Brockville’s former quarantine station is an island oasis in a sea of chaos today

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by Tom Van Dusen

Every evening at this time of year, there’s a steady stream of vehicles doing the Christmas light circuit around Brockville’s Blockhouse Island.

Most keep moving; some pull over for a while to fully absorb the colourful light show. There’s even a radio link where occupants can listen to synchronized seasonal tunes.

I’ve done it myself, stopping to admire the sun setting in the west over the St. Lawrence River, thrilling to the double whammy of a natural light show combined with a man-made one. Both have their own merit!

It’s a little break from the COVID-19 madness which has infected the world over the past 10 months, a chance to absorb some seasonal cheer. But I wonder how many of those in the nightly procession know the somewhat creepy connection with this latest world pandemic?

I don’t want to be a Yuletide party-pooper but: During the cholera epidemic of 1832, a quarantine station was established on what became Blockhouse Island to clear immigrants wanting to land at Brockville. Does the whole quarantine/epidemic thing ring a bell?

There wasn’t nearly as many people around back then so the cholera outbreak wasn’t as devastating by our standards. But after I got curious about the island which technically today isn’t one and doesn’t sport a blockhouse, the epidemic history seemed just plain eerie.

I don’t imagine that close to two centuries ago there was much in the way of sanitizing and that distancing and masking were untried concepts. However, efficient action by Brockville authorities of the day has been credited with the fact the settlement largely escaped devastating statistics experienced by other St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario ports of call.

To deal with the threat, a Brockville board of health was quickly assembled, as was a special police force, and immigrants were prohibited from entering. 

With the contagion threat lasting only about six weeks, at Brockville there were 22 cases and 12 deaths; in comparison, downriver at Prescott there were 88 deaths out of 188 reported cases. The first case of cholera was reported at Port of Quebec June 8; 1832; by July 20, the Brockville Police Board determined the threat had passed.

At this juncture, I have to credit local history blogger Doug Grant for doing all of my research. Under the title Brockville History Album, Doug has an interesting online series of stories and photos about his “terrific” city. His piece on the “island” is accurately called: “What blockhouse? What island?” The fact of the matter is that neither exists anymore.

But both existed at one time. In the late 1850s, after what was still an island was selected as location of the terminus for the new Brockville & Ottawa Railway, the stretch of water between the mouth of the rail tunnel which remains in place was filled in with tons of rock. Never involved in any battle, a wooden blockhouse built on the island in 1839 was destined for removal to make way for the train yards.

As historian Doug tells the tale: “On May 4, 1860, the blockhouse was used for target practice by the Brockville Artillery Company who managed to send seven cannon balls through it but failed to destroy it. Four days later, it was the scene of a mysterious fire which engulfed it and destroyed what remained.”

What had become a peninsula where goods were transferred from rail to ship remained an important part of the transportation network in Brockville. Now an all-season leisure spot for locals and tourists, the island has quite a story to tell… especially the part when it played an instrumental role in a long-ago epidemic and does so today as a brief refuge from the scourge of C-19.

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