During the Great Hunger of the 1800s thousands of Irish arrived in Montreal. Most came alone, some with their family. Desperate, but courageous, looking for a new life. They needed work. The best possibility was the canal projects.
From a contractor’s correspondence: “I therefore expect to collect a great number of persons on the Works by the first May and fear from the wretched condition of most of the emigrants applying to me for work, that it will be indispensably necessary to issue bedding to prevent sickness ... at present the poor fellows lay with nothing but their rags to cover them and their numbers are increasing"
The Lachine Canal
As European explorers dreamed of finding a route from New France to the Western Sea and on to China it was named in French - La Chine. ca.1689, the French Colonial government was planning a canal to bypass the Lachine Rapids en-route to Montreal. However, in the second half of the 18th century, England took possession of the territories, the United States invaded Canada in 1783 and again in the War of 1812. Securing the boundaries became a priority and a plan, developed by Montreal merchants and contractors, was awarded the commission and funding to proceed. In 1821, 500 labourers with pick and shovels, axes and wheelbarrows assembled at Lachine. It was the largest workforce in Canadian history. Most of the pittance that was their salary was left in Lachine as they were obliged to obtain housing and all their needs. Lachine paylists 1822-1824 McCord Museum). The canal officially opened in 1825, helping to turn Montreal into a major port and attracting industry to its banks. A contractors' gold-mine.
When the canal was widened the appalling working conditions and unfair treatment of the Irish lead to Canada’s first labour strike in 1843.
Most of the pittance that was their salary was left in Lachine as they were obliged to obtain housing and all their needs. (see Lachine Canal pay lists 1822-1824 at McCord Museum).
The canal officially opened in 1825, helping to turn Montreal into a major port and attracting industry to its banks. A gold-mine for contractors.
The Lachine Canal is a designated National Historic Site of Canada.
The Rideau Canal
opened in 1832, is both a WORLD HERITAGE & NATIONAL HERITAGE site. The canal covering 202 km of the Rideau & Cataraqui rivers, from Ottawa to Kingston harbour is the only 19th C canal of the era still in operation along its original line with most structures intact. Each winter the section passing through the centre of Ottawa, Canada's capital city, becomes the world's largest skating rink. The word rideau is French for curtain. Samuel de Champlain, travelling up the Ottawa River in 1613, saw the twin falls meeting at the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers, as a curtain. The name appeared on maps ca. 1694.
The team of contractors, now under supervision of the Royal Canal projects employed about 8-9,000 men per year but the Great Hunger in Ireland sent more than 25,000 persons (including women and children) to Montreal and Quebec City. In Montreal many settled in low-rent districts straddling the canal: Griffintown, Point St. Charles and Victoria Ville. Jobs and housing were now scarce and many recent arrivals moved on to the United States.
In 1847 the city built a final development comprised of “fever” sheds to quarantine victims of typhus. More than a decade later, workers laying foundations for the Victoria railway bridge across the St. Lawrence River, uncovered a mass grave of typhus victims. A memorial was erected by the workers "To preserve from desecration the remains of 6000 immigrants who died of ship fever A.D.1847-8."
Estimates of the total workforce fatalities on the Rideau construction (1826-1831), taking into account death and employee turnover, vary from 4,000 to about 10,000. Half of the workers working on the Rideau died from mosquito-borne Malaria.
The Welland Canal
is known as one of the world’s greatest man-made wonders. Built to connect Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, it opens an otherwise impassable route blocked by the spectacular falls and rapids of the Niagara River, between lakes Erie and Ontario. Construction began November, 1824 and was completed by November, 1829. By 1833 it had undergone several modifications. It was a labour intensive venture. Construction crews working with hand tools, hauling on their backs everything that needed moving. As horses and oxen were used to tow ships from one lock to another – the paths are still there, known as towpaths. The men were paid about half a dollar a day.
The present canal extends 27.6 miles (44.4 km) from Port Colborne (on Lake Erie) to Port Weller (on Lake Ontario) and has a minimum depth of 30 ft. (9 m). The 327 ft. difference in elevation between the two lakes is overcome by eight locks.
Between 1967 and 1973 a channel, the Welland By-Pass, was constructed to help speed ship traffic and alleviate highway traffic through the city. Twin flight locks in Thorold allow more than one ship to travel in either direction at the same time.
1974 marked the 150th Anniversary of commencement of construction of the First Welland Canal. The Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial Task Force volunteers report that 137 men died during the construction. 24 of the men drowned.
The Trent Canal
Samuel Champlain was the first European to travel the network of inland waters from Georgian Bay to the Bay of Quinte with the Hurons in 1615. Known as the Trent–Severn Waterway.
Many Irish immigrants laboured on the Trent, but times had changed, laws and attitudes had changed. The work was still labour intensive but the region, as the Murray Drope's grandfather, Thomas Drope (b.1773) arriving in Upper Canada (Ontario) 1825-6 from his birthplace in the Townland of Dernamoyle, County Monaghan, told him, "It looked for all the world like Ireland and we knew we'd always be at home here." Thomas Drope lived a good long life. He is buried at St. James Church, Rosemeath, Ont.
By the time the canal route was completed its use as a commercial waterway was over; ships plying the Great Lakes had grown much larger than the canal could handle, and the railways that originally connected to the canal now took most of its freight. But the introduction of motor boats led to the Trent–Severn's emergence as a pleasure boating route, and today it is one of Ontario's major tourist attractions. Today it is a National Historic Site of Canada linear park operated by Parks Canada It is open for navigation from May until October, while its shore lands and bridges are open year-round.
As we reflect on these great losses, we cannot but remember others with whom we share the vast, varied and rich nation of Canada.
The history of Canada's First Nations resonates with the Irish as we see displacement mirrored and ancient, healthy ways of life on the land lost. We also recall the many Chinese labourers who lost their lives building the cross-Canada railroad that would, for many years, open the vast land to commerce and travel.
Today, as we welcome people from other lands we remember that we or our forbears also came to Canada as immigrants seeking peace, freedom and a new beginning.
Grosse Ile Memorial, Quebec
An Górta Mór (The Great Hunger) 1845-1848
In three years, 1845–48, as the potato crops failed, the island’s population fell from 8 to 5 million people. In every County of Ireland thousands of people of every age died. Most vulnerable, labourers and cottiers on half-acre holdings depended on the potato as their sole food source. They, died of starvation and malnutritionment.
Some (fewer in number) with limited resources or help from abroad, crowded into ships holds and were scattered around the world. Many were on their way to Canada in search of a new life.
It is generally accepted that the failure of the potato crop, in Ireland and other European countries, was the result of a blight transported across the Atlantic on cargo ships. The impact on Ireland was compounded by the fact that Ireland’s grains, dairy products and calves were exported across the Irish Sea to England.
Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site
Most who left Ireland on “coffin ships” crossing the Atlantic, had been misled by passage-brokers into believing that food would be provided. An estimated 5,293 died and were buried at sea. Those who disembarked were described as cadaverous and feeble. For those who reached Canada, the need was not anticipated and there was a serious lack of both facilities and medical personnel. Care was negligent at best.
More than forty Irish and French Canadian priests and Anglican clergy attended to assist. Many contacted illness themselves.
Bishop Power, contacted fever and died shortly after delivering the last sacraments to a dying woman. Mayor of Montreal, John Easton Mills, also died in the course of caring for the sick. French and English speaking clergy took a leading part in organizing relief for those who were discharged, the convalescents and the adoption of many orphans who were welcomed into new homes by French-speaking families.
Grosse Isle is the largest burial ground for refugees of the Great Hunger outside Ireland. More than 3,000 died, They died of cholera and of typhus, ship fever and starvation, and are buried there.
At the beginning of the 20th century in 1910, 100 000 newcomers arrived in Quebec, 170 000 in 1912 and 225 000 in 1914. Plans were made to erect a vast, modern hospital complex at the quarantine station. However, exceptional circumstances prevented the construction project from being implemented.
The First World War (1914-1918) and the Great Depression (1929) drastically reduced the number of people immigrating to Canada. Medical research had progressed and hospital on Grosse Île was treating, almost exclusively, minor childhood infections such as diphtheria, chicken pox and measles. .
The quarantine station on Grosse Île was closed in 1937 by Parks Canada.
In 1909, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, under the leadership of Jeremiah O’Gallagher of Macroom, County Cork, completed the building of a Celtic Cross to remember the many Irish who died at Grosse Ile.
During the 1950’s the cross was damaged by a lightning strike. Repair was undertaken by Jeremiah’s son Dermot O’Gallagher and Dr. Larkin Kerwin.* One stone remained when the repairs were completed. That precious stone was presented to the Ireland Canada Monument Society by Mary Anne O’Gallagher. It will be installed in the Wainborn Park monument.
* Dr. Larkin Kerwin, whose famiily had come from County Wexford, Ireland, later became President of the Canadian Space Agency.
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