Plan for memorial park at Montreal's Black Rock in jeopardy

For years, members of the Irish community have been working to create a commemorative park at the Black Rock, a monument to the thousands of typhoid victims buried there in a mass grave. Now Hydro-Québec has bought the site.

Canada Lands Agency sold site of mass grave to Hydro-Québec, but utility says it's committed to honour Irish

The annual walk to commemorate the thousands of Irish refugees who died of typhus in the fever sheds near this spot in 1847 ends here, at the stone erected in their memory in 1859. (Facebook/Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation)

Today's March to the Stone will be bittersweet.

Every year, hundreds of Montrealers, many of Irish descent, walk to the foot of the Victoria Bridge, where the Black Rock stands on a fenced-in patch of grass, right next to a busy road .

It was erected there by bridge workers in 1859 to honour the 6,000 Irish famine refugees who died of typhus in 1847, buried there in a mass grave.

For the past five years, the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation has been working to create an commemorative park at the site — following in the footsteps of many before them.
Photographer William Notman took this photograph of the laying of the Irish Commemorative Stone on Dec 1, 1859. (McCord Museum)

"The Irish have been asking for a memorial park there since 1907," said Fergus Keyes, a director of the foundation, in an interview on CBC's Daybreak.

"So it's been a little bit of a long fight."

'To preserve from desecration'

Why there? Because when the Victoria Bridge was under construction 160 years ago, the workers — many of Irish descent themselves — discovered the mass grave at that spot and erected the stone to ensure those buried there would never be forgotten.

If you visit the rock, you can still read the inscription:

To Preserve from Desecration the Remains of 6000 Immigrants Who died of Ship Fever A.D. 1847-48

But now, Hydro-Québec has an accepted offer to purchase the industrial land that includes the Black Rock site, and it plans to build a switching station there — made necessary by increased demands for electricity in the area and to power the light rail transit network. 

Part of Montreal's history

Most of the dead were Irish refugees, fleeing the Great Famine that was ravaging their home country. In that hot summer, Keyes explained, typhus ran rampant in the sickness sheds that had been erected to quarantine the sick.
This photo of the Irish Commemorative Stone was taken by amateur photographer Alfred Walter Roper in 1898. It marks the spot where 6,000 are buried in a mass grave, which Fergus Keyes says is 'the biggest [Irish] burial ground outside of Ireland.' (McCord Museum)

"It's a burial plot rather than a cemetery," Keyes said. "Towards the end they ran out of coffins…. Thirty, 40 bodies would be put in [the trenches] without coffins and would be covered every day."

The infected were dying so quickly, Keyes said, there was no time to mark their graves.

"There's no names. We don't know who they are."

The epidemic didn't just affect the Irish: The Grey Nuns who went into the fever sheds to treat the sick and British soldiers who guarded the area also contracted typhus and died.

Even Montreal's mayor at the time, John Easton Mills, offered to help the sick — but he too succumbed to the disease.

"At some point early on, they knew it was dangerous," Keyes said. "And they went to help them anyway."

Plans for a park dashed

Keyes said his organization approached the City of Montreal years ago to see if the area surrounding the Black Rock could be turned into a memorial park.

But it turned out that the space was owned by the federal Canada Lands Agency, which in turn offered to sell it to Hydro-Québec in a deal set to close in July.

The Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation's plans for the burial site beneath the Black Rock are well advanced. (Facebook/ Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation)

"There's something ironic about the whole thing," Keyes said, since if it were to be built, the plant would be providing electricity to the Griffintown neighbourhood, traditionally inhabited by the Irish.

"I find it pretty insulting to the history of the space."

"Two, three, four people is a tragedy. Six thousand people is a statistic. People can't really grab that big a number," he admitted. "But 6,000 died there. It's the biggest burial ground outside of Ireland."

Memory will be honoured: Hydro

Keyes and fellow foundation director Victor Boyle met Hydro-Québec officials Friday to plead his organization's case. Keyes said those officials were receptive and have invited members of the foundation to sit on a working group, along with City of Montreal officials, to explore their options.

In a statement released after that meeting, Hydro said it's also hoping to purchase adjacent industrial land on Bridge Street, and the project — to be completed by 2023 — is still in the planning stages.

The utility said it's committed to undertaking archaeological work at the largely undocumented site and will share its findings with Montreal's Irish community. 

"We know the importance of the site for the Irish community and are committed to show the greatest respect to this important burial place," said Éric Martel, Hydro-Québec's president and CEO, in the statement. 

Montrealers walk to the Black Stone from Pointe-Saint-Charles in 2014. (Facebook/Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation)

"We made it clear that we would prefer Hydro not build anything at that site," said Keyes. "We'll have to see where it goes."

For now, the Walk to the Stone will take place as planned.

"We're walking in memory of these 6,000 and all the people who helped," Keyes said. "If there's anything positive, it was that human beings were helping human beings, even at risk of giving up their own lives."

The Walk to the Stone takes place Sunday, May 28. The march leaves from St. Gabriel's Church in Pointe-Saint-Charles at noon and ends at the Black Rock, near the Victoria Bridge.

With files from Montreal's Daybreak