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.
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.
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.
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.
Made of brick and the latest construction techniques, the handsomely designed new isolation hospital remained on the island until it was demolished in 1967.
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.
Andrew King, April 19th, 2020