Partridge Island

Partridge Island

Partridge Island

Partridge Island, fondly referred to as Canada’s Emerald Isle, is regarded as one of the most well-preserved historical secrets in the country.

Unless you have been granted special access by the Canadian Coast Guard, the most feasible way to appreciate this national and provincial historic site is from Saint John‘s mainland through a pair of binoculars.

Partridge Island

Situated at the entrance of Saint John Harbour, this humble parcel of land, spanning around 24 acres, is linked to the mainland via an ancient stone breakwater. Native legend attributes its creation to the mythical hero-god Glooscap, who allegedly shattered a dam at the Reversing Falls using a club. The tale suggests that a piece of the dam was swept by the ensuing torrent to the harbour’s mouth, explaining the Mi’kmaq name for the island, Quak’m’kagan’ik, which translates to “a piece cut out.”

Partridge Island

Situated at the entrance of Saint John Harbour, this humble parcel of land, spanning around 24 acres, is linked to the mainland via an ancient stone breakwater. Native legend attributes its creation to the mythical hero-god Glooscap, who allegedly shattered a dam at the Reversing Falls using a club. The tale suggests that a piece of the dam was swept by the ensuing torrent to the harbour’s mouth, explaining the Mi’kmaq name for the island, Quak’m’kagan’ik, which translates to “a piece cut out.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia, published online by the Historica Foundation, notes that the island, a “volcanic ash deposit” approximately 300 million years old, is now sparsely populated with birch, spruce, willow, and alder.

The island was discovered by Europeans when French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed on its shores in the early 1600s. Overwhelmed by the significant number of ruffed grouse inhabiting the then-densely forested island, he named it Île aux Perdrix, or the Island of Partridges. Regardless of its name, the island was poised to play a crucial role in Canada’s history.

Champlain’s Acadian descendants established a “small base” on the island’s coastline, and once the Loyalists arrived in 1783 and founded the City of Saint John, it quickly became apparent that the island’s strategic location made it perfect for navigation aids to secure passage into the harbour.

Towards the end of the 1780s, the New Brunswick legislature passed a law allowing the construction of a lighthouse. The legislation specified that charges on ships entering the harbour would cover the maintenance costs of the wooden structure. Erected in 1791, the Partridge Island lighthouse was the first in New Brunswick and the third in Canada at the time. Captain Samuel Duffy manned the lighthouse, situated on the western tip of the island, until it was destroyed by fire in the early 1830s. At that time, fossil fuels were used to generate light, producing thick, black smoke. This necessitated regular cleaning of the lighthouse’s reflecting prisms and constant trimming of the wicks.

Robert Foulis Fog Horn

The creation of sound was just as crucial as light for navigation. Foghorns were manually operated, requiring the keeper to sound the horn whenever fog set in.

Ship navigation was further assisted by the installation of a minute gun in 1801. However, a more effective solution arrived on Sept. 8, 1831, in the form of a massive 1,000-pound bell shipped from Liverpool, England. This colossal fog bell was mounted on a large tower and operated mechanically, although maintenance over time proved costly.

Partridge Island

Meanwhile, a revolutionary invention was waiting in the wings. Partridge Island would be the first in the world to implement it: the steam-powered fog alarm.

The inventor, Robert Foulis, was an engineer and artist from Glasgow, Scotland. After the death of his first wife in childbirth, Foulis moved to Canada in 1818. Appointed deputy land surveyor in Saint John in 1822, he was tasked with assessing the upper Saint John River’s suitability for steamship navigation. He later patented a gas light device for use in lighthouses.

Foulis conceived the idea of a groundbreaking fog alarm, utilizing a steam whistle, in the 1850s. Despite years of dedicated work and submission of his plans to the Lighthouse Commissioners, authorities showed no interest. Foulis later found out that a local engineer had built the device using his design. Although he eventually received recognition as the inventor, he never received any financial remuneration for his design. Foulis, despite his invention’s wide adoption and it being lauded as a lifesaving navigational aid, reportedly died in poverty in 1866.

Sadly, no museum honors this historical invention. The original Foulis alarm reportedly ended up unrecognized on a Saint John wharf before it was presumed junked.

Today, the island is home to a light tower, which was automated in 1989. Before automation, over three dozen primary lighthouse keepers and assistants dedicated nearly 200 years to serving mariners. They had a range of duties and some were also involved with the Partridge Island quarantine and immigration station, North America’s first.

Hospital on Partridge Island
Photo courtesy of Harold E.Wright

Quarantine stations were established to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including cholera, typhus, smallpox, scarlet fever, yellow fever, and measles. They were situated on designated islands close to land, such as Partridge Island, Middle Island in Miramichi, N.B., and the renowned Grosse Île located in the St. Lawrence River near the port of Quebec.

After its designation as a quarantine station as part of the City of Saint John’s incorporation charter in 1785, countless individuals passed through the Partridge Island checkpoint. Here, they underwent a kerosene shower followed by a hot water shower. Despite these rigorous measures, diseases occasionally reached the mainland of Saint John, resulting in several hundred fatalities.

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Canada saw a significant influx of European immigrants, many of whom settled in New Brunswick. In the ten years between 1819 and 1829, the Partridge Island quarantine station processed nearly 30,000 individuals. The mid-1800s saw the station’s resources stretched to their limits as thousands of immigrants from Ireland, many critically ill, arrived. From 1812 to 1850, about 71% of immigrants were Irish, earning Partridge Island the nickname “Canada’s Emerald Isle”.

The Irish immigration peaked during 1845-47 due to the potato famine. In 1844, 2,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New Brunswick, increasing to 6,000 in 1845 and 9,000 in 1846. Most were impoverished and weakened by starvation, making them susceptible to typhus and other deadly diseases. Some were ill even before leaving Ireland. Although there were hospitals on the island, they were insufficient to accommodate all the sick.

In 1846, shipmasters were prosecuted and convicted in 13 cases by Saint John magistrates for overcrowding their ships, maintaining poor conditions, and providing inadequate provisions for passengers. Immigrants were often confined to the dark, wet cargo holds of ships for weeks during the turbulent crossings, essentially becoming human cargo. Many of those who died en route were buried at sea by the captain’s orders, sometimes as a measure to avoid quarantine.

The Irish referred to 1847 as “Black Forty-Seven”, as it was the worst year. The potato crop failed entirely, leading tens of thousands to leave Ireland. Many headed for British North America, and Partridge Island received 15,000 of them during the summer, sending the already overwhelmed hospitals and facilities into complete disarray. In June alone, 35 vessels delivered 5,800 passengers to the island.

More than 2,000 people died that summer, with approximately 800 dying during the dreadful voyages, another 600 on the island, and many more after they reached the mainland. Those who died at the station were buried in Partridge Island’s various faith-based graveyards. Among those who perished that summer was a young Saint John physician, Dr. James P. Collins. He was just 23 and newly married when he died, only three weeks after arriving on the island to assist.

Indeed, the story of Collins is a tragic one, but he was not the only doctor on the island who risked his life. George Harding and William Harding were two other physicians who braved the highly infectious diseases prevalent during that time.

At one point, when all the doctors fell ill, over 40 bodies stored in the ‘dead house’ were placed in a mass grave. For years after, the grave site was reportedly discernible by the “vivid green grass nourished by bones.” Undoubtedly, the agony experienced on this small island was unspeakable.

The 1850s saw a cholera epidemic that brought additional suffering and death, spreading from the island to the mainland. Despite precautionary measures, the outbreak claimed around 1,500 lives.

In the following decades, immigration became less traumatic. The late 19th century saw a shift in focus to immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, with many Jewish families arriving in Saint John seeking a better life. Over time, the station expanded until it finally closed in 1941.

Irish Cross Ceremony on Partridge Island
Photo courtesy of Harold E.Wright

A 40-foot Celtic Cross was erected in 1927 as a memorial to the Irish who died in such large numbers that accurate counts were challenging. Rededicated in 1985, the monument overlooks the burial site where many were laid to rest. Its builder, George McArthur, was buried at its base in 1932.

Celtic Cross, Partridge Island

Partridge Island, while pivotal in aiding mariners and welcoming immigrants, also served a strategic role in keeping unwanted marine traffic out of the harbour. Her history in this regard spans nearly 150 years, starting with the construction of a wooden army barrack in 1800, commissioned by the Duke of Kent. The island’s high cliffs made it an ideal fort location.

Partridge Island

The island again experienced fortification during the War of 1812–and continuously until after the Fenian Raids in 1866.

Soldiers on Partridge Island
Photo courtesy of Harold E.Wright

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.

Big gun on Partridge Island
Photo courtesy of Harold E.Wright

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.

Partridge Island

Although reinforced against even the most hostile (and foolhardy) invader, there was never a shot fired “in anger or defence” during those 150 years.

Partridge Island

Over time, the soldiers departed, and immigrants seeking a new life passed by her shores.

The breakwater, linking the island to the mainland, helps manage the powerful currents and tides of the Bay of Fundy in the harbour. It is not a causeway or a walking bridge. The massive granite stones, some weighing over 10 tons, may appear walkable, but numerous adventurers have needed rescue over the years. Maritime weather can make the rocks slippery, and vast gaps pose serious risks. Access to the federally owned island, either via the breakwater or by sea, is prohibited, with trespassers facing penalties.

Although the island no longer houses permanent residents, it supported a small fishing community until the late 1940s. Fortunately, old photographs document various stages of the island’s history, depicting modest moments in the lives of its inhabitants, including images of old houses, families with young children, and a school.

Partridge Island school 1923
Photo courtesy of Harold E.Wright

Partridge Island is one of Canada’s best kept historical secrets.

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