By: Elizabeth Finnie
In the summer of 1832, the dreaded cholera came to Niagara. Its arrival was inevitable. The Second Great Cholera Epidemic had started in the early 1800s in the Ganges River area of India and spread across Asia and Europe. Medical knowledge was so primitive that no one was able to stop it. In 1832, emigration to North America rose to over 50,000, mostly desperate British emigrants seeking a better life across the Atlantic. Ship owners were often corrupt, packing their ships with this human cargo but with no regard for any illnesses they might be carrying.
The quarantine island Grosse Ile, on the St. Lawrence River, was meant to screen and ‘purify’ incoming passengers, but it was overwhelmed. Ships bearing cholera victims got through, and in June of 1832, several arrived on our doorstep, the wharf of Niagara. Sir John Colborne, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, had hastily created some local boards of health to deal with the invasion. This was the first instance of organized public health in Upper Canada, which had almost no hospitals at the time except for a few military ones such as Butler’s Barracks at Niagara. There were some scuffles with local ‘mobs’ attempting to stop vessels from landing.
Hardest hit by the disease were the Irish canal labourers who were the poorest and lived in the worst conditions, many in shanties. When cholera struck, they frequently fled. Burials of the dead were hasty and many went unnamed in paupers’ graves. William Hamilton Merritt in a July 1832 letter to his wife provided a graphic description of his attempts to look after his workers.
The St. Catharines Board of Health records for 1832-33 are a good illustration of events. We see Nathan Pawling and Jonathan Woodhull attempting to be reimbursed for provisions to the temporary Port Dalhousie hospital; Dr. Chace’s list of medical supplies – laudanum, Peruvian bark, coffin boards and nails…and much more.
St. Catharines was spared many deaths. Although millions died across the world, and thousands in Lower Canada, the disease was limited mostly to the ports, rivers and canals. By late autumn, 1832, it ebbed away.