If a place is off limits, I want to see it even more. Every time I visit the port city, I check off new points of interest but the forbidden national historic site in the harbour of Saint John has become a personal quest. I want to cross the breakwater and go to Partridge Island but how do I do it safely and undetected?
Here’s some background on the site:
Partridge Island was one of two major quarantine stations in 19th-century Canada. Established in 1830 to protect Canadian citizens from contagious diseases carried by in-coming ships, the station provided treatment for immigrants and crew members who were ill, as well as purification facilities for the healthy passengers aboard the ships. This station was active during a particularly early and busy period of Canadian immigration. During 1847, 2000 Irish immigrants fleeing from the potato famine were quarantined here during a typhus epidemic. 601 of them are buried in a mass grave on the island. Passengers quarantined on this island eventually settled in New Brunswick, Upper Canada and the United States.
I take the Sandy Cove Road exit off Highway 1 and follow the signs to the Irvin Nature Park. It is still early and the fog hasn’t lifted off the harbour, so I bide my time and pull into the Greenwood Cemetery. The field of honour stands out at the back. The Canadian maple leaf and the Union Jack wave in the breeze, but everything around them seems spiritless and cold. This area is reserved for military members and their spouses to rest together.
I have come here in the hopes of stumbling upon the three famous residents: William Boggs, one of the oldest of the United Empire Loyalists. He lived to be 104. (Please read On The Trail of Loyalists); Charles Gorman, the famous speed skater. He has a dedication in Kings Square but he is laid to rest here, as is The Paris Crew, a four-man rowing team and their coach. Together they upset the London rowing club to win the 1867 world rowing championship.
None of the ones I seek show themselves to me, so I set my sights on a hike instead. The Sheldon Point trail head is just across the road. The early morning chill will make for a fresh hike but I’m hoping I will get a glimpse to Partridge Island at the top.
The trail is clear of snow and ice but the trees block the view I seek, so within half an hour, I am headed back down the path to the McLaren Beach.
I spot a lady stooping to pick something up, so I call out to her, “How is the rock hounding going?” She replies, “I’m picking beach glass.” I nod then ask, “Can you tell me where I can see the best view to Partridge Island?” Her reply blows by me on the wind but I believe I caught the whisper of “Bay Shore Beach.” She turns and continues to search the ground, and I set off once again on my quest.
Sea Street ends at a steep-sloped parking lot barely big enough to do a three-point turn. The lapping of the tide has formed mini glaciers on the beach, so I dare not walk the shore. The Island is starting to come into view but I am sure I can get closer. Fort Dufferin Road will be my next target.
I have been down this road before — it ends at a single house. There is nowhere to park and every sign states, No Trespassing: This area is under surveillance. I scan for the best place to tuck my vehicle out of the way, when I notice three deer grazing on the scrub grass beside the railway track. I take a moment to get some shots while I consider the consequences of trespassing.
The CBC recently did a piece on Fort Dufferin and they didn’t get arrested. I make a deal with myself: if I can’t find the trail to the breakwater within twenty minutes, I will abandon my search. The road cairn shows itself immediately and I am powerless to resist.
The trail curves through the underbrush and I start to see the remnants of Fort Dufferin,
Emerging from the brush, the trail slopes along the eroding bank and I am careful where I tread. The stark, rocky breakwater comes into view and it slightly resembles the rock wall of the Canso Causeway, which I covered in Cape Breton- Rediscovered Part 1.
It is such a lure I can’t just stay up here, I must go down to the beach at least. A sandy path provides access to the gravel beach. The tide is low and the surf fairly flat. I stand listening to the wind, and the chafing of sand against rocks thrust upon the shore by the waves.
I climb up onto the first few rocks and weigh the pros and cons of giving into my urge to hike the kilometre between me and the island: the ice encrusted boulders, the chances of the approach of high tide covering the breakwater and trapping me on the island. I’ll be at risk of exposure. There is also a strong possibility I could be injured, requiring rescue from the coast guard, which no doubt would come with a hefty bill. I can’t forget the potential night in jail for trespassing and illegal entry of federal property.
I sigh, staring at a wooden post with a metal ring attached. There is a pair of rubber gloves and one sole from a shoe stapled to it. It could be a memorial of sorts for hands, feet and souls of all the immigrants who died over on Partridge Island, their bones still buried where they get no visitors, as misplaced as the items on the post.
In the end I am too logical to tackle the breakwater. I shimmy out a little bit to get a few selfies. The wind is stronger on the exposed rocks and I am getting cold but it doesn’t detract from my satisfaction: I finally found the place.
I hope the many levels of government can find the funds to refurbish the island and let Canadians pay their respects to those who who travelled so far in the search of a better life, and whose quests ended just short of their goal. I hope I can visit some day; it is part of our national heritage.
Happy Travels from Maritime Mac