who eventually contracted the fever and died. Dr. Frye ardently lobbied for improvements to facilities on the island. In June 1847 he wrote to the Magistrates:

The principal building can only contain about one hundred souls without overcrowding and is destitute of bedsteads, berths, bunks or other accommodations for beds which have to be made on the floors in promiscuous disorder and rendering it impossible to preserve order and cleanliness.
[5]

Dr. Frye was followed by Dr. S. T. Gove. Other physicians who served there were Dr. W. C. McStay, Dr. J. Thompson, and Dr. E. DeWolfe.

The exact number of deaths and burials on the island is unknown. A writer in the October 15, 1885 edition of The Bay Pilot, a St. Andrews newspaper, reflected on life in the town in the 1850s, and deaths on the island:

At this point too the noble packet ships of the last generation landed their emigrant Passengers for all ports of the Dominion and Eastern states… The first railroad in the region was built to accommodate this business, with St. Andrews as one of its termini. And so flourishing was this business that the old inhabitants still talk of the tents and rude shanties on the outskirts of the town, in which the emigrants found temporary lodgings and so miserably poor were some of them that they had little to eat but the shellfish picked up on the shore. In the bay is a small island, which since this period has been called Quarantine Island. Here the passengers of infected ships were quarantined and here about 400 of them died and were buried.
[6]

 

Dr. S. T. Gove, in his reflections on the island, recalled that between 75 and 100 passengers from the Star alone died there.[7] Other reports are more conservative. There were deaths and burials there from numerous other vessels. Were there as many as 400? Or, was the number in the range of 50 or 60? That remains a mystery.

By 1865 immigration to this area had begun to drop off and the quarantine station went out of use. Lack of fresh water and destruction from winter storms were contributing factors. The Saxby Gale of 1869 ravaged the island, bringing down the weakened buildings.

The exact location of the burial ground on Hospital Island is unknown; however, it appears to have been situated at the mercy of the winds and waves of 1869. One report states:

Aerial_view_of_Hospital_Island.jpg … the sea broke so violently upon the Island, as to make serious inroads on the soil, washing away the earth from the outer edge of the Irish emigrants’ grave yard and uncovering the coffins, in some cases tearing out the ends of the same, exposing the ghastly contents of skull and bones, and in some instances washing them out; even now the curious who visit the Island can see the arm or leg bones sticking out through the soil.[8]

 

This issue made headlines in 1878, almost a decade later. Newspapers and politicians battled over whose responsibility it was to re-inter the bones of these unfortunate Irish immigrants.

Reports of bones washing to shore on the mainland, being gathered and sold to junk dealers for a penny a pound, and skulls being used by thoughtless boys as footballs added to the fury of what became known as the Hardwood Island Scandal.
[9]

Referred to as “A Real Irish Grievance,” the issue was finally put to rest when it was reported in February, 1878 that “the proper department (of government) had already taken measures to ensure the decent burial of the remains on a portion of Hardwood Island where they will be better protected from the fury of the winds and waves.”[10]

Over the 35 years of its use Hospital Island became the last resting-place of many immigrant children, weakened by the long passage and devastated by the fever. One can only imagine the state of the grieving parents, the mournful keening of the mothers. Over the years, people walking along the mainland shore or on nearby woodland trails in the vicinity of the island, have reported hearing strange and disturbing cries, cries which elderly residents, now deceased, referred to as the “screeching Irish.” [11] Today, if heard, this sound is thought to be that of the Eastern Cougar.

 

Hospital Island eventually went into private hands and in the early decades of the 20th century was used to pasture sheep.[12] It has long been a nesting ground for seagulls and is now treeless.

In 2004 it was purchased by a well-known couple from Fayette, Maine. Sadly, in 2005 the husband died in a farm accident associated with harvesting trees to be turned into lumber for an 1835-era house to be built on the island. His wife carried out his dream of completing the house, only to be killed in 2007, skiing into a tree after completing a charity ski race. These tragic events orphaned their eight-year-old daughter, Molly.

The future of the island is unknown. The owners had erected a sign on the island welcoming people to use the beaches when they were not in residence and urging them to respect the property.

In 1995 the Charlotte County Chapter of the Irish Canadian Cultural Association of New Brunswick erected a Celtic Cross on the nearby St. Andrews shoreline to honour the memory of those Irish Immigrants who died while quarantined on Hospital Island.


BIBLIOGRAPHY
 

------, The Bay Pilot, St Andrews, NB, 15 October 1885

 

Frye, Dr. S., Letter to the Magistrates of Charlotte County, 9 June 1847.

 

------, Generations, Fall 2007, Fredericton: New Brunswick Genealogical Society, Inc, 2007.

 

------, Oral history sessions with Harry Mallory and Wid Fiander.

 

------, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Papers (PANB) R.S.148.

 

------, Reports of Ship Returns of Charlotte County

 

------, St. Andrews Courant, June 15, 132.

 

------, St. John Herald, 28 December 1877, 9 February 1878, 9 March 1878.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 


[1] Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB) R. S. 148,1-36-a

[2] St. Andrews Courant, June 15, 1832

[3] Stewart, Dr. W. Brenton, Medicine in New Brunswick, Published by the New Brunswick Medical Society , 1974, p.85

[4] Reports of Ship Returns of Charlotte County

[5] Letter from Dr. S. Frye to the Magistrates of Charlotte Co., June 9, 1847

[6] The Bay Pilot, St. Andrews, NB, October 15, 1885

[7] Generations,Fall 2007, p.15

[8] St. John Hearld, December 28, 1877 (Note: A local belief was that coffins were not used on the Quarantine Island, but that bodies were simply buried in the ground with lime “20 lbs over and 20 lbs under”.)

[9] Ibid., February 9, 1878

[10] Ibid., March 9, 1878

[11] As told by the late Harry Mallory of St. Andrews, local historian and school principal

[12] As recalled by the late Wid Fiander of Bocabec

 
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