George Burden takes us to Lawlor Island in Nova Scotia, an Island with a fascinating history and an identity crisis.
There probably aren’t too many islands that have had so many different names as Lawlor Island, one of four islands that straddle the entrance to Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia.
My references don’t say what the Aboriginal Mi’kmaw people called it before European influence, but it took on the moniker of Bloss Island in 1750, named after the half-pay British naval captain who purchased it. In 1758 it was called Webb’s Island and by 1792, Carroll’s Island. In 1829, novelist Thomas Chandler Haliburton called it Duggan’s Island and later it bore the name Webb’s Island.
But it was James Lawlor who eventually gave the name to the island in the 1800s and whose name it still bears. We know his name from an advertisement he placed offering a reward for the ‘dastards’ who stole his sheep.
The island played an important if secondary role during the U.S. Civil War in 1864. Lawlor Island served to screen the Confederate raider Tallahassee from sight of Union vessels as it sneaked out the hazardous Eastern Passage of the harbour. Its audacious captain, John T. Wood, was a grandson of Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the United States. Under his tutelage, Tallahassee sank 35 Union vessels. Captain Wood later settled in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and ironically his son Charles, great-grandson of a U.S. president was one of the first Canadians killed fighting alongside the British during the Boer War. The Nova Scotia town of Chaswood is named for this war hero.
In 1866 the the island was designated by Nova Scotia premier and later Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Charles Tupper, as a quarantine station to isolate shipboard victims of diseases such a smallpox, typhoid, typhus and cholera.
Interestingly three different hospitals were built so that first class, second class and third class passengers wouldn’t have to mingle – fear over upper class germs perhaps? There is still a small cemetery with a few monuments standing on the northern tip of the island which doesn’t seem to be divided off by socioeconomic class.
In 1899, 2000 Doukhobors (a persecuted religious minority in Russia) under the leadership of Leo Tolstoy’s son Count Sergius Tolstoy, were quarantined on the island for suspected smallpox. As there were only accommodations for 1400 the industrious Doukhobors worked to build and enlarge their lodgings and kitchen facilities. Fortunately, no smallpox developed and the Doukhobors were free to continue their immigration to western Canada. On their departure Count Tolstoy commented that their stay on Lawlor Island “was not at all to be compared with the rigors of Siberian banishment but still the three weeks spent there had been dull exceedingly.” It is not recorded if the Doukhobors billed the province of Nova Scotia for their labors.
By 1938, the island was no longer needed as a quarantine station due to improved public health measures. It served as a medical facility through the Second World War but was abandoned afterwards. Now the island is only inhabited by osprey, deer and the occasional fox (not to mention hoards of mosquitoes if you venture inland). The foundations of mouldering buildings, a few grave markers and rusting equipment are all that remains of almost a century of activity aimed at healing the sick and protecting the inhabitants of Nova Scotia from infectious disease.
For a more detailed look at Lawlor Island and its fascinating history, consult Dr. Ian Arthur Cameron’s book Quarantine: What is Old is New (New World Publishing).
If you want to get to Lawlor’s and have a look for yourself while visting Nova Scotia contact Mike Tilley at McNab’s Island Ferry (902-465-4563).
For more reading, visit http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/environment/FOMIS/history/hist-s11.html
Except for the Old French Prison photo, all photos are © George Burden. All Rights Reserved.