The Confusing Story of the Charlottetown Marine Hospitals

Buried in the middle of a grove of tall poplar trees near Trout Point in the western part of Keppoch there is (or at least was, when I was but a lad) a shallow depression which marks the foundations of a building which once commanded the Point.

Site of the quarantine hospital at Keppoch. 1936 aerial photo detail.

The place is shown on maps and in the community history as the Marine Hospital but the real history of the place, and of the hospital activities is more complex than first appears.

Consider the plight of the sailor. Visiting foreign parts where disease could be rampant, serving on vessels with poor food and accommodation, a dangerous workplace and exposure to unfavourable weather all combined to make sailors vulnerable to sickness, broken bones and poor health. Moreover, they were not always in home port and responsibility for the nautical visitors was not something that harbour towns extended. Sailor patients were not wanted in the early hospitals (if they existed at all) for they seldom could pay their bills. One solution sometimes used was the establishment of dedicated marine hospitals which would be funded by a levy on the ships and cargos entering the port.  This created a fund which could be used to meet hospital expenses. The facilities were usually staffed by doctors and matrons on retainer and serviced only when there were actually patients.

Originally a colonial responsibility, the marine hospitals were one of the duties assigned to the Dominion in Confederation negotiations to create Canada and were part of the 1873 order in council that brought Prince Edward Island into Canada. Canada was to assume and defray all charges for a list of services which included “The Lighthouses, Shipwrecked Crews, Quarantine and Marine Hospitals.”

There are annual reports mentioning a marine hospital at Charlottetown for a several years after Confederation but a continuing complaint of the medical officer was that the hospital was contained in a rented building, “a small cottage,” not suitable for the purpose. The Public Accounts show that it was rented from Patrick Cullen for $120 dollars per year but its site is not given. A consistent  recommendation was that a proper building be constructed.

In  1876 a Marine Hospital was built in Souris, which, owing to the large number of American fishing vessels was a very busy port and it was difficult to transport sick sailors to Charlottetown.

Faced with the lack of a permanent facility in Charlottetown  $1,200 was appropriated in 1880 for purchase of land for a Marine Hospital in Charlottetown and $4000 allocated for its construction. A later account states that a parcel of land described as “Part of town lots Nos. 1, 53, 54 and 100 at Charlottetown P.E.I.  had been acquired for the hospital. It is far from clear just there this land might have been located. However, construction did not take place and it seems that other options were under consideration. In 1882 the marine hospital in Charlottetown “having been found unsuitable for the purposes required” was closed and an arrangement made with the Charlottetown Hospital and the Sisters of Charity for the care of sick seamen. This move was not universally popular, especially as it was a loss of a salary for the medical officer.

The Marine Hospital is often confused with the Isolation or Quarantine Hospital, especially since both were Dominion responsibilities after Confederation. The latter institution has a longer history.

Danger from the sea was not always marauding pirates or hostile navies. More often it was pestilence and disease brought by sick crew and passengers or by the ever-present ship’s rats.  In the 18th and 19th centuries the flood of emigrants  increased the dangers. Long voyages in unsanitary vessels where passengers were close-packed heightened the likelihood that disease was present when it arrived n the New World. Ships with sickness aboard were required to stop and fly the quarantine flag and wait for a doctor before any passengers could be landed.

In 1847 an immigrant ship with over 400 mostly Irish immigrants aboard arrived in Charlottetown Harbour from Liverpool. Instead of remaining off Canceau Point as required, the ship, the Lady Constable, was allowed to tie up at one of the city wharves and was cleared for  unloading of goods and passengers, even though 25 had died of disease during the passage.  A routine examination from a medical quarantine officer in Charlottetown had mis-diagnosed what at first appeared to be measles and dysentery. Instead it was the highly infectious disease of typhus which rapidly spread, both among the immigrants and to residents of Charlottetown. The community being without a suitable quarantine hospital the sick were eventually moved into the lunatic asylum and it was several months before the outbreak was controlled but not before at least 23 more had died from the disease.

The incident may have been what led to the purchase of land on the south shore of the Hillsborough River at Kelly’s Point, not far from the Clifton Methodist Church. A marine quarantine hospital was erected on the site in the summer of 1849 but was burned in what authorities suspected to be an arson attack with a few months. The site appears to have been abandoned. It is not clear if the structure was replaced or moved or whether authorities simply rented a quarantine building when the need arose.

Detail from the 1869 edition of Bayfield’s Chart of Charlottetown Harbour showing the mysterious “hospital” at Duchess Point in what is now Victoria Park.

Although otherwise undocumented as to purpose, a building is shown at Duchess Point in an 1856 plan of Government House Farm. On the 1869 edition of Bayfield’s Chart of Charlottetown Harbour this is identified as “Hospital”.  Although it persisted on charts until well into the 20th century the identification may have been an error. But at the time there was, in fact, a quarantine hospital but not at this site. An inventory of the Dominion Department of Public Works properties in the 1880s has an entry for the quarantine station at Charlottetown Described as follows” Erected in 1863, at a cost of $1350, upon a piece of land containing about nine acres, situate at the entrance to the harbour, a distance from the city of about two miles by water and three miles by land. Building is situated near the centre and faces the south. It is 52 ft. 3 in. x 22 ft. 6 in with a kitchen in the rear  20 x 12 1/2 ft. The whole built of wood , on stone foundation. The main building consists of one storey with attics.”

Marine Isolation Hospital, Sea Trout Point. Public Archives and Records Office, Camera Club Collection.

This building had been constructed by the P.E.I. government in 1863 by contractor John L. Phillips and is referred to in the accounts as a “public hospital” but as no other hospitals existed at the time it can be concluded that this was a quarantine hospital.   Other sources make it clear that this building was not located in Charlottetown but at the harbour mouth.  It would have been in place well before the 1869 chart revisions were made yet that chart does not show a hospital at Sea Trout Point.

Another stray reference relating to hospitals is a letter from the War Office in London dated 29 September 1860 which sanctions the erection of “an hospital at Battery Point” on condition that sites most convenient for the erection of Batteries be reserved and no buildings built on them.  This adds to the confusion in two ways as there is a Battery Point on the east side of the entrance to Charlottetown Harbour but some records of the period refer to the location of the Prince Edward Battery in what is now Victoria Park as Battery Point. Charts up to the current day show this as “Old Battery Point.”  Notwithstanding the sanction granted by the War Office there is no evidence that a hospital was erected at either Battery Point.

Given that no other evidence has been found supporting a hospital at Duchess Point in the Government House Farm it is probable that the 1869 chart is in error with the cartographic engraver misplacing the facility at the wrong location.  Indeed the next edition of the chart, dated 1916 clearly shows the quarantine hospital at Seat Trout Point although it continued to show the mysterious hospital in Victoria Park at Duchess Point as well.

Detain from the 1916 edition of the Chart of Charlottetown Harbour showing the site of the Quarantine Hospital near the summer cottages at Keppoch

The quarantine hospital at Trout Point, frequently referred to as the Marine Hospital operated into the 1920s. As the importance of the port declined so too did the hospital. Often treating more than fifty patients a year in the 1880s it was often empty in the twentieth century as medical care and disease control improved.  There were still cases of smallpox and scarlet fever spotted from time to time among the sea-going population but the fear of disease had been reduced to the point that the hospital was duplicating other facilities.  The structure seems to have been abandoned about 1925.  The property was sold and the building demolished in 1936 with some of the materials being used to build a cottage at the point.

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