Tuesday, September 04, 2007

"Canada's Ellis Island"

You've probably heard of Ellis Island, the famous island in New York Harbor where immigrants were processed on their arrival in the US, but few outside New Brunswick have heard of Partridge Island, which could be considered Canada's equivalent. I took this shot of Partridge Island on a Saturday drive to Saint John some weeks ago but almost forgot about it until now.

The island's history is not a happy one. First used as a quarantine station as early as 1785, it it mostly remembered now for the role it played during the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s, when a large influx of Irish refugees relocated to Saint John. Between 1845 and 1847 approximately 30,000 Irish arrived, more people than were living in the city of Saint John at the time. In 1847, known to the Irish as "Black 47," the worst year of the Famine, some 16,000 immigrants, almost all of them from Ireland, arrived at Partridge Island.

While the hospital could only properly accommodate 200 people at a time, it's estimated that 4,500 sick people were cared for on the island during the period of the Irish Famine. The overcrowding was said to be horrific. The doctor himself died of typhus in 1847. Hundreds of people died and were buried on the island, with no record kept of their names.

If there was scant ability or desire to honour the memory of those who died at the time, there were efforts made to atone later. The island's cemeteries were finally consecrated in 1925, and in 1927 a large Celtic cross was erected on the island in their memory (a replica is in, appropriately enough, St. Patrick's Square at the end of Prince William Street in Saint John) . In 1988, the poor unfortunate souls were reburied in St. Mary's Cemetery in Saint John (presumably so that their graves could be tended - no one lives on the island now).

Ships were quarantined off this island for weeks at a time if illness was discovered on-board, their miserable, crowded, seasick cargoes just having to suffer out the illness or tolerate the wait. It's sad to think of so much human misery, and at the same time inspiring to think of what the human spirit can endure if it has just that one, crucial, essential thing: hope. Hope for a new start and a new life in a new land - and indeed while many died, many more of them found just that.

There is still a working light house on the island that you can't quite make out in this shot, but it was shining brightly on that beautiful summer day. That's all that's out there, now, that and a few empty buildings.

Unless you believe in ghosts.




Blogger Sherwood Harrington said...

This coast of your southern neighbor has its own island of pride and shame: Angel Island.

Diane and I plan to stroll the island on our next ramble north of San Francisco. I don't know when that will be, but your Partridge Island post will be in our minds whenever it is.

2:21 a.m.  
Anonymous Sheila said...

I very much enjoyed your post regarding Partridge Island! We are currently working on a documentary about the Island, please see
I also invite you to join the discussion board

12:14 p.m.  

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