Grosse Isle, Quebec: The Canadian Equivalent of America's Ellis Island
Many generations ago, my ancestors landed on Grosse Isle, an immigrant station in the St. Lawrence River, east of Quebec City.
You could think of Grosse Isle as the Canadian equivalent of America's Ellis Island. More than 4 million immigrants passed through here from 1832 to 1937, and I was drawn there to find out what my ancestors endured to make a new life in Canada.
We took a 45-minute ferry ride from the town of Berthier sur Mer on the south side of the river. Upon landing, a guide gave us a brief history of Grosse Isle (which is French for “big island”, even though it's only a 1/2 mile wide and about 1-1/2 miles long).
We learned that sick immigrants were housed on the east end of the island, and healthy immigrants were detained on the west end. In the middle stood a small village, Grosse Isle, where immigration workers and their families lived, usually just for the summer.
We walked to the western section on our own, then took a free trolley to the eastern quarantine section. There's an excellent interactive display in the washhouse here, where immigrants bathed to prevent the spread of prevalent diseases. I kept looking for my ancestors in the haunting photos.
One of the most poignant things we saw was the huge Celtic cross (at left) standing on the island's highest point. Erected in 1909, it honors the 5,424 Irish immigrants who died here during the 1847 typhoid epidemic. Millions of Irish immigrants, already weak from their country's potato-blight famine, were sick when they arrived here, overwhelming the ill-prepared facility.
It was an incredibly moving experience to stand on the very beach where my ancestors stepped ashore from 1800s sailing ships. This island remains a somber reminder of what families endured to start new lives.
Before You Visit
Grosse Isle and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site are open from May 1 through October. Ferries run from Quebec City (it's a 1-1/2-hour ride) north of the island and from the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River.
Fares for ferry rides include admission to the island. Rates vary according to the length of the tour offered by the carrier.