On Dec 1, 1859, the giant boulder, believed to be the headstone sitting about a 6,000-strong mass grave was erected below Victoria Bridge in Montreal. Here's why it means so much to the Irish community. 

On a cold and blustery Sunday in May, Victor Boyle, President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) Canada was tending the Black Rock Monument in preparation for the annual pilgrimage to the Rock.  He was accompanied by his three-year-old grandson, Cian.  The massive 30-ton granite boulder sits atop a two-meter concrete pedestal and is engraved with the following words:  

To Preserve from Desecration the Remains of 6000 Immigrants Who

died of Ship Fever A.D. 1847-48

This Stone is erected by the Workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts Employed in the construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D. 1859.

Unveiled 160 years ago on Dec 1, 1859, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Montreal, near the site of the fever sheds that housed the sick and dying victims of the Great Irish Famine of 1847, The Ship Fever Monument or the Black Rock as it is now more commonly known, is the oldest monument to the Irish Famine in the world. The boulder is said to be the headstone of the largest mass grave of Famine Irish outside of Ireland.

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Yet, this massive, black, misshapen monolith, that now occupies a traffic island between two busy roadways in an industrial wasteland approaching the Victoria Bridge has had little peace in its centenary and a half history.

Archeological dig

Recently, a team of archeologists, employed by the REM, the company contracted to build and operate Montreal’s new elevated rapid transit system, unearthed the remains of 12 to 15 bodies. In addition, numerous blackened pieces of timber, thought to be the remnants of coffins, were also recovered.

The dig was confined to a small two-meter diameter area intended to house one of the supports for the new train, so it is only an extremely small sample of what may lay buried underground. This is not the first time that bodies and artifacts have been unearthed near the Black Rock.

Read more: Montreal Mayor refuses to consider honoring Irish Famine dead with REM station

Ailing Irish Famine refugees

When up to 70,000 victims of the Great Irish Famine landed on Montreal’s shores, (then a town of 50,000) poor, sick and bedraggled, many of whom did not speak either English or French, they were not a welcome addition to a community that was already rocked by sectarian conflict. 

It had not been ten years since the failed Lower Canada Rebellion of Louis-Joseph Papineau against the British Colonial authorities and a city into which the Anglophone minority population continued to grow and assert its power against the French-Canadian majority.  These new exiles from the British Empire brought the threat of further English colonization. They also brought with them deadly and highly communicable diseases – typhus and relapsing fever – whose causes and cures were not readily understood and justifiably elicited fear among the city’s population, a city that had lost over 2,000 lives in the cholera epidemic of 1832.

So frightened were the city’s citizens that the Board of Health considered relocating the migrants to a quarantine site outside of the city limits on one of the nearby Boucherville Islands, similar to the Grosse-Île quarantine station located further upriver near Quebec City.  

In the end, the decision did not receive the endorsement of city commissioners and then mayor, John Easton Mills. Instead, 22 fever sheds were constructed at Point St. Charles, a few kilometers downriver of the city. The sick were tended by the heroic efforts of the Grey Nuns and other volunteers (including the mayor himself who caught the disease and died) who willingly took on the mission of care, fully aware of the dangers and the risks.

Read more: Bravery of the Grey Nuns of Montreal during Great Famine honored

Generous Quebecers came forward to adopt the hundreds of children who survived, orphans of hunger and disease. When the fever finally abated in late 1847, it was estimated that 6,000 refugees and their caregivers were dead, hastily interred in mass graves adjacent to the fever sheds.

Victoria Bridge construction workers

Ten years later, these same sheds were converted into makeshift accommodations for the laborers (largely Irish) who were employed to build the nearby Victoria Bridge.   When they realized that their construction threatened to erase the memory of the thousands of their countrymen who had perished there, the workers convinced the custodians – the Anglican Church, city fathers and the construction company to erect a memorial to the victims -- The Ship Fever Monument.

In 1898, at the behest of the Grand Trunk Railway who wanted the land to add to their ever-expanding rail properties,  the Anglican church was persuaded to dig test pits near the site, but no human remains were found, bolstering their case that this was not a mass grave and that any incursion on the land would not amount to sacrilege.  Although they were unsuccessful in obtaining the land, this did not stop the railway from removing and relocating the monument in 1900.

It would take ten years and continued pressure from the Irish-Catholic community in Montreal before the Black Rock was returned to its original location.  Eventually, the lands fell into the hands of the Canadian National Railway (CNR) on the condition that the small plot of land on which the monument stood be preserved and maintained. 

6,000-strong Irish Famine mass grave

Then, in 1949, workers who were excavating a tunnel near the Victoria Bridge uncovered what previous excavations had failed to find – blackened coffins holding the remains of twelve victims who had died of typhus on the shores of Montreal in 1847.  This is what the Irish-Catholic community of Montreal had been waiting for. This was a gravesite, the cemetery of their ancestors, the remains of the Irish typhus victims of 1847.

In the mid-1960s the largely Irish diaspora communities of Pointe St. Charles and Griffintown were re-zoned as commercial and industrial and the communities that had once been a bustling Irish shantytown of 60,000 was reduced to a handful of families.  The land adjacent to the Black Rock was bulldozed to create a thru-way to the World Expo of 1967.  In 1970, the heart of the parish, St. Anne’s church was demolished and today Griffintown is an urban concentration of condominiums with little remaining to remind anyone of the hardscrabble, working-class Irish who built the Victoria Bridge, the Lachine Canal, and other city landmarks.

But the Black Rock remains and today that plot is maintained by the Canadian chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. As Victor Boyle, also a co-director of the Montreal Irish Monument foundation (an organization dedicated to the creation of a memorial park on the site of the Black Rock) remarked, “the latest discovery further vindicates the community that continued to remember and to believe and it puts a human face to the tragedy”.  It also reinforces the strong community sentiment that this is, indeed, a sacred site; one deserving of the city’s reverence and respect. Victor remembers passing the site on many occasions with his own grandfather who never ceased to remind him, “This is yours.  Never forget.”  Victor hasn’t.

Victor hoisted his grandson up onto the pedestal, out of the bitter wind, while he wrapped a little bunting around the black wrought-iron fence surrounding the monument.  When he was done, he glanced up to see his grandson with his face pressed hard, up against the stone.  He told his grandson to take his face away as the granite would be ice-cold this time of year, but Cian replied: “No, papa, it’s very warm” and as they were leaving the little park, Cian turned back to face the monument, said thank you and waved goodbye to the spirits of the victims who had come to this country full of hope in their hour of greatest need and who had lost their lives on the shores of Montreal in the blackest year of the Great Irish Famine of 1847.

Read more: Irish Famine artifacts sought for 175th anniversary Dublin exhibition

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