The Sad Story Of Partridge Island

September 1, 2007 by Linda Hersey

PHOTO: MARK HEMMINGS/NEW BRUNSWICK MUSEUM COLLECTION—X13631

PHOTO: MARK HEMMINGS/NEW BRUNSWICK MUSEUM COLLECTION—X13631

Partridge Island, viewed from Saint John.

It’s considered one of the best-kept historical secrets in the country–Partridge Island, also known as Canada’s Emerald Isle.

But unless you’ve got special permission from the Canadian Coast Guard, about the only way you’ll get a good look at this national and provincial historic site is through a pair of binoculars from the mainland in Saint John, N.B.

Located at the mouth of Saint John Harbour, this modest–approximately 24 acres–piece of real estate is connected to the mainland by an old stone breakwater. According to native legend, the great hero-god Glooscap had a hand in its creation when he used a club to smash a dam that had been built at the Reversing Falls, located some distance away. This event, according to the story, caused a chunk of the dam to be carried by the rushing water to the mouth of the harbour, and it explains why the Mi’kmaq name for the island is Quak’m'kagan’ik, or “a piece cut out.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia, which is published online by the Historica Foundation, points out among other facts that the island is some 300 million years old–a “volcanic ash deposit” that is now “sparsely covered by birch, spruce, willow and alder.”

Europeans learned of the island after French explorer Samuel de Champlain came ashore in the very early 1600s. Struck by the enormous abundance of ruffed grouse on the then heavily wooded island, it was named Île aux Perdrix or the Island of Partridges. In any event, the island was destined to play an important role in Canadian history.

Champlain’s Acadian descendants set up a “small base” on the shores of the island, and after the Loyalists arrived in 1783 and the City of Saint John was formed, it was quickly understood that the island’s location made it an ideal spot for navigational aids to safeguard passage into the harbour.

In the late 1780s, enabling legislation was passed by the New Brunswick legislature to build a lighthouse. It stipulated that levies on ships entering the harbour would pay to maintain the wooden structure. The Partridge Island lighthouse, built in 1791, was the first for New Brunswick, and the third to have been built in Canada up to that time. Located on the western tip, the lighthouse was manned by Captain Samuel Duffy, and it lasted until the early 1830s when it was consumed by fire. Back then, fossil fuels were used to create the source of light, and the burning of such fuels resulted in thick, black smoke. That meant that the lighthouse’s reflecting prisms had to be washed regularly, and the wicks kept trimmed.

Just as important as the creation of light for navigation, was the creation of sound. Foghorns were manually operated, and so when it got foggy the keeper himself would have to blow the horn.

Ship navigators were aided by the addition of a minute gun in 1801, but on Sept. 8, 1831, a better solution was at hand when a great bell–weighing 1,000 pounds–arrived aboard a ship from Liverpool, England. This giant fog bell was placed atop a huge tower and operated mechanically, but over time maintenance proved to be expensive.

Meanwhile, something revolutionary was in the wings, and Partridge Island would be the first in the world to put it into operation: the steam-powered fog alarm.

The inventor was Robert Foulis, an engineer and artist from Glasgow, Scotland, who moved to Canada in 1818 after his first wife died in childbirth. In 1822, while settled in Saint John, he was appointed deputy land surveyor, and was responsible for surveying the upper Saint John River to see if it would be suitable for steamship navigation. He later patented a gas light device for use in lighthouses.

Foulis developed the idea to build the revolutionary fog alarm–using a steam whistle–in the 1850s. He toiled away for several years, but could not interest the authorities in his work even after he submitted his plans to the Lighthouse Commissioners. He soon learned that a local engineer had built the device, based on his plans. He eventually won recognition as the inventor, and was credited for his work, but even though the device was in wide use, he never received a penny for the design, and was reported to have died in poverty in 1866.

Foulis’s invention was hailed as a marvel of its time, and reportedly “saved more ships and lives than any other navigational aid.” Unfortunately, there is no museum for this piece of history; the original Foulis alarm was reported to have found its way to a Saint John wharf where it remained unrecognized before it was believed to have been junked.

Today, the island has a light tower that was automated in 1989. However, before automation more than three dozen principal lighthouse keepers and assistants served mariners for nearly 200 years. Their duties were multifold, and some of them served a role as well with the Partridge Island quarantine and immigration station–the first in North America.

Quarantine stations were set up to control the spread of infectious diseases, including cholera, typhus, smallpox, scarlet fever, yellow fever and measles. They were located on designated islands close to land, such as Partridge Island, Middle Island in Miramichi, N.B., and the well-known Grosse Île located in the St. Lawrence River close to the port of Quebec (The Dead Of Grosse Île, March/ April 2006).

After its establishment as a quarantine station as part of the incorporation charter of the City of Saint John in 1785, countless people passed through the Partridge Island checkpoint where they were subjected to a kerosene shower, followed by a hot water shower. Despite these tough measures, disease did–on occasion–spread to the mainland of Saint John, resulting in several hundreds of deaths.

Canada experienced a huge influx of European immigrants at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and many of these people found their way to New Brunswick. Remarkably, between 1819 and 1829 alone nearly 30,000 were inspected at the Partridge Island quarantine station. During the middle 1800s, the station’s personnel were tested beyond their limits when immigrants by the thousands arrived from Ireland, many of them seriously ill. Between 1812 and 1850 about 71 per cent of immigrants came from Ireland, earning Partridge Island the Canada’s Emerald Isle moniker.

Irish immigration peaked during 1845-47 because of the potato famine. In 1844, 2,000 Irish immigrants made their way to New Brunswick; 1845 saw 6,000 and that swelled in 1846 to 9,000 Irish immigrants. Most were destitute, and because they were already weak from starvation they were easy targets for typhus and other killer diseases. Some were sick even before they left Ireland. There were hospitals on the island, but they were too small to handle all of the sick.

Shipmasters were held accountable for their part though, and in 1846 there were 13 prosecutions and convictions before Saint John magistrates, the charge: overcrowded, poor quality ships, with insufficient provisions for passengers. Immigrants travelled in dark and often wet general storage areas of ships, becoming human cargo in rough crossings that lasted weeks. Many of those who died in transit were buried at sea by order of the ship’s captain, and sometimes this was used as an attempt by the captain to keep his vessel out of quarantine.

The year 1847 has been described as the worst–the Irish themselves called it “Black Forty-Seven.” The potato crop failed entirely that year, and tens of thousands left Ireland. A large percentage of them headed for British North America, and little Partridge Island received 15,000 during the summer, throwing the already over-burdened hospitals and other facilities into complete chaos. In June alone that year 35 vessels delivered 5,800 passengers to the island.

More than 2,000 died that summer, some 800 of them during the awful voyages, another 600 on the island itself and many others after they reached living quarters on the mainland. Those whose last breath was at the station, were received by the soil of Partridge Island in her graveyards of various faiths. Among the dead that summer was a young Saint John physician, Dr. James P. Collins who succumbed only three weeks after going to the island to help. He was just 23, and recently married.

Collins’s story is tragic, indeed, but he was not the only doctor on the island. George Harding and William Harding were two other physicians who suffered and could have easily died that summer from highly infectious disease.

On one occasion–when all of the doctors were sick–more than 40 bodies, which had been stored in the ‘dead house’ for burial, were placed in a mass grave. For years after, it was said that the spot was clearly distinguishable by “vivid green grass nourished by bones.” Clearly, the suffering on that little island must have been indescribable.

A cholera epidemic in the 1850s brought more hardship and death which spread from the island to the mainland. But despite the precautions that were taken, approximately 1,500 people died during the outbreak.

In the decades that followed, immigration was far less traumatic. The focus shifted to eastern Europe and Russia during the latter part of the century, and many Jewish families arrived in Saint John looking for a better way of life. Expansions to the station were carried out in the ensuing years until it was eventually closed altogether in 1941.

That dark, but fascinating chapter in the island’s history is now closed, but there remains a lasting memory to that most trying and appalling time. In 1927, a 40-foot Celtic Cross was erected in memory of the Irish whose deaths occurred in such great numbers that it was often difficult to keep tally. The memorial, which was rededicated in 1985, sits on a knoll overlooking the gravesite where many were laid to rest. Its builder, George McArthur, was buried at its base in 1932.

If Partridge Island proved herself pivotal in providing aid to mariners and opening her arms to immigrants, then she was just as convenient to help keep unwanted marine traffic out of the harbour. Her history in this regard spans nearly 150 years, beginning with the building of a wooden army barrack in 1800, so ordered by the Duke of Kent. It was the perfect location for a fort, given the island’s high cliffs.

The island again experienced fortification during the War of 1812–and continuously until after the Fenian Raids in 1866. In 1858, under the directions of the “home government,” heavy calibre gun emplacements were added. More island defences were installed and manned during WW I, partly as a precaution against German submarines.

During the interwar years Partridge Island held little interest for the military, but in 1939 additional gun installations, underground powder magazines and observation posts were added, and the old quarantine station was fitted for military use. The threat of German submarine attack again served as the catalyst.

Although reinforced against even the most hostile (and foolhardy) invader, there was never a shot fired “in anger or defence” during those 150 years. In fact, it was the most boring of postings as noted in Gunner Philip McBride’s journal: “We were placed on Partridge Island in barracks and I think it was one of the most dismal places to keep a crowd of men. On fine days we marched up and down by the hours and drilled with rifles and bayonets and on wet days listened to hours of tiresome lectures.”

Eventually, the fighting men left, and immigrants seeking a new life passed by her shores.

The breakwater, connecting the island to the mainland, is there to control the powerful Bay of Fundy currents and tides that are present in the harbour. It is definitely not a causeway or a walking bridge. Its huge granite stones, some weighing more than 10 tons, look like they could be walked on, but anyone attempting that should know that many would-be adventurers have had to be rescued over the years. Unpredictable maritime weather can make the rocks slick, and huge gaps of several feet make for perilous footing. Access to the federally owned island–via the breakwater or by sea–is forbidden, with trespassers subject to penalty.

While the island no longer has permanent residents, it did–up until the late 1940s–support a tiny fishing community. Thankfully there are old photographs that show the different stages in the island’s history. Some of these capture modest moments in the lives of the people who lived there, including scenes of old houses, families with young children and a school.

Standing at the entrance to one of the busiest harbours on Canada’s eastern seaboard, it was predicted that Partridge Island would become one of the finest sea resorts in the Maritimes. With her sweeping panoramic views it seems an ideal retreat. However, several years ago the federal government rolled up the welcome mat to the public because of ongoing vandalism. Those who have been there often speak about the breathtaking sunsets. They may also describe the delicious rock cranberries that grow in abundance or the other plant species that flourish in the delicate maritime ecosystem. Surprisingly, there is plenty of wildlife, including mink, muskrat, otter and various birds.

But alas, the beloved partridge–the namesake of the island with the engaging legacy–is long gone. Can the same be said for the island’s opportunity to be recognized and honoured for its contribution to Canadian history through development and perhaps controlled public access? There has been much talk and money spent, but unlike her counterpart Grosse Île, Partridge Island remains a scattered assortment of memories, sitting–for the most part–as one of Canada’s best kept historical secrets.

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