VIRUS BRIDGE : A Forgotten 1800’s Iron Bridge That Carried Plagued Citizens to Isolation Island

Ottawa, like all cities and communities, is grappling with a pandemic situation, and it reminded me that the Nation’s Capital is no stranger to quickly spreading viruses.  Throughout history the city has dealt with quickly spreading viruses, and the unfortunate plagued souls were placed on an island in the Rideau River. A hidden and rusting iron truss bridge that once carried those virus victims still remains…

The year was 1893 and the smallpox virus was sweeping through the Nation’s Capital so the City Of Ottawa wanted to build an isolated smallpox hospital to keep those infected away from the general population. City Council chose Porter’s Island, an eight-acre, low-lying property in the Rideau River as the quarantine island.

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This 1879 map from The Carleton Atlas shows the vacant Porters Island in downtown Ottawa, chosen as the site for the virus isolation island.

A hastily constructed isolation hospital was built on the island. In order to access the island, a bridge was needed, so this iron truss bridge was built for a cost of $5,000 in 1894. All those diagnosed with the virus were taken to the island across this bridge, which still remains in place today, although shut off from the public.

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“The Virus Bridge” a more recent photo of it by Ross Brown. 

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The 1893 iron truss bridge that once carried virus victims to their isolation hospital on Porter’s Island in downtown Ottawa. (Google Streetview)

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After the smallpox epidemic of 1893 Porter’s Island was then transformed into a garbage dump. The abandoned and rat infested hospital buildings were demolished in 1904, but another smallpox epidemic hit the city and yet another hospital was erected in 1910. This time it would be in the form of tents.

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The second quarantine camp on Porter’s Island used for isolating those infected with smallpox during the 1910 epidemic. This photo was taken in 1912 just before another hospital building was constructed. (Topley Collection)

But the quarantine camp on the island was short lived. The City Of Ottawa in 1913 hired Ottawa architect Francis Sullivan, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect who only had one Canadian student, which was Sullivan. Sullivan designed a very carefully designed new isolation hospital on the island, one of his first in the city. Sullivan would go on to design many notable buildings around Ottawa.

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Made of brick and the latest construction techniques, the handsomely designed new isolation hospital remained on the island until it was demolished in 1967.

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This 1928 aerial photo of Porter’s Island shows the new Sullivan designed isolation hospital to the far left end of the island. Note the iron truss bridge at the opposite end. (GeoOttawa)

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the new “Sanitary Hospital” built on the island in 1912.

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These two aerial images, the top 1965, the bottom a current view, show the isolation hospital before it was demolished and the new retirement facility that stands there today. (GeoOttawa)

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a 3D image of Porter’s Island showing the new facilities and bridge, with the old 1894 bridge still standing on the right hand side.

The island was then developed into Retirement Residences in the late 1960s but the original, old isolation island bridge constructed in 1894 quietly remains. Closed off, and overgrown in summer, this little recognized iron bridge is a reminder of our city’s pandemic past…and as always, history tends to repeat itself. Perhaps the City of Ottawa will expropriate another island for quarantining its citizens once again.

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Andrew King, April 19th, 2020

SOURCES:

https://www.ottawamatters.com/remember-this/remember-this-smallpox-and-the-porter-island-isolation-hospital-1826664

http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1341

http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-smallpox-hospital-porters-island.html

4 comments

  1. As usual, I enjoy your posts so much. I grew up near Porter Island and remember crossing that bridge many times.

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