Middle Island, situated about 2km east of downtown Chatham in the Miramichi River, can be seen while traveling eastward along Water Street. It is nestled between Beaubear’s Island to the west and Sheldrake Island to the east. In 1829, the island was composed of 18 acres of fertile land, but due to natural erosion over time, it has diminished to approximately 15 acres.
The island’s shape has been likened to a well-known Chatham landmark called The Lake. One legend with Irish ties claims that leprechauns relocated soil to create both Middle Island and The Lake. Another tale attributes their formation to the devil’s rage, while a similar story involves a giant whose footstep created The Lake and displaced soil that formed Middle Island.
Historical records indicate that the Micmac people called the island “Hiksenogowakun,” meaning “place for sick people.” It was also referred to as Hospital Island due to its use as a quarantine station. In 1827, A.D. Shirreff named it “Barrataria” and established a fishing business there.
A.D. Shirreff applied for a grant for Middle Island in 1827, having already invested a significant amount of money in island improvements like land clearing, constructing boomage, and building structures. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in 1828, destroying Shirreff’s house and sawpit. Despite this setback, Shirreff recovered and continued his business. In 1830, he was granted Middle Island for the sum of thirty pounds, and at that time, a survey by James Davidson Esq. showed it encompassed 18 acres.
By 1833, Shirreff set up a depot for packing and shipping gaspereaux to the West Indies. Fishing sheds on the island’s northeast corner were built from scantling, boards, and planks, with enough space to store 1,000 barrels of gaspereaux. The fish were stored in tanks in the shed’s center, with driveways on each side for carting the fish. Wire shovels were used to transfer the fish from carts to tanks. Seines were used to catch the fish near the island’s northeastern and southeastern corners, and horses pulled the full nets ashore. Thousands of barrels of fish were shipped to the West Indies on schooners, with return cargoes of rum and molasses.
As early as 1826, ship arrivals were documented at the Port of Miramichi. Although there was no specific focus on establishing a permanent quarantine station, the increasing number of passengers arriving with diseases prompted officials to take immediate action. At a special meeting, it was decided that a lazaretto would be built on Sheldrake Island to accommodate immigrants suffering from contagious illnesses. However, as ships continued to arrive with passengers requiring quarantine, Sheldrake Island was not yet prepared to house them, leading the Magistrates to hastily decide on constructing the lazaretto on Middle Island instead.
Moses Perley, the Government Emigration Agent for the Province of New Brunswick, warned in his 1846 annual report that a significant influx of immigrants was expected in 1847. He urged His Excellency to implement measures that would encourage a portion of these immigrants to stay in the colony for the benefit of the agricultural sector. Perley feared that without such measures, the more affluent immigrants would merely pass through New Brunswick to settle in foreign lands, leaving the poorest and most destitute behind.
In 1847, as Perley anticipated, a massive wave of immigrants left the British Isles for North America, driven primarily by the potato blight that devastated Ireland’s potato crop in 1845. Desperate families were forced to leave their homeland for a chance at survival. Unscrupulous shipowners, eager to profit from the misery of these famine-stricken passengers, crammed them into cargo holds for a lower fare, showing little regard for their comfort or safety. These vessels became known as famine ships.
The ship Looshtauk was built at the shipyard of Lovett and Parker in Tynemouth Creek, near St. Martins. It was launched on the 17th January, 1845 and was towed into the Saint John Harbour later that year. The official builder’s certificate shows: burthern: 630, 322/3500 tons, Master: John Thain, one deck and beams for a second deck; three mast; length from the inner part of the main stern to the forepart of the stern aloft is 137 feet two tenths, breadth in midship is 27 feet seven tenths, depth in hold at midship is 20 feet four tenths. She is a Carvel built ship, rigged with a standing bowsprit, square sterned, no galleries, a woman’s bust head. Subscribing owner is James Alexander of Saint John, New Brunswick, aforesaid merchant with 64 shares. In 1847, the peak year of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland, Capt. John Mount Thain was assigned to sail the Looshtauk from Liverpool to Quebec. He picked up his crew and, with their help, stocked the ship with the necessary supplies for an average five to six week voyage across the ocean. On 17 April 1847 four hundred and sixty-two passengers boarded the Looshtauk to begin a journey to Quebec.The last recorded sailing of the Looshtauk, according to Lloyds of London ship register, was in 1859 with J. McMillan as captain and W.I. Wilson as registered owner. The voyage was to Quebec.
Typhus and scarlet fever erupted among the passengers on the Looshtauk, spreading rapidly throughout the ship. Captain Thain decided to head for the nearest port, Miramichi, to seek help for the sick and dying passengers. On June 2, the Looshtauk anchored in the bay, awaiting permission to bring passengers to the quarantine station. Captain Thain visited the wharf in Chatham and discussed his urgent situation with the Magistrates. Hon. Joseph Cunard, who was present, offered to have one of his steamers tow the Looshtauk to Middle Island upon hearing about the dire conditions onboard.
Joseph Cunard’s arrival in Miramichi in the early 1820s was a boon for the town, contributing significantly to its growth. His ventures included mills, stores, brickworks, lumber and fish markets, a counting house, and a shipyard, from which some of New Brunswick’s finest ships were launched. Cunard’s empire extended beyond Northumberland County into Restigouche, Gloucester, and Kent Counties. In 1835, A.D. Shirreff, facing financial difficulties, became indebted to Joseph Cunard and Company for five hundred pounds. To settle this debt, Shirreff transferred ownership of Middle Island, along with its fishery and other properties, to Cunard’s company. In 1847, when the Looshtauk needed assistance, Captain Thain spoke with Hon. Joseph Cunard at the wharf. Cunard agreed to have one of his steamers tow the Looshtauk to Middle Island and provided an authorization note for the task. The island was rented from Joseph Cunard on an as-needed basis since the Justices didn’t want to pay rent year-round if the island wasn’t required for quarantine purposes.
The town of Chatham and Hon. Joseph Cunard faced a sad year in 1848 when Cunard’s bankruptcy was announced. After his financial collapse, Cunard returned to Liverpool, England, where he remained active in the business world. He passed away at the age of 67 due to heart disease.
The Justices were entirely unprepared for the scale of the disaster. Emergency meetings were held to make necessary arrangements to transform Middle Island into a temporary quarantine station. It took six more days before Captain Thain received permission to land the passengers on Middle Island.
Dr. John Vondy, a 27-year-old physician, had recently established his practice in Chatham when the Looshtauk crisis unfolded. He closed his practice to focus on caring for the fever-stricken passengers on Middle Island, neglecting his own health in the process. Dr. Vondy’s health deteriorated rapidly, and he passed away after a brief time on the island. His remains were interred in an airtight double coffin at St. Paul’s Cemetery in Bushville. Captain Thain also contracted typhus but recovered after 15 days of delirium and continued to Quebec. By the end of September, Middle Island returned to tranquility, with no trace of the recent tragedy. Out of the 462 passengers who embarked at Liverpool, 146 died during the journey, and 316 arrived at Middle Island. Of those, 96 died on the island, 53 proceeded to Quebec, and 167 were discharged in Chatham.
In 1873, Middle Island was officially designated as the site for a permanent quarantine station. Two hospitals, a caretaker’s residence, lighthouse, light keeper’s home, boathouse, and wharf were constructed. The lighthouse, situated on the island’s north side near the caretaker’s house, operated until 1937. The light keeper used a pulley system to raise and lower the lamps, ensuring their visibility to ships entering the Miramichi River.
The caretaker’s house, built in 1873 near the center of the island, accommodated caretakers and their families. It featured a spacious kitchen, a back kitchen, two living rooms, three bedrooms, a large hallway, and a bathroom equipped with a claw-foot bathtub. The family’s water supply came from a nearby well and was stored in large holding tanks. The caretaker’s duties included arranging river pilots to guide ships through the unfamiliar waters of the Miramichi River. If a ship entered the river displaying a raised yellow flag, it signaled illness onboard. The quarantine doctor would then examine any sick crew members, and if a contagious disease was identified, the patient would be quarantined and treated at the Middle Island hospital. Following the required quarantine period, the individual would be discharged and allowed to leave the island.
In 1873, two Quarantine Hospitals were built on Middle Island when the Dominion Government purchased it as a permanent quarantine station site. By 1875, fewer ships carrying contagious diseases entered the Miramichi, reducing the need for isolated quarantine hospitals.
As a result, the Middle Island Quarantine Station was transferred to the Department of Marine and Fisheries, with the understanding that the hospitals would be voluntarily provided to the Board of Health in case of a quarantine emergency. The hospitals were used sporadically for quarantine purposes and remained under the caretaker’s supervision. In 1948, all buildings on Middle Island were deemed surplus to the government’s needs and were offered for sale.
After the buildings on Middle Island were sold and removed, the Island was declared surplus to the requirement of His Majesty the King.
In 1950 the Department of Lands and Mines of the Province of New Brunswick purchased Middle Island along with the wharf on the mainland, for the sum of twelve hundred dollars. In 1967 Middle Island was made accessible to all when the Province constructed a causeway connecting it to the mainland. The following year, work began on a proposed Provincial Park. Ruins and foundations of old buildings were cleared and new park buildings erected. The Island remained a Provincial Park until 1994.
In 1983, Farrell McCarthy led the formation of the Irish Canadian Cultural Association of New Brunswick. Irish Festival Inc. was incorporated in 1984, and a large Celtic Cross was erected on the island to honor the memory of the immigrants who died and were buried there in 1847. Ireland’s Ambassador to Canada, Honorable Sean Gaynor, unveiled the cross, which was blessed by Most Reverend J. Edward Troy, Coadjutor Bishop of Saint John.
In June 1994, the Town of Chatham assumed responsibility for Middle Island under a 25-year lease agreement with the Province of New Brunswick. In November 1994, Middle Island was designated a Provincial Historic Site under the Historic Sites Protection Act. A plaque was placed on the island in 1995 to commemorate the designation. In 1996, the Middle Island Irish Historical Park Inc. was established and incorporated in 1997, with the mission of developing Middle Island into an Irish Historical Park.
In 1997, a new headstone was placed at Dr. John Vondy’s burial site, and the Irish Festival Inc. installed a flagpole inside a shamrock-shaped hedge on the island. That same year, the Middle Island Irish Historical Park Inc. constructed a Commemorative Meadow in the form of a Celtic Cross. In 1998, Miramichi City established a sister-city relationship with County Monaghan in Ireland.
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