The Small Island off Brockville and Its History
It was not much more than a rocky outcropping covered with grass and shrubs when the village of Buell’s Bay was first developing on the present site of Brockville.
The earliest name attached to what we now know as “Blockhouse Island”, was “Refuge Island.” For what reason, we don’t seem to know. Ownership of all the islands in the river were originally vested in the Crown, and this one was no exception.
During Brockville’s involvement in the British-American War of 1812-15, it was not considered significant enough to be fortified. In area, it then took up only about a third of the present land space.
This is taken from part of a map drawn originally for Billa Flint of Brockville who was applying to lease part of Refuge Island from the Crown in 1827.
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Later, at the time of the frightful appearance of the epidemic cholera morbus in 1832, local authorities acted quickly in June of that year to establish a quarantine station on the island for all emigrants from foreign shores wanting to land at Brockville. The first elected Police Board was able to mobilize the resources of the newly-incorporated village, along with the appointment on June 12, 1832 of a Board of Health to recommend measures to combat the disease in Brockville. In addition, the village council passed measures to prohibit all immigrants from landing, to erect a building on the island for the reception of immigrants, and a special police force to enforce the regulations.
The first case of cholera at the port of Quebec was reported on June 8, 1832. At Brockville the first case of cholera developed among the immigrants on June 19th. At that time, work was progressing on the hospital building on Refuge Island. Alexander Grant had been appointed to act as the Health Officer, and to supervise the team of special constables. Eight days later it was reported that Dr. Robert Gilmour, a young Scottish-born physician and the local coroner, was dead, after being stricken with inflammatory fever, caused by exhaustion and overwork, while administering to the sick on “Hospital Island.” On June 29 Alexander Grant was directed to build sleeping accommodations for the doctors attending the sick. Shortly after, Dr. Upton and his wife took charge of the new hospital.
Brockville may have simply been lucky, but by reacting in such an efficient way, the disease barely entered the mainland, and the local population was mostly spared the tragedy that was felt at most of the ports along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. For example, at Prescott, where travellers transferred to the larger lake steamers, 88 deaths were reported out of 188 cases of the disease. By comparison, at Brockville there was a total of 22 cases and only 12 deaths. By the 20th of July, the Police Board decided that it was no longer necessary to restrict boats and baggage at the harbour, as the threat of contagion was over.
A few years later the island was called upon in the aftermath of the Canada rebellions of 1837. The citizens of Upper Canada were well aware that a new threat was developing in the northern American states during the year 1838. Hordes of young Americans known as “Patriot Hunters” had become convinced by disloyal agitators that Canada was ripe for further uprisings against their British masters. These members of the Patriot Lodges were misguided, it turned out, and when the threatened invasion took place on November 12, 1838, east of Prescott at the hamlet of Newport on Windmill Point, the citizens and authorities of Upper Canada rose against them. Brockville and the surrounding area organized their militia forces in defense of their homes and country. Many rushed to fight at the Battle of the Windmill. The young men of Brockville were quickly organized into the Brockville Independent Company, a group of 69 volunteers led by Captain Robert Edmondson MD, and Lieut. James L. Schofield.
In the summer of 1838 before the invasion which led to the Battle of the Windmill, the Royal Engineers Dept. had sent out instructions to establish armed posts at some of the towns on the St. Lawrence, one of which was Brockville. The island in front of the town, at that time known as “Grant’s Island,” was selected as the most defensive position, and the local militia commander, Colonel Adiel Sherwood moved to strengthen this position in the summer of 1838.
This is a drawing made by the author in 1983 as a member of the Brockville Ontario Bicentennial Committee. The committee at that time proposed to Brockville City Council that the re-creation of the Blockhouse on Blockhouse Island would be a good Bicentennial Project but this project was turned down, after local citizens spoke out against the idea.
During the winter of 1838-39 about 300 men of the First Regiment, Leeds Militia were on active duty in Brockville. The thirty-one members of Captain John Bland’s Independent Company of Artillery was responsible for operating a six-pound gun which was placed on the island in August 1838. In January 1839 a wooden blockhouse was constructed on Grant’s Island. The work was carried out and supervised by 2nd Lieut. Benjamin Chaffey of the Artillery Co. Chaffey, a few years later, was responsible for building the new Court House in Brockville. The Blockhouse was to serve as one of the barracks for militiamen on duty here and to provide a defensible position in case of attack.
The Brockville Blockhouse was never actually involved in any battle, as the threat of American invasion faded during the later months of 1839. The so-called “Patriot War” remained just a strong memory as peace was restored.
This sketch of Blockhouse Island in 1845 was made by Col. William Denny (1804-1886) while traveling between Montreal and Kingston. Denny was a British officer-artist with the 71st Regiment and served a total of fifteen years in Canada, as well as retiring here in 1854.
The Blockhouse remained a landmark on the island, which now became known as “Blockhouse Island,” as it is today. Numerous artists were able to “capture” its likeness over the next twenty-one years. It was included in many scenic drawings of the Brockville shoreline. From these drawings we are able to see its features as it stood before the growing town.
In the late 1850s, the island was selected as the location of the terminus of the new Brockville and Ottawa Railway. The stretch of water between the mouth of the new Railway Tunnel and the island was filled in by numerous loads of rock and earth, much of it probably excavated material from inside the tunnel itself. In 1860 the plans were to build a roundhouse and auxiliary buildings on the site of the blockhouse, and the Blockhouse’s removal was imminent.
A Royal Engineers’ drawing of Grant’s Island (Blockhouse Island) dated 1850 shows the position of the blockhouse and privy ten years before the island was expanded and joined to the mainland by the Brockville & Ottawa Railway, and was used to house a large roundhouse and other buildings. This map is drawn with north to the left.
On May 4, 1860, the Blockhouse was used for target practice by the Brockville Artillery Company who managed to send seven cannon balls through it , but failed to destroy it. Four days later it was the scene of a mysterious fire which engulfed it, and destroyed what remained.
The B&O Railway roundhouse and warehouses were partially destroyed by fire early in the 1870s, but were soon rebuilt. The peninsula continued to be a very important part of transportation in Brockville as goods were transferred from rail to ship for many years.
Blockhouse Island is now known as a pleasure spot for locals and visitors alike, and will probably continue to do so for many years to come, but how many people will still remain confused by the name Blockhouse Island applied where no island nor blockhouse exist?
This view is extracted from the full town Bird’s Eye View Map of Brockville created by artist Herman Brosius and the lithographers employed by the Charles Shober & Co of Chicago.
Sources: It would not have been possible to tell the story of Brockville’s experience with cholera were it not for the minutes of the Brockville Board of Police meetings kept by the first village clerk, Robert H. Fotheringham. This Minute Book is now in the Archives of Ontario in Toronto. The credit for prompt action goes to board President (Mayor), Daniel Jones, Jr, and elected members (councillors), Jonas Jones, Henry Sherwood, Samuel Pennock, and John Murphy.
Additional information was printed in the local newspapers of the time. A good reference dealing with the epidemic in Canada is Dr. Charles M. Godfrey’s book, “The Cholera Epidemics in Upper Canada 1832-1866.”
The graphics used here were taken from copies of the originals.
William Denny’s drawing is held by the Library and Archives Canada in the Denny Papers, MG 24, F33. Information about his career is covered in the LAC publication, Images of Canada (1972).
The military history related here is from the author’s personal collection. Information has also been drawn from material collected by Herb Sheridan for the 1983 Brockville Provincial Bicentennial Committee.
Bob Stesky of the Brockville & District Historical Society has created a page about the American artist Herman Brosius and his Bird’s Eye Maps or Panoramic Views of towns and cities all over North America. Brosius came to Brockville in 1873 or 1874 to sketch the town as it was at the time. This lithographic was published in Chicago in 1874 and has proven to be one of the most detailed records of Brockville. I have found it most accurate and complete, showing streets and buildings in 3-dimensions from the air. This article is found on the Internet at: http://www.rootsweb.com/~onbdhs/panoramic_maps.html