Doukhobor Genealogy Website  
 

Lawlors Island Revisited

 

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

 

On January 28, 1899, the SS Lake Superior carrying nearly two thousand Doukhobors was inspected by the Port Health Officer at the mouth of Halifax Harbour. After discovering one case of smallpox, the Officer ordered the passengers and crew into quarantine on Lawlors Island for twenty-seven days to prevent the spread of infectious disease. One hundred and five years later, on March 26, 2004, Jonathan J. Kalmakoff returned to the site of the Lawlors Island Quarantine Station to retrace the footsteps of his ancestors during their first days in Canada. The following is a gallery of photos he took on his trip.

 


 

I arrived in Halifax from Regina on March 25th for a four-day business trip. I wanted to make the most of my free time and take advantage of the unusually clear and warm weather to visit local and historic attractions. These would include the Harbourfront, Old Halifax, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Pier 21 and Citidal Hill. Foremost among these, however, was Lawlors Island, where my Doukhobor ancestors were quarantined upon their arrival in Canada.

 

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Lawlors Island is located in the south-eastern portion of Halifax Harbour between MacNab's Island and Eastern Passage. To the north-east lies Dartmouth and to the north-west Halifax. The island is approximately one mile long and half a mile across. It is surrounded by shallow tidal flats except at its north-western end. Densely covered with trees and foliage, it is named after James Lawlor, a sheep farmer who owned the island in the 1820's.

 

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On the morning of March 26th, I met with Dr. Ian A. Cameron, Professor of Family Medicine at Dalhousie University and President of the Dalhousie Society for the History of Medicine. Dr. Cameron, who is writing a book on the history of Lawlors Island, shared his insights on the establishment of the quarantine station, its development, demise and contribution to the history of public health in Canada.

 

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Dr. Cameron explained that Lawlor's Island Quarantine Station dates back to 1866, when the SS England entered 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. A permanent quarantine station was built on Lawlors Island that summer.

 

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A view of the island looking eastward to Eastern Passage. According ot Dr. Cameron, the quarantine station on Lawlors Island served tens of thousands of new migrants before it was finally closed in 1938. At that time, 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. Today only its foundations remain.

 

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Armed with this knowledge and a healthy sense of adventure, I was intent on visiting the site. On the afternoon of March 26th, I arranged for a trip to Lawlors Island through McNabs Island Ferry - Harbour Island Nature Tours, located in Fishermans Cove in Eastern Passage. My guide was Mike Tilley (aka Captain Red Beard), a cheerful Maritimer distinguished by his red beard and rubber boots.

 

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"Of course I can get you to Lawlors Island," said Mike matter-of-factly. "But you may need snowshoes," he added dryly. As we sailed from Fishermans Cove to Lawlors Island, rounding its north-east tip, Mike explained that Halifax usually receives only half an inch of snow per year. However, this past winter had seen unusually heavy snowfalls, placing Nova Scotia in a state of emergency. Parts of the island were still covered with 3-4 feet of snow.

 

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I was disappointed to hear this news, as I had no idea when I might have the opportunity to visit the island again. However, it occurred to me that the conditions would be similar to those experienced by the Doukhobors one hundred and five years earlier, when they arrived here in January 1899. It was some consolation that I would see the island in much the same light as they did.

 

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As we neared the north-western shore of the island, I reflected how on January 28, 1899, the SS Lake Superior anchored off the mouth of Halifax Harbour with a yellow flag at its foremast signaling the Port Health Officer to come aboard. The Officer discovered an eight year old child with smallpox on board. Concerned that the child had infected the whole ship, the Officer ordered the ship to proceed to the quarantine dock on Lawlor's Island.

 

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We landed near the remains of the old quarantine wharf. Here, nearly two thousand Doukhobor passengers disembarked from the SS Lake Superior, after receiving inspections and vaccinations on board, to enter quarantine. Under the regulations of the time, the period of quarantine for smallpox was two weeks. However, with inadequate accomodations on Lawlors, not everyone could leave the ship at once and so the whole process was delayed.

 

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Photograph of the quarantine wharf on Lawlors Island as it originally appeared in the early 1900's.

 

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A map of our route on Lawlors Island. We landed in the wharf area on the north-western coast of the island. From the Disinfection Unit, we travelled to the cemetery at the northernmost tip of the island. We then travelled south-west to the 3rd Class Hospital. From the hospital we travelled due south before turning back north to the wharf area.

 

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Along the shoreline, the signs of Hurricane Juan were everywhere. The hurricane hit Nova Scotia on September 29, 2003, causing extensive damage to the island. Mike indicated that an extensive clean-up would be undertaken in spring by the Friends of McNabs Island Society, a volunteer non-profit charity dedicated to the preservation of McNabs and Lawlors Islands. The society maintains the islands through an agreement with the government.


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We first came across the concrete foundations of the Disinfection Unit. It was here that groups of Doukhobors, sixty at a time, were bathed in large tubs of steam-heated water with a disinfectant solution. Because of the numbers of immigrants involved, the process took two weeks to complete.

 

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During the bathing process, the Doukhobors' clothing was disinfected in this unit by dry heating to temperatures of 69 degrees celsius followed by steam to a much higher temperature in order to thoroughly destroy the smallpox virus. Despite rapid drying, the clothing was often still damp when it was returned to the Doukhobors.

 

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I recalled that while the Doukhobors and their effects were undergoing disinfection here, the SS Lake Superior docked at the wharf was evacuated, sealed and fumigated with sulphur dioxide under pressure for 24 hours.

 

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The remains of a large boiler used to supply steam heat to the Disinfection Unit. Most of the buildings and equipment were salvaged after the quarantine station was closed in 1938. This boiler had escaped the scrapman's torch, however, long exposure to the elements has taken its toll.

 

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Mike Tilley in front of the Disinfection Unit foundations. During our trek across Lawlors Island, Mike shared his views on the island's status as a Provincial Park, its lack of public recognition, and its potential as an eco-tourism and historical site on one hand, and as an unspoiled nature preserve on the other.

 

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From the Disinfection Unit foundations we headed to the north-western tip of the island. Snowcover in this open, exposed area proved not to be a problem. In the background is Dartmouth centre and Eastern Passage to the far right.

 

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Looking back, southward, at the remains of the Disinfection Unit. Given the size of the foundations, which measured over one hundred and fifty feet, it must have been a very large, well-engineered complex of buildings in its time.

 

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Photograph of the Disinfection Unit on Lawlors Island as it originally appeared in the early 1900's.

 

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At the extreme northern tip of Lawlors Island we found the cemetery. Surprisingly, there were only six markers. Given the tens of thousands of immigrants quarantined on the island during its seventy-two years of operation, there must be many more unmarked graves. As a rule, quarantined groups left some of their numbers here, but the Doukhobors were an exception. All survived the rigous of Lawlors Island during the winter of 1899.

 

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A marble gravestone marking crewman Arthur Amiro of the SS Thalia who succumbed to smallpox while in quarantine in 1901. Most immigrant passengers would not have been able to afford such a headstone. This one was raised by the deceased's friends and crewmen.

 

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A second marble gravestone, marking crewman William Muise of the SS Thalia who likewise succumbed to smallpox while in quarantine in 1901. The marble gravestones stand in stark contrast to the other plain iron markers in the cemetery.

 

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Standing southward with the cemetery behind me. The snow was alot deeper here where it was shaded and sheltered. Fortunately, it was well packed and I was able to walk on top of it without falling through...most of the time!

 

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From the cemetery we headed due south through dense brush until we reached the stone foundations of the 3rd Class Hospital. The Lawlors Island Quarantine Station had three hospitals corresponding to each class of ship passenger. Being steerage or third class passengers, the Doukhobors would have been examined and treated in this building.

 

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Photograph of the 3rd Class Hospital on Lawlors Island as it originally appeared in the early 1900's.

 

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From the 3rd Class Hospital site, we headed south-west. Along the way, we came across the foundations of several smaller buildings, which may have been housing units for quarantined passengers. I recalled that when the Doukhobors arrived at Lawlors Island, there was insufficient accomodations for all the passengers. The Doukhobors were given tools and supplies and were able to construct the necessary additional buildings themselves.

 

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Photograph of quarantine patient accomodations on Lawlors Island as it originally appeared in the early 1900's.

 

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Continuing south-west, we reached the foundations of the caretaker's residence. Note the concrete stairway. While the quarantine station was in operation, the caretaker remained on the island year round and was responsible for the maintenance and operation of the facilities.

 

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Mike Tilley points southward at the old roadbed, now grown in, which once connected the northern and southern parts of Lawlors Island. Mike hopes that one day it will be cleared and utilized for nature and historical tours and interpretive paths to provide a glimpse into Nova Scotia's colorful past and unspoiled natural beauty.

 

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Blocked by heavy snow, deadfall and undergrown to the south, we made our way north-west, back towards the wharf area where our boat was anchored. We needed to leave before low tide, while we could still get the boat out of the shallow tidal flats surrounding the island.

 

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Before heading back, I cast a glance at the shoreline facing southward. When the quarantine regulations had been fulfilled on February 17, 1899, the Doukhobors would have assembled here on the shore before coming onto the wharf and reboarding the SS Lake Superior. Note McNab's Island in the background.

 

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The shoreline of Lawlors Island facing northward. Prior to assembling here for reboarding, the Doukhobors had to present a red ticket if they had been vaccinnated and it had "taken". A white ticket indicated the first vaccination had not taken and they hd been revaccinated and a yellow ticket indicated the disinfection process had been completed. Note Dartmouth in the background.

 

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A last glance back at the Disinfection Unit as we departed. I recalled how the Doukhobors had left Lawlors Island over a hundred years earlier, singing psalms at the rails of the SS Lake Superior, bound for Saint John and their new homes in Western Canada.

 

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Sailing between McNab's Island on the left and Eastern Passage on the right. Mike explained the history of McNab's Island. Its strategic location was utilized by the military to guard the harbour, her fertile soils provided an important source of food for early settlers, and the beaches, woodlands, open fields and scenery have attracted local residents for leisure-time pursuits since the 1700's.

 

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North of McNab's Island we passed George's Island. It also had been a military fortification during the 18th and 19th centuries. Note the gun turrets pointing outwards towards Halifax Harbour. A lonely lighthouse marks safe passage on the left hand side.

 

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On the way back, I got a tour of Halifax Harbour. It was a great opportunity to view Halifax's naval fleet, spectacular harbourfront, and the beautiful skylines of both Halifax and Dartmouth. Along the way, Mike discussed such topics as the Halifax Explosion and the rich history of Halifax's role during war and peace while pointing out various historic points of interest.

 

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Mike dropped me off at my hotel on the Harbourfront and departed back to Fishermans Cove. He did a fantastic job and his combination of wit, humour and knowledge had truly made my trip. It was an exciting and memorable opportunity to retrace the footsteps of my Doukhobor ancestors during their first days in Canada.

 

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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, The Doukhobors Quarantined at Lawlor's Island, 1899 by Koozma J. Tarasoff and New Book Explores Lawlor's Island Quarantine Station by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.