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Military Fort on Saint Helen’s Island

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By: Dick Nieuwendyk – mtltimes.ca

 

St. Helen’s Island is part of the Hochelaga Archipelago, located in the St. Lawrence River between the Island of Montreal and the South Shore. It was named in 1611 by Samuel de Champlain in honour of his wife, Hélène de Champlain, née Boullé. The island belonged to the Le Moyne family of Longueuil from 1665 until 1818, when it was purchased by the British government.

 

Main gate and entrance to the fort - 1937
Main gate and entrance to the fort – 1937

After the war of 1812, between 1820-1824, according to plans of Lieutenant colonel Elias Walker Durnford, a career British Army officer of the Royal Engineers, a fort was constructed to serve as an arsenal and storage facility in the defensive chain of forts built to protect Canada from the threat of an American invasion. It served as the central artillery depot for all forts west, including Fort Henry and Fort Lennox. The red stone used to build the fort is a breccia quarried locally on the island.  The fort included an ammunition arsenal, weapons depot, barracks, a small powder house, and a guard house, surrounded by a thick limestone wall. Outside the fortified complex stood a large powder house which could hold up to 5000 barrels of powder. In 1829 a military cemetery was laid out in the eastern part of the island, which was used until 1870. Exhumation of graves took place around 1915. A memorial plaque, which was inaugurated in 1935, bears the inscription of the names of those who once were buried here.

 

During the 1832-1834 cholera epidemic, the fort served as a cholera hospital. It was transformed into a military prison after the rebellions of 1837. The British troops left Canada in 1870 and the Canadian government took over the island and converted it into a public park in 1874.

 

Main gate and entrance to the fort - 2015        (Photo: Dick Nieuwendyk)
Main gate and entrance to the fort – 2015 (Photo: Dick Nieuwendyk)

During World War I the fort served as a munitions depot. In the 1930s the fort was restored as a depression era project. In the 1940s, during World War II, Saint Helen’s Island served as an internment camp – s/43, where POWs were sorted and classified into categories including their nationality and civilian or military status. In this camp, POWs, mostly of Italian and German nationality, were forced into hard labour which included farming and lumbering the land. Merchant seamen and a number of Jewish citizens were also brought over to the Montreal prison camp and were detained for various reasons. In 1944 the camp was closed and shortly afterwards destroyed because of an internal report on the treatment of prisoners. Today the old arsenal building of the fort is home to the David M. Stewart Museum, an institution founded in 1956 to collect, store and display historical artefacts from Canada’s colonial past, particularly that of New France. Collections include items dating from the 16th to the 19th century. Both the Fort and the museum are open year-round. The main Arsenal yard has a cannon and mortar collection on display and a period blockhouse at the far end. Period guns are on display in the yard, on the earthworks and in front of the museum. Activities during the summer months include French soldiers drilling and firing muskets as well as a Scottish bagpipe and dance troupe.
Source: Ville de Montréal / Untapped Cities / Fort Wiki

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