William Head Quarantine Station (1872-1959). . Accreditation: Library and Archives Canada.
From the late 19th to the mid-20th century Victoria was a significant Canadian immigration seaport. Between 1872 and 1957, conforming to the medical practices of the time, all passengers were required to be cleared at an inspection and communicable disease control facility prior to entering the country. Until modern drugs and international health practices made the station unnecessary, ships great and small were required to drop anchor for clearance.
Canada’s first quarantine station on the Pacific coast was established in 1883 at Albert Head, west of Victoria. The site soon proved inadequate with its insufficient water supply, lack of accommodation for healthy passengers and with little security on its landward side.
Neighbouring William Head was chosen as its replacement. Forty-two buildings were constructed on the 106-acre site. They included accommodation for 120 first-class passengers, 90 second-class, and up to 800 third-class passengers. The families of 13 staff members were housed on station with their own school/chapel. The station’s hospital could accommodate 49 patients and the station’s cemetery received the mortal remains of travellers from many countries who died of disease during their time in quarantine. The cemetery is still carefully tended.
The Secret Migration
Click to view documentary
In 1917 85,000 young Chinese men from famine-stricken Shandong Province were transited through William Head Quarantine Station. From their William Head quarantine they were transported to Vancouver where they boarded hundreds of “secret” trains to cross the country. From Halifax they embarked to cross the Atlantic for Marseilles, France to serve in World War I as members of the Chinese Labour Corps. On the Western Front they were detailed to perform a range of battlefield services, including digging trenches, driving trucks, delivering and preparing food, medicines, and ammunition, and recovering bodies and unexploded shells
It was the largest mass migration in Canadian history. British estimate some 5,000 were killed while Chinese estimates hover around 20,000 died. For more on this you can view Tricks on the Dead via the link in the Webliography.
Post World War I
Among the smallest trans-Pacific vessels to clear was the Chinese junk Amoy. Upon being cleared, Amoy tied up below the Empress Hotel where she attracted thousands of visitors. The largest vessel to clear was RMS Queen Elizabeth on her way to the Royal Canadian Navy’s Esquimalt naval base when it served as a troop ship during the Second World War. The peak year of the station’s activity was 1927 when 1,068 ships were inspected.
In 1924 the lepers from the D’Arcy Island colony were transferred to Bentinck Island just off nearby Rocky Point. Their welfare became the responsibility of the station’s medical officer. Medical advances in the treatment of leprosy rendered the Bentick Island colony obsolete and it was closed in 1956.
At the end of the Second World War, the station served as a stop-over for prisoners of war liberated from Japanese prison camps.
William Head Quarantine Station was closed in 1958 and reopened the following year as the William Head Institute, a federal minimum security prison.