New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Partridge Island

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Partridge Island

A very long time ago, there was a beaver dam where the Reversing Falls is now located. Remnants of that dam have since turned to stone and are still there today. The dam was so great that it backed the water up into Kennebecasis Bay and so the dam was known as Kchee-qua-beet-au-week-pa-he-gan, or the great beaver dam. The beavers’ lodge (Qua-beet-a-wo-sis-ek) was at Long Island near Rothesay.

Glooscap was enraged by the beavers having flooded the land in this way and smashed a piece out of the dam, and it floated down into the harbour where it also turned to stone and is also still there today. In the olden days, it was called Quak-m’kay-gan-ik, or the piece cut out. Glooscap then grabbed Kchee-qua-beet, the great beaver, and threw him to the foot of Kennebecasis Island where his blood can be found on the rocks to this very day. Another beaver eluded Glooscap’s rage and fled upriver. Glooscap took some big rocks from the beach at Bay Shore and threw them after the runaway beaver. The rocks fell below the Tobique, Haw-men-ops’-kok.

Some people claim that parts of this story are about the other Partridge Island, the one in Minas Basin. But the blood on the rocks at Kennebecasis Island and the resemblance of the stones below Tobique to the ones at Bay Shore are undeniable. I do not wish to add to this controversy, or, by mentioning it, to give credence to the notion that the lichen at Kennebecasis Island might be red regardless of blood staining, but it seems indisputable that Partridge Island in the harbour at Saint John is, in fact, Quak-m’kay-gan-ik, the piece cut out.

Imagine the years that followed and the privilege that it would have been to have been there with a camera and a note pad! Samuel de Champlain passed by in the 1600s, followed by countless Acadians including governors and ordinary folk. Mi’kmaq and Maliseet were the rightful owners of the whole territory at that time, and they would have passed by, or stopped over for visits. The island was forested, and Champlain gave it the name Ile aux Perdix, or Island of Partridges. Those who came after him set up a small base on the island, but it was mostly left unmolested. Finally, in 1859, soldiers passed by on their way to expel the Acadians and to carry out the Ste. Anne’s Massacre and the infamous raid on French Lake. All of this time, Partridge Island sat in the lonely, windy harbour

After the Acadians there was a period when Saint John was a base for New England traders of the company Hazen, Simonds and White, and when settlers from Massachusetts travelled up the river to establish Maugerville. There were other settlers also, thinly distributed along the river south of Maugerville. In general, up until 1783, and even beyond, everyone who had ever lived on the Saint John River had, at one time or another, passed by Partridge Island. And then there were the Loyalists, who came in such vast numbers in the summer of 1783 that they changed the entire nature of the Saint John River valley and of Partridge Island.

In 1788 an act was passed in the New Brunswick Assembly to build a lighthouse on Partridge Island, to be maintained through duties charged to ships entering port. The lighthouse was built on the west end of the island and went into operation in 1791. It was the first lighthouse in New Brunswick and only the third in Canada. The first lighthouse keeper was Captain Samuel Duffy. There have been about three dozen lighthouse keepers since, including James Wilson, Albert Smith, Charles Mitchell and Thomas Furness. That first lighthouse burned in the 1830s.

There have been other aids to navigation on the island. The steam-powered fog alarm was invented in New Brunswick by Robert Foulis, but he could not generate any interest in having it installed at lighthouses. Someone else then used his idea and it took Foulis quite a while to gain recognition as the actual inventor. A fog horn like this was installed at Partridge Island and was considered technologically advanced. It belongs in a museum today, but it was scrapped at some time along the way and is lost to us now.

But, of course, Partridge Island is mostly known as a 19th century quarantine station and pest house with all of its stories of suffering and death. The island had been set aside in the Saint John City charter of 1785 as a place for navigation aids, for military uses and as a quarantine station. And so the quarantine station went into operation and received its first smallpox victims in 1830. Heavier use followed the war of 1812 to 1814, however, when there was a wave of immigration from Europe. Immigrants were greeted to New Brunswick with kerosene showers followed by water showers to wash off the kerosene and then given health inspections before being allowed onto the mainland with their steam-cleaned clothes. Those who were sick or had been in contact with the sick were detained. Thirty thousand people were inspected over the ten year period between 1819 and 1829.

Another flood of immigrants, mostly Irish, arrived between 1845 and 1847, winning Partridge Island the nickname of ‘Canada’s Emerald Isle’. Those were truly awful years! Thousands of people, having nearly starved to death from the potato famine, managed to buy passage to Saint John in the dark, wet, stinking holds of ships bunked closely together with typhus victims. The ships were no better than human smugglers and, even in those days, legal charges were laid against captains for the appalling conditions. Some people were buried at sea since; if the dead had been delivered to Saint John then the whole ship might have been quarantined. The first hospital was built on the island in 1830, but medical arts were not what they are today and very many people, having made it to Partridge Island, never left. They filled six grave yards with them.

Two thousand Irish came to New Brunswick in 1845; six thousand in 1846; and thousands each month during 1847, fifteen thousand total. That was ‘Black Forty Seven’ and all of those people were at least inspected on Partridge Island. Six hundred people died there in ’47, and many others once they were allowed ashore. Dr. James Collins died while serving there and was also buried the island. It is recalled that, on one occasion forty bodies from the ‘dead house’ were buried in a mass grave so shallow that parts of them later became exposed, and the grass grew greener there for years after.

1854 was another bad year for the City, and that started on Partridge Island. Cholera had been brought to the island by German immigrants, they say. But Saint John was also in a deplorable and unhealthy state. Prices were going up while wages were not, and many people were poorly nourished. Water services were inadequate and the neighbourhoods along the wharves relied on wells that were polluted by the garbage and human and animal waste surrounding the tenements. There was even waste from slaughterhouses lying about. The cholera outbreak was kept on Partridge Island until mid summer by some stroke of luck, but then made its way to the city, killing fifteen hundred people in eight weeks.

Partridge Island remained a quarantine station until 1941 and, over the years, an estimated three million people were processed there.

Partridge Island was also useful in the military defence of the harbour. A barrack was built there in 1800 and the island was manned during the war of 1812 to 1814. Military installations were upgraded prior to the First World War and again in 1939.

Many of the original quarantine station structures have been demolished, but remnants of the doctor’s house and some hospital structures remain. Tours were available up until the 1990s when access then became controlled so as to reduce vandalism. There is quite a bit of graffiti on some of the structures and I do not know how much other damage.

A memorial to the Irish immigrants of the 1840s was set up in 1890, but it soon deteriorated and a Celtic cross was installed in 1927. The cross was restored and rededicated in 1985. There is also a memorial to the Jewish immigrants who passed through. The inscription on the Celtic 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.


Partridge Island is a small bit of land at the edge of the harbour in Saint John created, they say, from a remnant of a beaver dam that once blocked the Reversing Falls. It was home to many ruffed grouse and was heavily treed. The island made an excellent lookout for approaching ships and was used for that purpose from time to time over hundreds of years. The island was mostly left alone during those days, a silent witness to the arrival of famous explorers, Acadian governors, warriors and each and every one of our early ancestors. The island then became an inspection and quarantine station with millions of people passing through over the years. Many plague ridden immigrants died on the island having first endured starvation at home and almost sub-human conditions en route to what they hoped would be a better life. There were so many of them as to harden the hearts of the kindest of workers, and burials were sometimes conducted with little respect being given. The island has been designated a Provincial and Federal historic site, but nothing has been done to develop it as a place of quiet contemplation of these events. That would be the best option. Another would be to restore it to its original state with trees and grouse so that the island could heal the wounds inflicted on it by history. If Partridge Island was once a happy place then no more. And, so, failing those two options, I can only hope that Glooscap will pick it up and toss it to the furthest corner of the ocean so that our wounds, at least, will also have a chance to heal.


Written by johnwood1946

November 7, 2012 at 10:03 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting article. There is typo on date re British raid to expel Acadians which was 1759 not 1859.

    John Noble

    November 11, 2012 at 5:23 AM

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