Melville Island, as its name suggests, was once an island. Today, it’s a small peninsula that juts into the Northwest Arm, and home to the Armdale Yacht Club. Its story – and that of the small peninsula to the east, known as Deadman's Island – is part of Halifax's dark history of military imprisonment and immigration.
Long an important site of hunting and fishing for the Mi'kmaq, what is now known as the Northwest Arm was probably first visited by Europeans in the 17th century. After Halifax was officially founded by the British in 1749, early settlers began to exploit the timber resources in the surrounding areas. The settlers that were given the land grant that included Melville Cove hoped to use this small spit of land as a base for a lumber industry. Although that plan never came to fruition, a man named James Kavanagh used it as the base of his fishery operations.
The Napoleonic Wars brought turmoil to the Halifax area, and by 1795 the buildings on Kavanagh's Island, as it was then known, were pressed into service as a military hospital. A few years later, in 1804, the British Admiralty bought the island from Kavanagh, renamed it Melville's Island, built new barracks, and began to use it to house French prisoners. They also built a stone pathway that joined the island to the mainland. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, many of the French prisoners were released to make room for American prisoners of war. By this time, the Island contained several buildings, including a two-storey prison, a small hospital, and officers' quarters, and various sheds, guardhouses, and cookhouses. Thousands of American prisoners passed through Melville Island throughout the War of 1812, where they faced overcrowding, harsh and unsanitary conditions, and outbreaks of pneumonia, smallpox, typhoid and dysentery. Most of the prisoners who died were buried on nearby Target Hill, also known as Deadman's Island.
During the War of 1812, some 3500-4000 enslaved African Americans escaped their masters and sought refuge in British colonies. About 2000 of them, known as the Black Refugees, arrived in Halifax, where they were promised free land. Melville Island was essentially transformed into an immigration facility where the Black Refugees could be fed, clothed, and housed until land grants were arranged. Records show that almost 800 refugees passed through Melville Island between April and July of 1815 alone. Although British officials sought to provide medical care, disease and harsh conditions led to more than 100 deaths among the Black Refugees, many of who were buried on Deadman's Island. Eventually, the refugees were settled on land grants at Beechville Settlement, Preston, Windsor Road, and Hammonds Plains.
In the decades following the War of 1812, the facilities at Melville Island remained in use as an immigration centre and quarantine hospital. During the Irish potato famine, for instance, many Irish immigrants arrived ill with typhus and other contagious diseases, and so they were held and examined at Melville Island before being released into the population of Halifax. During the First World War, Melville Island was used as a detention facility for German and Austro-Hungarian nationals and a confinement centre for army deserters. In the Second World War, the island was converted to a munitions storage facility – much to the chagrin of nearby residents in Melville Cove – and the road to the mainland was expanded to a causeway to accommodate large motor vehicles. After WWII, military activities on Melville Island ended and the property was leased to the Armdale Yacht Club. Extensive renovations in the past few decades have turned Melville Island into a popular marina, with a few historical markers the only remnants of the Island's grim past.