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Saturday, August 12, 2017
The Black Rock
Montreal, refugees and the Irish famine of 1847
Beyond Black Rock: Plans for a memorial park to honour as many as 6,000 typhus victims from the Summer of Sorrow appear to be in jeopardy.
What if thousands of people lay dying on Montreal’s waterfront?
What if some of the city’s best doctors, nurses, members of the clergy and the mayor were caring for the sick newcomers at the risk of their own lives?
What if the dead were being buried in hastily dug trenches next to the makeshift hospital, piled three coffins deep?
What if the death toll rose to the equivalent of 12 per cent of the city’s population?
You’d think a city couldn’t forget a thing like that.
The events of Black 47 are very real to Montreal-born, Dublin-based historian Jason King. On visits to his hometown, King, academic coordinator for the Irish Heritage Trust, which operates the Irish National Famine Museum, always makes a point of visiting the site in Pointe-St-Charles where as many as 6,000 people died of typhus in 1847.
You pass under a railway bridge, past a Costco store, derelict warehouses and empty parking lots bordered by concrete blocks. It’s easy to miss the monument to the typhus victims — a rough boulder in the median between traffic lanes on Bridge St., near the Victoria Bridge. On it are inscribed the words:
“To Preserve from Desecration the Remains of 6000 Immigrants Who died of Ship Fever A.D. 1847-48
This Stone is erected by the Workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts Employed in the Construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D. 1859.”
King contemplates the stone in silence, broken only by passing vehicles, the sighing wind and screeching of seagulls.
“You do feel a real sense of connectedness when you come to the actual place,” he says.
“Usually, when I come I’m by myself. There’s really nobody here. There’s passing traffic, but that kind of becomes white noise after a minute or two. The rock and the strange, empty parking lot. It’s a very moving site, a very strange site,” King says.
Dozens of cities, including Toronto, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, have sites commemorating the one million Irish who fled their homeland during the Great Famine of 1846-51 — of whom an estimated one in five died en route of disease and starvation.
Each year, some 20,000 tourists journey to Grosse-Île, the former quarantine station near Quebec City where more than 5,000 famine migrants died in 1847.
But Montreal, whose Black Rock is the world’s oldest famine memorial, has no appropriate place of remembrance — just this dangerous spot in the middle of a busy commuter route.
Yet it was in Montreal that the tragedy struck hardest, and that the community most heroically rose to the challenge of helping the sick and dying, King says.
“Montreal was in a sense the epicentre of the 1847 famine migration,” he says.
“It was the largest city in British North America. It was the only major city to have famine refugees in massive numbers come into the city itself.”
For the past five years, members of the local Irish community have been working to create a memorial park honouring those who fled the famine, only to die on Montreal’s waterfront.
Their plan calls for moving the Black Rock to the future park on the east side of Bridge St. at rue des Irlandais, an area now occupied by a parking lot and Lafarge cement site.
But in May, organizers of the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation learned the land earmarked for the park had been sold to Hydro-Québec, to build an electrical substation to supply the future Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM) train. Mayor Denis Coderre, who had initially pledged support for the park, now insists the substation must go ahead but has promised to find a compromise.
Coderre and other city officials refused to be interviewed for this article.
The city is also keeping mum on its plans for the rest of the area between Bridge St., the Bonaventure Expressway and Mill St. — formerly the working-class neighbourhood of Goose Village, which the city demolished in 1964. The Coderre administration is reportedly eyeing the site for a future baseball stadium, to bring back Major League Baseball to Montreal.
“The Goose Village sector is targeted in the Stratégie Centre-Ville (a downtown development plan) which will be unveiled in the near future,” is all city spokesperson Jules Chamberland would say in an email exchange.
The REM project calls for a light-rail station underneath the Lachine Canal’s Peel Basin, with a north entrance in Griffintown and a south entrance about a 10-minute walk from the Goose Village site.
But to King, any project that brushes aside the site’s tragic history would be a violation of the last resting place of the thousands who died.
“You can’t imagine this happening anywhere else, that you’d have a mass grave in complete abandonment,” he says.
Sylvain Gaudet, a researcher with the Société d’histoire de Pointe-Saint-Charles, has pored over newspapers, maps and property records to document the burial grounds where the typhus victims were laid to rest. Initially, the sick were housed in sheds near the Peel Basin; later, sheds were built for them on the Goose Village site. Archaeological research is needed to determine what traces remain of the thousands buried at the two sites, Gaudet said.
Anne-Marie Balac, an archaeologist who worked for Quebec’s Ministry of Culture for 27 years and is now a consultant, said “it’s unthinkable” to allow any project to be built without a thorough investigation of what lies under the ground.
“We know it has a very high archaeological potential because it’s a cemetery,” she said.
Several bodies have been unearthed over the years, including during roadwork and building of the Costco, leaving no doubt that the site is a former cemetery, Balac said.
In 1942, excavations near the entrance to the Victoria Bridge turned up the coffins of 12 typhus victims in a trench-like grave. They were reinterred near the Black Rock.
“It’s urgent to act before going too far,” Balac said.
* * *
In the spring of 1847, Montrealers braced for an influx from famine-stricken Ireland, where the potato crop had failed in both of the previous two years.
“We learn from British papers and private letters published in those of the United States, that the preparations for emigration from Britain, and especially from Ireland, are unprecedentedly great,” the Montreal Witness newspaper reported on March 8.
Fearing a deluge of undesirables, the United States tightened regulations for passenger ships, pushing up travel costs.
This meant the poorest immigrants would be forced to travel via Quebec City and Montreal, the Witness correctly predicted.
Soon “our shores are likely to be thronged with emigrants, chiefly of a class who will have little or nothing left when they arrive,” the paper warned, urging that “no time ought to be lost” in making preparations.
But nothing could have prepared Montrealers for what they saw when sick and starving immigrants began stepping off steamboats from Quebec City.
“Good God! What a spectacle. Hundreds of people, most of them lying naked on planks haphazardly, men, women and children, sick, moribund and cadavers; all of this confusion hit the eyes at once,” the Annals of the Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns) reported on June 7.
The overcrowded “coffin ships” that brought the migrants to the New World — often Canadian timber vessels making the return trip with a human cargo — were the perfect breeding ground for typhus, spread by body lice infected with the Rickettsia prowazekii bacterium. (The cause would not be discovered until 1916.)
“Hundreds of poor people, men, women, and children of all ages, from the drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth, and breathing a fetid atmosphere…” Irish landowner and social reformer StephenDe Verewrote of a crossing to Quebec in 1847.
A foul odour wafted from the immigrant ships, like the stink of a dunghill on a foggy day, observed Grosse-Île’s medical superintendent, Dr. George Douglas.
“I never saw people so indifferent to life – they would continue in the same berth with a dead person until the seamen or captain dragged out the corpse with boat hooks,” Douglas wrote in a letter to the chief immigration agent in Quebec City.
Of the 100,000 who sailed for British North America in 1847, an estimated 70,000 arrived in Montreal, then a town of 50,000.
At first, the sick were housed in existing sheds on the south bank of the Peel Basin of the Lachine Canal. As the epidemic spread, prominent citizens demanded that a quarantine station be set up on the Boucherville Islands. But authorities rejected that idea as impractical and decided to build new sheds on the shore of the St. Lawrence, approximately where the Black Rock stands today. At the time, the site was on the waterfront but today the river is farther away because landfill has altered the shoreline.
By Aug. 1, patients were being cared for in 21 new, well-ventilated sheds, with a total capacity of 1,800. (Good ventilation was considered essential for healing because people then believed disease was spread by miasmas, or bad air.)
Those who died were buried next to the sheds, in long trenches where the coffins were piled three deep.
“The sheds were more or less here, on the waterfront,” King says.
“On the one hand, it’s a scene of utter desolation and desperation, with hundreds of people dying in abject misery, but also there’s a lot of compassion and there’s a lot of caring towards them,” he says.
While the tragedy was the city’s darkest moment, it was also in some ways its finest hour, he says.
“For all of the deaths, all of the anxiety and the fear, it’s in many ways a positive story. It’s a story of self-sacrifice, a story of people rising to the occasion,” he adds.
Nuns, priests, Protestant clergy and others disregarded their own safety to care for the newcomers. The Mohawks of Kahnawake brought food for the starving strangers.
“These are much, much bigger challenges than we can possibly imagine. When there were real risks, we accepted them all, with a generosity of spirit I think we rarely see today anywhere,” King says.
Estimates of the death toll in Montreal in 1847 vary from 3,579 by Nov. 1 — the number reported by Canada’s chief immigration agent in Quebec City — to the 6,000 recorded on the Black Rock, which includes deaths in 1848. In its report for 1847, the city’s emigration committee stated 3,862 died of typhus in Montreal that year.
Quebec families adopted hundreds of Irish orphans at the urging of Catholic bishop Ignace Bourget. Their descendants are among the 40 per cent of Quebecers who claim some Irish ancestry.
“When the Irish settled in urban areas, they became English. When they settled in rural areas, they became French-Canadian, retaining their Irish surnames but otherwise indistinguishable from everyone else,” King notes.
Today, as Haitian asylum-seekers are sheltered in the Olympic Stadium and Syrian refugees adjust to life in Canada, the city’s response to the famine migrants of 1847 sends a powerful message, King says.
“After that initial moment of panic, it’s a story of people becoming accepted into their new communities, people becoming new French-Canadians or Irish-Canadians,” King says.
“In a nutshell, it’s a story of integration.”
* * *
Voices from Montreal’s Summer of Sorrow
Numerous sources, including records kept by religious communities and newspaper reports, paint a vivid account of the famine migration to Montreal.
BITTERNESS AND HOPE AS MONTREAL IRISH COMMEMORATE 1847 FAMINE
“One of the most remarkable things is that the Annals of the Grey Nuns are one of the most detailed records of any famine site anywhere in the world,” historian Jason King says.
“There are very absorbing descriptions of people arriving in unprecedented numbers,” he says.
“We’re very lucky to have those records.”
Local newspapers recounted the evolving crisis and vigorously debated on how it should be dealt with.
The following extracts provide a glimpse of how Montreal’s Summer of Sorrow unfolded:
June 7: When sick and starving Irish immigrants begin arriving in Montreal, the Grey Nuns step forward to nurse them.
Our Mother Superior heard that there were a great number of sick people lying outdoors along the docks and that they found themselves in the saddest of shape.
After going out to investigate, she returned to the Mother House to describe the horrific condition of the immigrants and ask for volunteers.
She did not need to do so more than once, since our dear Sisters came in large numbers.
(Annals of the Grey Nuns)
June 13: As thousands pour into the city, the typhus sheds near the Lachine Canal are quickly overwhelmed. Patients are crowded three to a bed, with corpses lying alongside the living. Bodies pile up outside, awaiting burial.
The Grey Nuns record heartrending scenes, like a man who arrives from Grosse-Île searching for his wife, who had been sent on to Montreal before him. He finally spots her corpse on a pile of bodies and takes it in his arms, calling her name and kissing her, unable to believe that she is really dead.
Once he is convinced that she no longer exists, he abandons himself to his pain; the air is filled with his cries and sobs. … Scenes of this nature occur several times a day.
(Annals of the Grey Nuns)
June 21:With deaths from typhus averaging 20 per day, newspapers praise the tireless devotion of the nuns, priests and doctors caring for the patients around the clock. Most heartbreaking is the plight of the orphaned babies.
The most piteous sight of all, perhaps, is a separate shed, appropriated to the orphans, and in which sixty or eighty poor little creatures, some of them not many weeks old, are lying four and six in a berth, many of them wailing in every variety of tone. The priests, nuns, and others, are very attentive to these forlorn babes; but there appear to be no wet nurses yet, and it is almost impossible that many of them can survive.
June 24: Bishop Ignace Bourget calls on Quebecers to adopt the orphaned children.
Today, they are speaking through our voice to reach your hearts: “Do for us poor little orphans what you would want others to do for your own children if, like us, they had the misfortune to lose you in a distant country; if like us, they were on a foreign shore, without relatives or friends … if like us, they had no one to care for them; and especially, if, like us, they risked losing the faith for which their fathers had fought to the death.”
July 4: With caregivers falling ill, critics suggest it was a mistake to help the newcomers.
We very much regret that the church authorities allowed the hospital sisters to leave their convent to care for the sick. … This kindness towards the emigrants seems to us a little exaggerated. If the government wants to send us so many of these unfortunate people, who are bringing plague and famine here, it’s up to the government to care for them and support them.
July 5: Workers succumb to typhus as the disease spreads.
There is not a doubt now that the fever, which is the prevailing malady among these immigrants, is highly contagious. Mr. Yarwood’s (the immigration agent for Montreal) death has already been mentioned, and we are sorry to add that two or three of the doctors here are ill, including Dr. Liddell, the chief emigrant physician. Nineteen of the nuns are said to be more or less sufferers from the prevailing malady, and many of the other nurses have been laid down by fever. The disease is also spreading through the city.
July 12: Debate rages over where to construct the new hospital sheds. Prominent citizens call for the immigrants to be moved to the Boucherville Islands, where they will not infect local residents. But the Medical Commission, headed by Mayor John Easton Mills, nixes that idea, saying doctors and nurses could not be found to work there and that steamships would not be able to dock there.
It was, therefore, after much consideration, resolved to build the new Hospitals upon the most approved principles on the high bank of the St. Lawrence, at Point St. Charles… — John E. Mills, Chairman, Emigrant Commissioners
July 15: More than 1,000 citizens attend a protest meeting at Bonsecours Market on July 13 demanding the immigrants be removed to the Boucherville Islands site.
The great majority of citizens want the emigrants to be moved elsewhere to prevent the contagion that is decimating our city but the authorities are opposing them! … Ministers, priests, nuns and citizens have already paid for their devotion with their lives, many others are at death’s door, while they pretend to believe that there is no danger and refuse to remedy the situation.
July 26: As construction of the new hospital sheds nears completion, newspapers pay tribute to the caregivers who gave up their lives, dubbing them “The True Legion of Honour.”
In relation to the self-sacrificing spirit which actuated the whole Roman Catholic and Protestant Clergy of Montreal … there can be but one opinion, and that opinion pervades all classes and conditions of our population. We speak with the soberness of truth when we say that they have shown a zeal in the cause of suffering humanity rarely equalled, certainly not surpassed — worthy indeed of their august and sacred calling and honourable to the character of that religion whose doctrines they are appointed to teach.
(Montreal Pilot, reprinted in the Montreal Witness)
Aug. 13: Bishop Bourget pays tribute to fallen nuns and priests.
Since the 8th of July, the Lord has visited us to take away eight Priests, 10 Nuns and a large number of laypersons who devoted themselves, with praiseworthy zeal, to the spiritual and bodily service of the sick.
Alas! This pitiless illness has reached these heroines of Catholicism. … They have fallen, they who, like angels of peace, consoled so many tortured souls.
Nov. 15: Mayor Mills dies.
It is with profound grief we announce to our readers the death of John E. Mills, Esq., Mayor of this City, of typhus fever. This melancholy event which took place last Friday morning (Nov. 12) at 11 o’clock, has caused a deep feeling of sorrow throughout every class in the community.