Partridge Island, Sait John, New Brunswick, Canada


Saint John, New Brunswick
Partridge Island Click here to see a larger view Click here to see a larger view Click here to see a larger view Click here to see a larger view Click here to see a larger view Click here to see a larger view

Aerial View taken in the 80s

    Partridge Island, located at the entrance to Saint John Harbour, has a history that is hard to match in terms of stirring heroism and stark tragedy as well as noteworthy importance. Undaunted by the passage of a history as turbulent as the Bay of Fundy waters washing on its shores, the great rocky barrenness of Partridge Island stands as a silent guardian of Saint John Harbor. In times of peace, the monstrous jagged rock symbolizes security for tired mariners guiding trans-oceanic titans into the port of Saint John. In time of war, the 80-foot high cliffs become fortresses with great guns stretching their ugly snouts over the eastern sea lanes.

    The Island's story begins centuries ago, in the time of the Indians. To them it was "Quak'm'kagan'ik" meaning "a piece cut out", a reference to their belief that the Island was created when their great hero-god Glooscap smashed the dam Big Beaver had built at the Reversing falls and a piece of the dam was swept in the rush of water to the mouth of the harbour where it came to rest to form the Island.

    Following the arrival of the Loyalists in 1783 and the formation of the City of Saint John, the need for a lighthouse to aid shipping was realized. Such a light was erected on Partridge Island and came into existence In 1791, being only the third to have been built in Canada. Soon after, a signal station was also located on the Island and it was used for many years to alert the City to vessels approaching up the Bay.

   Today a number of traces of the Island's exciting past are to be found there. But all too evident as well is the way it has been neglected. Many people would like to see Partridge Island made an historic site and become a place apart where the visitor could go there to feel the ties with the past where so much happened to effect the development of the Saint John area. Such a proposal is well worthy of supports.

George MacBeath, Director.
The New Brunswick Museum.

Immigrant ship

    During the first part of the 1800's, Ireland was supporting its people very largely by its potato crop. It happened that for several seasons these crops were poor and this led to what was known as "The Potato Famine." With their chief means of sustenance removed, many of the people became paupers. To help ease the situation, thousands of these unfortunates were shipped to North America. They were half-starved and in a debilitated state, and the vast majority came in vessels that were poorly provisioned and dreadfully overcrowded. Some owners and masters took the opportunity to make money and added an extra deck in their vessels, allowing them to nearly double the number of passengers they could carry. This practice was fairly widespread and in Saint John alone, thirteen shipmasters were convicted of overcrowding and illfeeding their passengers.

This painting by Ray Butler depicts Dr. J.P. Collins attending the Irish in June 1847    Thousands of Irish immigrants destined to dock at Saint John stopped at Partridge Island for medical inspection and those who were sick were quarantined there. The Quarantine Process All sick people and those in contact with the sick were brought to the island. On the island, they were subjected to a kerosene shower. Item #1A on Map, followed by a hot water shower to wash away the oil. Their belongings were steam cleaned. They were to spend the remainder of their days on the island until they got better. Those who died were buried in one of the six graveyards on the island. Item #31 on Map. Dr. W. S. Harding was the resident physician, but as the number of sick grew he required assistance and Dr. Patrick Collins and Dr. J. H. Harding joined him. At the Miramichi, too, ships arrived with fever victims who were cared for by Dr. Vondy. He, like Dr. Collins of Saint John, paid with his life for his heroism. In the year 1847 alone more than six hundred people died of typhoid fever and were buried on Partridge Island.

    In 1854, Saint John was visited by another epidemic. This was cholera, brought here by one of the ships carrying German immigrants to the province. The disease was confined to Partridge Island for two months, but then in June it spread to the city, where it raged with no let-up until cold weather in October brought relief. The medical men and the citizens generally took every step they knew of to check the outbreak. Despite a wide use of medicines and disinfectants, and the evacuation of a considerable portion of the residents, 1,500 of our people died in a period of eight weeks.

    In 1927, a forty-foot Celtic cross was erected on Partridge Island in memory of the Irish immigrants who died during the fever scourge of 1847. Those immigrants that survived the fever and cholera had many talents and they and their descendants have made them available to the city and province that gave them a home. They have brought honour to New Brunswick in art, literature, drama and many of the professions., both in Canada and the United States.

   All images on this page and content below are courtesy of Harold E.Wright from the Heritage Resources and Saint John Community College

Heritage Resources


   Partridge Island has an unexpected amount of wildlife and plant life living along its shores and on the land. However, in the winter, there is not much life to be seen. Occasionally an owl can be seen, but usually only Great Black-backed gulls, megansers, crows, and starlings reside there during these cold months.

   The spring is a wonderful site to see on the island. Many birds have been spotted during the spring migration. Some remain only for a few days to rest and feed, while others remain to breed. Other animals that live on the island include muskrats, raccoon, beaver, mink, river otter, and an occasional coyote. No reptiles have been found and there is only one amphibian, the Red-backed Salamander, living there.

Since the Quarantine Station closed in 1941, and military operations ceased in 1947, plant life has thrived on Partridge Island. Disturbed areas, old ruins and foundations have been invaded and colonized by some plant species and, in turn, succeeded by others.

   On the island you can find rhodora and coltsfoot flowers, lilacs, buttercups, starflowers, bunchberries, and Mountain Wood Ferns, as well as hundreds of other beautiful flowers. There are alders, elderberry, Mountain Ash, Grey Birch, and Trembling Aspens, but only one oak tree has been found.


   Partridge Island still functions today as a Coast Guard lightstation. The concrete, automated light tower that stands now has many predecessors.

   New Brunswick's first lightstation was built on Partridge Island in 1791 and staffed by Captain Samuel Duffy. It was made of wood and it burned down in 1832. The second light tower lasted from 1832 to 1880. The third light tower was modified in 1911. Another five meters was added to its height and it was equipped with a more powerful lamp. The light tower that dominates the present view of Partridge Island replaced this tower in 1959. The picture above is the light tower in 1910.

   The present light tower was automated in 1989. It flashes every seven and a half seconds (8 flashes per minute).


   Despite the light towers, fog continued to cause nautical disasters. Some engineers attempted to solve the problem with various fog alarms. In 1801, a minute gun was installed to help ship navigators, and was replaced by a 1000 lb. bell in 1831. Neither method proved a success. Over a one hundred year period, close to two dozen ships had been lost off the shores of Partridge Island.


   In 1852, Robert Foulis patented the Illuminating Gas Apparatus, and the next year he, along with his gas maker William Murdoch, were working to convert the light from oil-burning to gas-burning. As his work progressed, he was inspired to construct a fog alarm using a steam whistle. He submitted his plans to the Lighthouse Commissioners in 1858 and didn't get a response. The next thing he knew, a local engineer named T. T. Vernon Smith built the the world's first steam operated fog alarm, based on Foulis' plans. While Foulis sought legal action, the alarm was being praised by local pilots and skippers.

"...on the whole coast of America there is not another alarm equal to the one spoken of ... in making the harbour on Tuesday, a dense fog prevailing at the time ... eight miles below the island we heard the Whistle, and without the least difficulty entered the harbour." -- Captain Winchester of the steamer Eastern City, 1860.

   Foulis received his deserved recognition in 1864. This is the world's first steam fog alarm circa 1865. It is a water color sketch created by J.C. Miles. Item #25 on Map

   In 1942, a concrete whistle house was built. This structure housed the fog alarm, diesel generators, and the beacon and radio equipment until the station's automation in 1989. Item #28 on Map