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.
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.
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. 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