By Devonna Edwards, Columnist
In January 1899, the SS Lake Superior arrived in Halifax Harbour with 2,000 Doukhobors aboard. The ship was flying a yellow flag, which signifies that there was disease aboard. When the Quarantine Officer went to check out the ship, he was told that an eight-year-old child had died of smallpox and was buried at sea. The passengers of the ship were then quarantined on Lawlor’s Island. The Doukhobors were Russian emigrants that had been exiled from their homeland due to their religious beliefs. They refused to serve in the army because they did not believe in killing and were perceived to be different, because they lived a communal lifestyle. As such they were ostracized by their government and the traditional churches, both were afraid of them.
Lawlor’s Island was only prepared to handle 1,400 people, and the carpenters of Halifax and Dartmouth refused to build additional structures, as they feared they could contract smallpox themselves. Fortunately, many of the Doukhobor men were woodworkers and carpenters, so they built another detention center to accommodate the balance of the 2000 immigrants, along with a kitchen and enlarged bath house. Food and supplies were sent to the island from Halifax.
To disinfect their bodies from the virus, sixty Doukhobors at a time were put in hot tubs. Their sheepskin coats were specially disinfected by a new formaldehyde concoction, used to keep the coats from falling apart. Other articles of clothing were disinfected by heating them to a very high temperature and then steamed again at even higher temperature. The SS Lake Superior, which transported the Doukhobors and their cargo, was also disinfected with sulphur under pressure for twentyfour hours. After three weeks on the island with no detection of smallpox they were permitted to leave, with no deaths reported beyond the one girl, who was the single case that brought about the original quarantine. As fate would have it, one birth of a baby girl occurred during the quarantine period on Lawlor`s Island, the first Doukhobor birth in Canada. The ship sailed for Saint John, New Brunswick where they departed from the S.S. Lake Superior and boarded a Canadian Pacific Railway train bound for western Canada, there they were allowed to keep their faith and live as they wanted. Over 7,500 Doukhobors immigrated to Canada in the early years and today there are between 30,000 and 50,000 living here.
The island is located at the mouth of Halifax Harbour, beside McNab’s Island and across from Eastern Passage. It is about three kilometres long and in 1750 it was called Bloss’s Island after Captain Thomas Bloss, who was given a land grant there. The island was also called by other names such as Webb’s Island, Carroll’s Island and McNamara Island, but the Mi’Kmaq were the first people to occupy the island using it as their summer encampment.
In 1866 Sir Charles Tupper, the City of Halifax’s Health Officer bought the island for the purpose of building a Quarantine Station for the victims of deadly contagious diseases, but that was not accomplished until after another cholera scare in 1871. A quarantine building that once stood on McNab’s Island called “the long shed” or “German Hospital” was disassembled and rebuilt on Lawlor’s Island. Three quarantine hospitals were built on Lawlor’s Island in 1871 and a Disinfected Station was added to the station in 1893. Three hospitals were built to accommodate the first-, second- and third-class passengers. One structure was 120 x 20 feet, and the others were 40 x 20 feet. The Quarantine Station included a smallpox unit, disinfection unit, care-takers residence and structures supplying water to the buildings.
By 1900, officials had a deep-water wharf built and a shallow-water wharf built on the Eastern Passage side of the island. At that time Lawlor’s Island had two hospitals, a convalescent building, a disinfection autoclave, baths with needle showers, a bacteria diagnosis laboratory, a first, second and third-class detention hall, an ambulance building, several residences, and staff housing. By 1908 a winterized hospital, power plant and a water tower were also built on Lawlor’s.
In 1938 a sailor was admitted to Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax and found to have smallpox. He was immediately transferred to Lawlor’s Island where he died from the disease. Two orderlies who had helped undress him contracted the disease and were quarantined on the island. They both survived. The orderlies were the last people to be quarantined on Lawlor’s Island, it was closed in 1938. In place of Lawlor`s Island, the government used quarantine space at Pier 21 immigration terminal and built an isolation ward at Rockhead Prison in the north end of Halifax.
Today the island is owned by the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and is now part of the McNab’s Island Provincial Park Reserve. At the present time the island is occupied by wildlife and covered with heavy woodland, old foundations, and rusted equipment from the quarantine station.
The Island also has a small, neglected cemetery located on the northern end of the island, only a few markers remain of the forgotten victims who died from deadly diseases that once plagued the world before Vaccination.