Partridge Island

“Canada’s Emerald Isle”

“A Gateway to North America”

© Harold E. Wright, 2008

Partridge Island Research Project

Heritage Resources, Saint John

Aerial of Partridge IslandAerial View of Partridge Island


Partridge Island lies at the mouth of Saint John Harbour. For over two hundred years the island has played a major role in three distinct and inter-related historical themes. Because of the prominent part it played in our Irish heritage, I conceived the appellation “Canada’s Emerald Isle” in 1982.

The 1785 Saint John charter set aside the island for three purposes: a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a pest house. The marine station, the military post and the quarantine station, in that order, are the oldest uses of the island.

For almost two hundred years over two dozen light keepers and their assistants lived on the island. Eight of these keepers were of Irish extraction. When the lighthouse was built in 1791, a military signal station was built beside it. The keeper flew the yellow quarantine signal whenever disease was present aboard ship.

A gun battery was built during the War of 1812. From then until World War Two over 4,000 soldiers served on the island, with over half being of Irish extraction. The NB Regiment of Artillery, for many years an Irish Protestant militia unit, served on the island during this entire period. The military works were closed in the 1950s.

During World War Two when the island was permanently scarred with concrete fortifications, the contractor built several concrete gun emplacements and a new fog alarm building in the 19th century cemetery, destroying it in this process.

It is the quarantine theme that most obviously links Partridge Island with the Irish, and it is the famine year, 1847, that is responsible for this. The quarantine, and the Irish connection to the island before and after the famine has usually been ignored. Few realize that Scot, German, Swedish, English, Ukrainian, and many other ethnic immigrants, also form part of the island’s quarantine story. In 1992 the term “A Gateway to North America” was coined as the title for one of my four books about the island. A large percentage of immigrants through Saint John continued to the United States.

The 1785 Saint John charter stated that a pest house was to be built on the island. The 1799 ‘Act to Prevent Bringing Infectious Distempers into the City of Saint John’ stated that vessels with “Yellow Fever, Putrid Bilious Fever, or other pestilential or contagious distemper” could come no further into the harbour than Partridge Island. In the ten year period 1819-1829, the island’s visiting physician inspected 28,704 immigrants.

When the brigs Leslie Gault with typhus, and Feronia with smallpox, arrived with Irish immigrants in 1830, they performed quarantine on the island. In late June, William Marks and Agnes Murphy, two Irish teenagers, died of small-pox, the first recorded immigrant deaths and burials on the island. When the station closed in 1942, six separate graveyards had been established, with about two thousand burials. About half of these burials are Irish.

Dr Collins butler print

Dr. Collins treating the ill – Butler Print


Dr. George J. Harding was the first resident physician, living on the island during the summer shipping season. He held that post until his death in 1874. He was succeeded by his brother, William, who was appointed a visiting physician in 1847, and resident physician from 1874 until 1894. Both doctors claimed a Londonderry ancestry.

From 1840 to 1845, over 33,500 immigrants arrived in New Brunswick, eighty-eight percent being Irish. The majority landed at Saint John. In 1846 over 9,700 more arrived, followed by 16,000 in 1847. Such numbers would have been a burden on any community in the best of times, but for the period 1845-1847, most immigrants arrived ill with typhus and small pox. The population of greater Saint John in 1840 was 32,957, of which 19,000 lived in the city proper. Such a massive influx of diseased immigrants created havoc in the city.

 Dr Collins
Dr. James P. Collins

Much has already been written about the Black Fever of 1847, when 600 immigrants died on the island, as well as Dr. James P. Collins. Dr. Collins was buried in the City and today a plaque marking his resting place can be seen at St. Peters Church on Douglas Ave.

After 1847 there were few major epidemics on the island, except the cholera outbreak amongst German immigrants in 1854, and small pox amongst the Russian immigrants in 1902. The doctors, however, were still kept busy. Dr. John March reported that 74,906 immigrants and crew were inspected in the 1893-94 immigration season. Most these immigrants were Russian Jews. 

However, this did not mean an end to an Irish connection to the immigration theme. In 1902 Nellie McGowan, who lived on the island with her family (her sister was a nurse), made the following entry in her diary:

“On the seventeenth of March I managed to pin a leaf of shamrock on F[red] and J[ack’s] caps without them knowing. Jack didn’t mind a bit and was the envy of all the Irishmen on the steamer [Lake Michigan, small pox]. The first mate said he would give anything for a bit of shamrock to wear, so at dinner time I took one of my pots of shamrock and sent over to the officers with Jack. They were more than delighted he said and kept it in the middle of their dining table the first mate taking charge of it and afterwards carrying it carefully away with him to the steamer.”

Between 1890 and 1914 the quarantine facilities were expanded to handle unprecedented numbers of immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe. In total, there were thirteen hospitals on the island, also a delousing plant (for kerosene showers), and residences for the staff. Six graveyards were established.

Aerial view of Partridge Island during World War II

Changing transportation methods and improvements in medical practices, refocused the need for quarantine stations. In 1938 the station was scaled down and formally closed in 1942. It is estimated that close to three million immigrants, passengers and mariners were subject to quarantine inspection.

Throughout the history of the quarantine station there have been twenty three doctors appointed to tend to the sick and diseased immigrants. Nine of these doctors were of Irish origin. Only one, James Collins, died in service.


 Celtic Cross on Partridge Island 2

Celtic Cross on Partridge Island


The Irish immigrants of Partridge Island were not forgotten. In the 1890s the Mooney family of Saint John built a wood memorial cross. In 1925, the Saint John City Cornet Band and George McArthur, a local contractor of Protestant Irish origin, began their campaign to erect a more permanent memorial. In 1927 a twenty foot Celtic Cross was unveiled by two survivors of the famine year 1847 in memory of the Irish Catholics and Dr. Collins who died in 1847.

The Partridge Island Research Project began in 1977. Its objective was to gather data about the island’s past. At the time the only items on record dealt with the immigrants of 1847, the lighthouse and a few military references. These public documents were less than two dozen in total. It became apparent that much more than research was required. In 1979 students cleaned the military works on the island and at the other military sites around the harbour.

In 1983 the Saint Patrick’s Society of Saint John provided $500 towards the $2,000 to make minor repairs to the Celtic Cross. After fifty five years of neglect it was in danger of falling down. In 1985 a full restoration of the cross, at a cost in excess of $100,000, was undertaken by the Research Project, with assistance from two local businesses.

In 1985 the Cross was rededicated, and a grave marker was placed at the base of the Cross, where Mr. McArthur’s cremated remains were placed in 1932. During this ceremony the Saint John Jewish Community dedicated a memorial marker to the Jewish immigrants buried on the island. The remains of several unidentified immigrants were re-interred in the Protestant and Roman Catholic cemeteries, and the Saint John Lions Club, in association with the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, rebuilt the fence around the three newer cemeteries. In 1994 the Loyal Orange Lodge erected a monument dedicated to all immigrants of the Protestant faith.

The Research Project began boat tours to the island in 1982.

In 1985 there was a positive decision from the Historic Sites & Monuments Board of Canada concerning interpreting the theme of quarantine on Partridge Island. In cooperation with the Government of New Brunswick, Partridge Island could be used to tell the story of 19th century immigration to the Maritime Provinces. Parks Canada has yet to fulfil that mandate.

To oversee any physical development of the island, the Partridge Island & Harbour Heritage Inc. was incorporated in 1988 as a non-profit, charitable corporation. In 1988 the island museum opened, and work began on cleaning away over forty years of debris and neglect from the islands many structures. The museum and tours closed in 1995 due to concerns over environmental hazards on the island.

The Research Project continues today to document the island’s history. It is not possible to visit the island today.

While we tend to think of Partridge Island only in terms of the 1847 Irish, it has been shown that the Irish connection to the island runs deeper than just the events of that one summer. Although it is important that we remember the hardships and agony of those immigrants who died, it is equally important to recognize and remember the contributions of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who survived, and their descendants who are with us today.

The following picture of the Celtic Cross erected on Partridge Island in 1927 was provided by James M. Whelan:


Partridge Island Celtic Cross

Inscription on cross reads:

This monument was erected in memory of more than 2,000 Irish immigrants, who died of typhus fever, contracted on shipboard during the voyage from Ireland, in the famine year 1847, and of whom 600 were buried on this Island. This Cross also commemorates the devotion and sacrifice of Dr. Patrick Collins, who, after ministering to the victims of the disease, himself contracted it and died.
– (Library and Archives Canada C-35127)


Hospital Island


Shrouded in mist and mystery is a tiny island, less than three acres in size, sitting in the north-east section of Passamaquoddy Bay, three and one half nautical miles from the port of St. Andrews. Just west of Hardwood Island, it was originally called Little Hardwood Island; later, Quarantine Island, and Hospital Island.

In 1832 it was chosen as the site of a quarantine station and cholera hospital to serve Charlotte County, part of a province-wide attempt by government to control the importation of infectious diseases, particularly cholera, an epidemic which was then raging in Europe.

Bills and receipts in the Provincial Archives give details of the building materials and labour costs. They refer to the Lazaretto of Little Hardwood Island. They also show that passengers from the vessel Susan from Cork were cared for there as early as June, 1832.[1] Another early detainee was a male passenger of the brig Hibernia suffering from smallpox.[2] There are no reports of cholera victims on the island, the overwhelming condition being typhus, or ship’s fever.

Buildings on the island consisted of a hospital (lazaretto) described as 60 by 25 feet, two stories, with plastered walls, two chimneys and a cellar. Later additions included a summer hospital, or pest house, 50 by 25 feet, a doctor’s house, keeper’s house and a shed. There was also a sailboat. There being no potable water on the island, it was ferried from nearby Hardwood Island.[3]

Sign of Welcome 2

Most passengers detained on Hospital Island, and buried there, were from Ireland. Then a bustling port, St. Andrews had the added appeal of being a short ferry-ride across the St. Croix River from the United States, the ultimate destination of thousands who arrived during the years of the great famine.

Among the many returning timber ships laden with Irish immigrants for St. Andrews were the Maryiana, the Mary and the Robert Watt; from Cork, the James and the Pallis; from Londonderry, the Elizabeth Grimmer; from Sligo, the Magna Charta; and from the Wicklow estates of Earl Fitzwilliam, the infamous Star.[4]

So great was the influx of Irish immigrants to St. Andrews that by 1851 fifty-two per cent of the heads of household in the Loyalist Town were Irish-born.

Foremost among the physicians who cared for the sick on Hospital Island was Dr. Samuel Frye who eventually contracted the fever and died. Dr. Frye ardently lobbied for improvements to facilities on the island. In June 1847 he wrote to the Magistrates:

The principal building can only contain about one hundred souls without overcrowding and is destitute of bedsteads, berths, bunks or other accommodations for beds which have to be made on the floors in promiscuous disorder and rendering it impossible to preserve order and cleanliness.[5]

Dr. Frye was followed by Dr. S. T. Gove. Other physicians who served there were Dr. W. C. McStay, Dr. J. Thompson, and Dr. E. DeWolfe.

The exact number of deaths and burials on the island is unknown. A writer in the October 15, 1885 edition of The Bay Pilot, a St. Andrews newspaper, reflected on life in the town in the 1850s, and deaths on the island:

At this point too the noble packet ships of the last generation landed their emigrant Passengers for all ports of the Dominion and Eastern states… The first railroad in the region was built to accommodate this business, with St. Andrews as one of its termini. And so flourishing was this business that the old inhabitants still talk of the tents and rude shanties on the outskirts of the town, in which the emigrants found temporary lodgings and so miserably poor were some of them that they had little to eat but the shellfish picked up on the shore. In the bay is a small island, which since this period has been called Quarantine Island. Here the passengers of infected ships were quarantined and here about 400 of them died and were buried.[6] 

Dr. S. T. Gove, in his reflections on the island, recalled that between 75 and 100 passengers from the Star alone died there.[7] Other reports are more conservative. There were deaths and burials there from numerous other vessels. Were there as many as 400? Or, was the number in the range of 50 or 60? That remains a mystery.

By 1865 immigration to this area had begun to drop off and the quarantine station went out of use. Lack of fresh water and destruction from winter storms were contributing factors. The Saxby Gale of 1869 ravaged the island, bringing down the weakened buildings.

Aerial view of Hospital Island 2

The exact location of the burial ground on Hospital Island is unknown; however, it appears to have been situated at the mercy of the winds and waves of 1869. One report states:

… the sea broke so violently upon the Island, as to make serious inroads on the soil, washing away the earth from the outer edge of the Irish emigrants’ grave yard and uncovering the coffins, in some cases tearing out the ends of the same, exposing the ghastly contents of skull and bones, and in some instances washing them out; even now the curious who visit the Island can see the arm or leg bones sticking out through the soil.[8]

This issue made headlines in 1878, almost a decade later. Newspapers and politicians battled over whose responsibility it was to re-inter the bones of these unfortunate Irish immigrants.

Reports of bones washing to shore on the mainland, being gathered and sold to junk dealers for a penny a pound, and skulls being used by thoughtless boys as footballs added to the fury of what became known as the Hardwood Island Scandal.[9]

Referred to as “A Real Irish Grievance,” the issue was finally put to rest when it was reported in February, 1878 that “the proper department (of government) had already taken measures to ensure the decent burial of the remains on a portion of Hardwood Island where they will be better protected from the fury of the winds and waves.”[10]

Over the 35 years of its use Hospital Island became the last resting-place of many immigrant children, weakened by the long passage and devastated by the fever. One can only imagine the state of the grieving parents, the mournful keening of the mothers. Over the years, people walking along the mainland shore or on nearby woodland trails in the vicinity of the island, have reported hearing strange and disturbing cries, cries which elderly residents, now deceased, referred to as the “screeching Irish.” [11] Today, if heard, this sound is thought to be that of the Eastern Cougar.

Hospital Island eventually went into private hands and in the early decades of the 20th century was used to pasture sheep.[12] It has long been a nesting ground for seagulls and is now treeless.

In 2004 it was purchased by a well-known couple from Fayette, Maine. Sadly, in 2005 the husband died in a farm accident associated with harvesting trees to be turned into lumber for an 1835-era house to be built on the island. His wife carried out his dream of completing the house, only to be killed in 2007, skiing into a tree after completing a charity ski race. These tragic events orphaned their eight-year-old daughter, Molly.

The future of the island is unknown. The owners had erected a sign on the island welcoming people to use the beaches when they were not in residence and urging them to respect the property.

In 1995 the Charlotte County Chapter of the Irish Canadian Cultural Association of New Brunswick erected a Celtic Cross on the nearby St. Andrews shoreline to honour the memory of those Irish Immigrants who died while quarantined on Hospital Island.


——, The Bay Pilot, St Andrews, NB, 15 October 1885


Frye, Dr. S., Letter to the Magistrates of Charlotte County, 9 June 1847.


——, GenerationsFall 2007, Fredericton: New Brunswick Genealogical Society, Inc, 2007.


——, Oral history sessions with Harry Mallory and Wid Fiander.


——, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Papers (PANB) R.S.148.


——, Reports of Ship Returns of Charlotte County


——, St. Andrews Courant, June 15, 132.


——, St. John Herald, 28 December 1877, 9 February 1878, 9 March 1878.


[1] Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (PANB) R. S. 148,1-36-a

[2] St. Andrews Courant, June 15, 1832

[3] Stewart, Dr. W. Brenton, Medicine in New Brunswick, Published by the New Brunswick Medical Society , 1974, p.85

[4] Reports of Ship Returns of Charlotte County

[5] Letter from Dr. S. Frye to the Magistrates of Charlotte Co., June 9, 1847

[6] The Bay Pilot, St. Andrews, NB, October 15, 1885

[7] Generations,Fall 2007, p.15

[8] St. John Hearld, December 28, 1877 (Note: A local belief was that coffins were not used on the Quarantine Island, but that bodies were simply buried in the ground with lime “20 lbs over and 20 lbs under”.)

[9] Ibid., February 9, 1878

[10] Ibid., March 9, 1878

[11] As told by the late Harry Mallory of St. Andrews, local historian and school principal

[12] As recalled by the late Wid Fiander of Bocabec

Middle Island

By Caroline Daley

Middle Island, in the Miramichi River, is located approximately 2km. east of downtown Chatham and comes into view as one travels along Water Street going east. It lies between Beaubear’s Island to the west and Sheldrake Island to the east. In 1829 the Island consisted of 18 acres of “arable land”, while today, considering the natural erosion over the years, Middle Island has been reduced to approximately 15 acres.

Early records relate that the Island was known by the Micmac name, “Hiksenogowakun, meaning place for sick people.” It was also named Hospital Island in relation to its use as a quarantine station. A.D. Shirreff called it “Barrataria” when he established a fishing business there in 1827.

Middle Island

View of Celtic Cross on Middle Island – Photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives of NB (PANB)

Reports of ship arrivals appeared as early as 1826 at the Port of Miramichi. There had been no particular attention paid to the need for a permanent quarantine station but as ships were arriving with passengers suffering from disease, officials called for immediate action. It was decided at a special sessions meeting that a lazaretto was to be immediately erected on Sheldrake Island to accommodate immigrants suffering from contagious diseases. As ships arrived with passengers in need of quarantine facilities, Sheldrake Island was still not ready to accommodate the immigrants and a hurried decision was made by the Magistrates to build the lazaretto on Middle Island.

Moses Perley, Government Emigration Agent for the Province of New Brunswick, in his annual report for 1846 stressed to His Excellency that a large number of emigrants were expected to arrive in New Brunswick in 1847. He wrote: “It would be desirable to retain a portion of these in the colony for the benefit of the agricultural interest. The most effectual means of doing so would be to offer such facilities, for their eventually becoming settlers, as would induce them to remain in the Province. If some measure of this kind is not adopted, the better class of emigrants, as heretofore, will merely pass through New Brunswick to a foreign land, and the poorest and most destitute will remain to burthern the country.”

In 1847 as Perley cautioned, there was a mass exodus of immigrants from the British Isles to North America. The main cause for the migration was the potato blight that struck Ireland’s potato crop in 1845. Many families were forced to leave their homeland in exchange for survival. Passengers were crammed into the cargo holds of ships, charged a lower fare by unscrupulous ship owners, who were eager to cash in on the misery of the grief-stricken famine passengers, and showed little concern for their comfort and safety. These ships became known as famine ships.

Looshtauk ship

The ship Looshtauk was one of these famine ships. It was built at Tynemouth Creek (near St. Martin’s), Saint John County, New Brunswick at the shipyard of Lovett and Parker. The Looshtauk was launched in 1845 and purchased by a firm in Dublin, Ireland and registered under the new ownership of William Edmunds of that city. It sailed to Dublin under the command of Capt. John Mount Thain of St. John, and in April of 1847 he was assigned to sail the Looshtauk from Liverpool to Quebec. He picked up his crew and stocked his ship for an average five to six week voyage across the ocean. He then picked up 462 passengers at Liverpool to begin a journey to Quebec.

Typhus and scarlet fever broke out among the passengers, and spread rapidly through the ship. Captain Thain made a decision to head for the nearest port (Miramichi) to obtain assistance for the sick and dying passengers. The Looshtauk anchored in the Bay on June 2 waiting for permission to land the passengers at the quarantine station. The Captain went to the wharf in Chatham and spoke to the Magistrates about his predicament and the necessity for immediate assistance. One of the men who had gathered at the wharf was Hon. Joseph Cunard. When he heard of the horrific conditions on board the vessel he informed Captain Thain that he would instruct the commander of one of his steamers to tow the Looshtauk up the river to Middle Island.

The justices were totally unprepared for the magnitude of the disaster. Emergency sessions were held to make the necessary arrangements to prepare Middle Island to be used as the temporary quarantine station. It was not until six days later that Captain Thain received permission to land the passengers on Middle Island.

Dr Vondy

Dr. John Vondy
1820 – 1847

Dr. John Vondy, age 27, had recently set up his practice in Chatham, and when the Looshtauk emergency arose he closed his practice to devote full attention to caring for the fevered passengers landed on the Island. His own health was neglected and rapidly declined until he was too weak to handle the enormous task he had accepted. Dr. Vondy died after being on the Island a short time. His remains were placed in an air-tight double coffin and taken to St. Paul’s Cemetery in Bushville. Captain Thain also contracted typhus, and after being in a state of insanity for 15 days recovered, and sailed on to Quebec.

Middle Island was again quiet by the end of September, with no sign of the great tragedy that had just occurred. Of the 462 souls who embarked at Liverpool, 146 died on board and 316 were landed on Middle Island. Of those who landed, 96 died on the Island, 53 went on to Quebec and 167 were discharged at Chatham.

In 1873 Middle Island was finally designated as the site for a permanent quarantine station. Two hospitals, a caretaker’s home, lighthouse, light keeper’s home, boathouse and wharf were erected and Middle Island remained a quarantine station until 1948. In 1967 a causeway was constructed to join Middle Island and the mainland.

Awaiting you on Middle Island today is an Interpretive Centre, restaurant, walking trails, beach area, murals, picnic sites, bird watching, amphitheatre, kiosk and much more to come.


“Middle Island Before and After the Tragedy”, authors Caroline Daley & Anna Springer, published by Middle Island Irish Historical Park Inc. 2002