By now we are all familiar with the variety of different safety protocols put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Being examined for signs of coughing, runny nose, fever or general illness is not uncommon for us. Whether we are travelling by car, train, plane or even ship, there are practices and tests put in place to ensure our safety. We all know this; it has been our reality for almost two years. But did you know there is nothing new about these screening practices? In fact, various examinations, tests, and health restrictions associated with travel have been in place for over a hundred years. One screening tool used against the spread of infectious diseases was the Quarantine Cutter. And in 1911 the Kingston Shipbuilding Company produced one such cutter, the Polana.
Immigration in the early 1900s
In the early 1900s the Canadian Government began promoting the expansion and settlement of the West. As a result, the country saw a huge surge in immigration. In 1913 this surge reached its peak with more than 400,000 immigrants entering the country! These prospective Canadians came from all over Europe, mainly Russia, Poland, Ukraine and even some Scandinavian countries. Canada was booming with hopeful new families ready to contribute to our national story.
There was, however, one dominant hurdle to pass before these immigrants could begin their new life. That hurdle was disease. Cholera, typhoid, dysentery, yellow fever, and tuberculosis are all just a few examples of the deadly and infectious illnesses which ran rampant in the immigrant ships of the past. Conditions on these ships were often damp, crowded and generally unhygienic. This provided the perfect environment for disease to spread amongst the ship and eventually onto land. But the Canadian Government did have a form of defense against the spread of these illnesses and this was the Quarantine Cutter.
The Quarantine Cutter
Quarantine Cutters were often small and plain ships that nevertheless served a vital purpose. The ships were built to shuttle doctors, quarantine inspectors and other officials to and from incoming vessels in our busiest ports. Typically, arriving ships in need of inspection or medical assistance would fly a yellow flag and the cutter would come to their aid. Medical professionals would board the ship, assess the case and clear the vessel to enter port. Because of the previously mentioned immigration boom, Canada was in desperate need for the construction of Quarantine Cutters. The relatively new Kingston Shipbuilding Company would be called upon to answer this need.
Polana and Kingston
In 1910 the Dominion of Canada gave the Kingston Shipbuilding Company the contracts to build three ships the Watis, the Bellechase and the Polana. The ship itself was owned by the Department of Agriculture and the contract was for $160 00 or $12,507,552.00 in today’s currency. The ship was hurriedly completed by the spring of 1911.
Being the Company’s first ship, Polana was considered a great victory for the Kingston shipyards. As one Kingston Whig Standard article put it that year, “it may readily be seen that the Kingston Shipbuilding Company is now an established industry in the city.” Interestingly, the ship was christened Polana by Miss Helen Hale, the twelve-year-old daughter of a retired Captain. The Company sent out a public invite to the launching of Polana via the local paper stating: “the Company are pleased to invite the mayor, the members of the city council, the president and members of the board of trade. Ladies are also welcome too” (Gee thanks!). Despite this intimidating list of Kingston VIPs (and their ladies) the general public also turned out en masse to see the new vessel off. Three thousand spectators to be exact watched from the Kingston docks on April 4th at 3:00 pm to bid Polana goodbye and good luck.
Procuring ice was once a lucrative business with an entire industry surrounding it, but this system would not last the test of time against the development of new technologies. With modern refrigerators becoming more and more commonplace and the increasing pollution of the Great Lakes, the need for ice harvesting melted away. So, the next time you pull out an ice tray from your freezer, think about the long history and obsolete industry behind that little cube.
Polana worked as a quarantine vessel at Quebec until 1930 when it was purchased by the Department of Marine and Fisheries. From there the Cutter passed through various hands including the Department of Transport, the Hamilton Harbour Commissioners and Waterman’s Surfaces. Today, the Polana or the Queen City as she was last known lays abandoned in Detroit. Despite its sad ending, Polana was an important foundational build for the Kingston shipyards. Kingston had truly built one hard working ship.
Research Assistant, Autumn 2021