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)