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Doukhobors Quarantined at Lawlors Island, 1899


by Koozma J. Tarasoff


From 1866 to 1938, the quarantine station at Lawlor's Island, Nova Scotia treated sick immigrants and prevented the spread of infectious diseases at the mouth of Halifax Harbour. The following article describes the quarantine of Doukhobor immigrants at Lawlor's Island in February 1899. Reproduced from Koozma J. Tarasoff's article, "The Doukhobors at the Quarantine Station on Lawlor's Island" in ISKRA No.1869 (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C., March 10, 1999).



The first two of four shiploads of Doukhobors in January 1899 - the S.S. Lake Huron and S,S, Lake Superior - were detained for quarantine inspection on Lawlor's Island near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Quarantine inspection was needed to check the deadly threat of epidemic diseases in a major port city. Because the first ship was free of infectious diseases, it proceeded to Saint John, New Brunswick on January 23rd where these Russian dissidents boarded seven trains west. However the second shipload was not so fortunate; it had one case of smallpox and had to be detained for 27 days before proceeding west. Count Sergei Tolstoy was in charge of this ship (as he was with the fourth and last ship which went to Grosse Ile near Quebec City in June) and played a very helpful role in their settlement in western Canada.




The Lawlor's Island Quarantine Station dates back to 1866 when the steamship S.S. England entered the Halifax Harbour carrying 1202 immigrants. The Port Health Officer came on board and learned there were 46 deaths at sea and that 106 of the passengers and crew were suffering from cholera. The Officer immediately ordered the ship into quarantine at a temporary hospital on MacNab's Island and the epidemic was checked. That summer, construction on a permanent Quarantine Station began at the adjacent Lawlor's Island located in the south-eastern portion of Halifax Harbour between MacNab's Island and Eastern Passage. It is approximately two miles in circumference and is surrounded by shallow tidal flats except at its north-western end where the remains of the old quarantine wharf exist today. The facility served tens of thousands of new migrants before being closed in 1938; its need had declined as world-wide vaccination programs came into use and there was an increased awareness of health measures and communication between the major ports of the world. The quarantine station on Lawlor's Island served this end. Today only its foundations remain. In a flashback to the early years, Dr. Ian A. Cameron of Halifax, Nova Scotia, writes about the Doukhobors at Lawlor's Island during that early winter of 1899. (The Nova Scotia Medical Bulletin, June/August 1983, pages 86-87.):


The Doukhobors on Lawlor's Island


The second boatload of Doukhobors under the leadership of Count Sergius Tolstoy arrived in Halifax Harbour on January 28, 1899. When the ship came to anchor between George's and MacNab's Island, there was a yellow flag flying from its foremast requesting the port health officer to come aboard. Doctor Montizambert, the chief quarantine officer for Canada, boarded the vessel. He discovered that an eight year old child had developed smallpox on board. However, since the extreme range of incubation of smallpox was 14 days, Doctor Montizambert was concerned that the child had been infected on board ship. The yellow flag was hoisted to the top of the main mast and the ship was ordered to proceed to the quarantine dock on Lawlor's Island.


Having been exposed on the ship, Doctor Montizambert went into quarantine himself and delegated the duty of the coordinating the quarantine effort in Halifax to Drs. McKay and Carleton Jones. This was the largest quarantine effort to be attempted in Halifax. Despite modern conveniences like telephone communication, Doctor Montizambert faced major problems. He had to provide suitable accommodations on Lawlor's Island for in excess of 2,000 people in the middle of winter and there was only room for 1,400. Building materials and carpenters were requested and although the supplies arrived promptly, no carpenters would risk possible exposure to smallpox. A second problem was communication: there was no translator and to make matters worse, Count Tolstoy "lacked high qualities of executive talent". An appeal was circulated in Halifax for a Russian interpreter and immediately a Joseph Brunstein offered to go into quarantine. This was an invaluable aid to Doctor Montizambert. Through the interpreter the Doukhobors indicated that they would build the additional housing that was needed. In four days the Doukbobors completed the necessary accommodation and so the remaining personnel were transferred to the island. A kitchen and an enlarged bathhouse were also constructed with the assistance of the Doukhobors.


The next problem was getting the bathhouse and disinfecting unit operational and starting the fumigation process on the ship. Dr. Montizambert ordered the quarantine engineer, Mr. William Lease, to begin. He hesitated on the grounds that he was responsible to the Collector of Customs in Halifax. When contacted, the Collector of Customs deferred to Ottawa and after a brief bureaucratic delay the appropriate telegram arrived authorizing the work to begin at once.


Initially it was feared there would be an enormous food bill for this large scale quarantine effort. The authorities were delighted to discover that the Doukhobors were vegetarians and that onions constituted a large portion of their diet. They were even more relieved to discover that the S.S. Lake Superior had left Batum with provisions for 45 days and that they had only been at sea 23 days. Another problem that did not materialize was obtaining proper accommodations for Saloon, Intermediate and Steerage passengers. The Doukhobors made no such distinction and Count Tolstoy was treated in the same manner as the most illiterate peasant.


The Fumigation Disinfection Process


The S.S. Lake Superior and its cargo was fumigated with sulphur under pressure for 24 hours. The Doukhobors' clothing was disinfected by dry heating to temperatures of 69'C followed by steam to a much higher temperature. (In the moist state the virus is destroyed at 60'C for 10 minutes, but in the dry state it can resist 100'C for 5 to 10 minutes.) The sheepskin coats worn by the Doukhobors posed a problem in that they would not withstand the steam. At first Doctor Montizambert considered leaving them in the ship for sulphur fumigation. But a new formaldehyde device arrived and so the sheepskin coats were disinfected by this much more effective method.


The passengers and crew of the ship were disinfected sixty at a time in the enlarged bathhouse. While they were in the bath house their clothing was disinfected. Despite rapid drying the clothing was still damp when the Doukhobors made their midwinter trek back to their quarters, some of which were a mile or more away.


Fortunately the weather co-operated but then zero temperatures set in and the disinfecting process had to be discontinued temporarily. This was the only major delay. The quarantine regulations had been satisfied by February 18, 1899. Smallpox had not developed and the one case of pneumonia that occurred recovered uneventfully. As a rule quarantined groups left some of their numbers on the island, but the Doukhobors were an exception. Not only did they all survive the rigors of Lawlor's Island in winter, but their numbers were increased by one when for a brief period the quarantine station became a maternity hospital.


As departure time approached, Doctor Montizambert's thoroughness and efficiency was once again apparent. Before the passengers and crew could re-board the S. S. Lake Superior, they had to present a red ticket if they had been vaccinated and it had 'taken'. A white ticket indicated the first vaccination had not taken and they had been revaccinated and a yellow ticket indicated the disinfection process had been completed.


Just prior to departure, Count Tolstoy was interviewed and told the Halifax Herald that "the exile on Lawlor's Island was not to be compared with the rigors of Siberian banishment, but still the three weeks spent there had been dull exceedingly." The Doukhobors left Halifax Harbour singing psalms at the ship's rails, bound for Saint John and new homes in Western Canada, and thus ending a successful and happy chapter in the history of Lawlor's Island.



For additional information about the Doukhobor connection to Lawlor's Island, see Sergey Tolstoy and the Doukhobors: The Halifax Quarantine by Dr. Ian A. Cameron as well as Lawlor's Island Revisited and New Book Explores Lawlor's Island Quarantine Station by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.