History Overview of the “Black Rock”
1847 was the middle year of a five year famine in Ireland. Originally referred to as “The Potato Famine”, the event is currently called “The Great Hunger”.
Detailed records are scarce, but it is estimated that one million or more men, women and children died in Ireland during this period and approximately one million more left Ireland in search of a better life.
Of the one million that left Ireland, it is believed that about 100,000 headed for what was then the colonies of British North America (now Canada).
These immigrants were poor, malnourished and carried with them the dreaded “ship’s fever” known today as typhus: a very contagious and deadly disease.
As they travelled to Canada, many died on the voyage and were buried at sea in the cold Atlantic. It is difficult to determine how many died during the trip with estimates varying widely from 5000 to more than 15,000.
On arrival on the shores of Canada, more died in the Maritime colonies (provinces), with some buried around St. Andrew’s in New Brunswick.Their first port of call in Lower Canada (Quebec) was at the quarantine island called Grosse Ile. This island is just downriver from Quebec City and is today a National Historic Site.
At Grosse Ile, the small and overworked staff of doctors, nurses and support staff tried their best to determine who might be infected by typhus and these individuals were removed from the many ships that arrived there in 1847-8. At this location, where at least some attempt was made to record the deaths, more that 5000 of these individuals died and were buried at Grosse Ile.
The men, women and children that were “deemed well” were allowed to continue on to Montreal. Of course, it became obvious quickly that many of the people allowed to continue were not well and carried typhus with them. John Mills, the Mayor of Montreal at the time, realized that he would have to segregate the sick Irish from the general population. It is believed that about 70,000 Irish immigrants arrived in Montreal when the population of the Island of Montreal at the time was only about 50,000.
John Mills had a number of fever sheds constructed in an area of Montreal known as Point St. Charles. Records indicate that there were 21-25 sheds, roughly 50’ X 100’ in size.
And during the very hot summer of 1847 (sometimes referred to as a Calcutta Summer), more that 6,000 more Irish immigrants died and were buried in the area.
In one of the greatest humanitarian efforts ever seen in Montreal or Quebec or Canada, Montrealers at the time, led by the “Grey Nuns”, and representing every language, religion and cultural group in Montreal went to these fever sheds to provide care and comfort to the sick and dying Irish.
A number of the caregivers also became infected with typhus and gave their lives for the effort, including Mayor John Mills, who spent his evenings providing nursing care to these victims.
Of the survivors that were then allowed to continue onward from Montreal, they continued to die in Cornwall, Kingston, Ottawa, Toronto etc.
In 1859, the workers building the Victoria Bridge in Montreal discovered the remains of a number of these Irish victims. Most of the workers were Irish, and since it was only 12 years after the events of Black ’47, it is possible that some of these workers were also survivors.
The workers removed a large boulder from the St. Lawrence River and placed it over the bones that they had discovered. They noted that the Rock should remain there as long as the “river flows and the grass grows”. Over time, with the nearby railway and heavy traffic, the boulder became a deep black color from the pollution. Today it is known as the Black Rock.
It is likely that with more than 6000 victims, this burial site is the largest outside of Ireland; and the Black Rock is the first memorial anywhere in the world to the Great Hunger of Ireland.
The Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation, a dedicated, non-profit and volunteer group is working closely with Hydro Quebec which owns the property, and the City on Montreal, to build a beautiful world class memorial around the area of the Black Rock.