The fact that Montreal became home to a large seaport was essentially due to geography and a major navigational obstacle called the Lachine Rapids.
In Montreal, we sort of take the Lachine Rapids for granted, but they’re very important rapids. We can’t see them very much from Montreal, so this is perhaps why we regard them as less significant.
They extend over some ten kilometres, over which there is a drop — a 13-metre change in the water level, which is huge. At the same time, the St. Lawrence narrows.
We go from Lac Saint-Louis, through a narrow passage, and then into the La Prairie Basin. The level change, along with the narrowing, makes for a very strong current… very powerful rapids. As it was impossible for boats to cross these rapids, Montreal — or what would become Montreal — became a break bulk site, a place where you essentially had to switch means of transportation… offloading vessels and changing to another mode of transportation to continue along the route.
As Montreal became a key break bulk site, there was some incentive to, potentially, develop a port here.
If you look at the port’s evolution over a long period of time, you can imagine what it was like around 1815, for example, because we’ve got maps and documents to provide that information.
Around 1815, the Port of Montreal had changed very little since the days of New France. It was a rudimentary port — a primitive port if you will — with very few facilities and infrastructures. Some merchants had built wooden docks to meet their own needs.
There really wasn’t any investment or a marked presence of public authorities to improve the port. In broad terms, this means that the physical characteristics of the site determined how the port functioned.
There were two parts to the port: the east side — people familiar with Montreal will think of the area near Place Jacques Cartier, the Clock Tower Pier, and Bonsecours Market as being in this zone. It was an area where the water was shallower, with gradually sloping riverbanks… a place where smaller boats — schooners, canoes, etc. — could dock and unload their cargo. Local merchants and farmers going to market would often dock there and then take their merchandise to Place Jacques-Cartier.
And then, there was the side further west, in the vicinity of what is today the Pointe-à-Callière Museum. In this sector, the water was deeper, and the area was better protected by an island that has disappeared under today’s piers and jetties. It offered a certain amount of protection, allowing large sailing ships to dock in the area and be somewhat protected from the current.
So, there was this spatial division between an area for smaller boats used for inland navigation, and the western side of the port, for large transatlantic sailing ships. There was a distinction between local commerce and merchandise in the east, and international players on the west side.
This was the situation around 1815. Next, came another moment that characterizes the post-1840 period — since, in the 1830s, there had been investments made to improve the port, with the creation of the Harbour Commission. After 1840, a more modern port, by the standards of the day, began to take shape.
If we went back in time to visit the Port of Montreal in 1840, we’d see that major work had taken place.
The street running along the port — Rue de la Commune — had been raised and evened out. The little river that caused a split near what is today Pointe-à-Callière Museum had been covered up. So, it really presented a united front.
Linear quays were built along this road overlooking the port, along with jetties that went out into deeper water, covering up the little island I mentioned earlier.
Basins were also created to allow ships to dock and unload their goods. The situation had vastly improved.
And by the end of the 1840s, there were also improvements made to the link between the Lachine Canal and the Port of Montreal.
The canal was already there, but new work was undertaken in the 1840s. The entrance to the canal, the part that adjoins the port, was adapted to meet the needs of international trade, to favour an alignment between trade from the centre of the continent and exports.
So, the port — and this Lachine Canal-Port link with improved infrastructure — really began in the 1840s, giving us a port that developed in a more coherent and significant way.
Tracing the history of the port is a bit like watching a soap opera. There are some episodes with a lot going on. And one of these transformational highlights — which is still being felt today — was the period from the late 19th century to the turn of the 20th, when Montreal became a great Canadian metropolis.
Think of the growth of the Canadian economy, of international trade. It was a period of expansion towards Western Canada.
The population grew significantly, there were new needs for imported products, as well as for exported goods. Maritime traffic increased dramatically during this period, while we also stopped using sailing ships, switching to ocean-going steamships with much greater capacities.
So, the challenge at the time was how to modernize and transform the port to accommodate these larger ships, with much greater capacities, and how to ensure that port business could be conducted more rapidly… making Montreal an efficient port in which ships could be unloaded, reloaded, and quickly be back on their way.
The Montreal Harbour Commission invested in a very ambitious modernization program, characterized by a transformation of the architecture or the engineering of the docks.
High-level docks were constructed, raising standards, increasing the capacity and the number of piers. And with more docks, with jetties that were also of a much higher standard, permanent hangars could be built on the piers, which changed the landscape.
This was the era in which the piers that are still here today were built — Jacques-Cartier Pier, Alexandra Pier, King-Edward Pier… the facilities of the Bickerdike Terminal, the Pointe-du-Moulin Piers. Several physical points of reference in the present-day port date back to this period.
Another high point in the history of the Port of Montréal came in the 1920s — what might be referred to as the golden age of the port.
A trend began in the early 20th century, really taking hold after the First World War… making Montreal the big grain port.
Montreal was already one of the most important ports in North America. But for the grain trade — the transportation of grain, mainly wheat and flour — Montreal was a major world port.
Some even say it was the most important grain port in the world at the time, due to the significant export of Canadian wheat from the Prairies — mainly from Saskatchewan and Manitoba — making its way to Europe, which was recovering from the crisis and consequences of the First World War.
Starting in the early 1900s and continuing into the ’20s, the Port of Montreal was outfitted with the equipment needed to receive, store, and expedite this wheat. This was when the big silos were built.
The first, more modest silos dated back to the 1890s, but now came the construction of these big concrete silos — masterpieces of modern architecture, according to Le Corbusier.
Three big silos were built in the Port de Montréal—Silo No. 2 in front of Bonsecours Market, Silo No. 1 almost facing Pointe-à-Callière, and Silo No. 5, which has survived to the present day and is now even bigger than it was at the time.
These enormous silos were built and then — to facilitate the transfer of wheat from ships arriving on inland waters into the silos, and then onto ocean-going ships — marine towers, conveyors, and all manner of infrastructure went up around the silos, making for a very imposing sight on the port landscape.
So that was the first important element. And of course, the railway came along with it, because a significant amount of wheat arrived by rail. In the case of Silo No. 5, the trains ran right through the silo to unload their wheat inside.
This railway-port link was very important. But another important building dating back to the same era — one might say a triumph of the port commissioners’ vision — is the cold-storage warehouse, which is still there today on the east side of the port.
There was the warehouse and a large refrigeration plant attached to it. This cold storage warehouse, which was built in the early 1920s, bears witness to the importance of all the other food products that came through Montreal, destined for export — cheese and butter, for example — as well as the more exotic products imported to Montreal and stored here before being sent elsewhere throughout Canada.
Beginning in the 1880s and 90s, because of the growth of maritime traffic, the Port of Montreal was faced with the arrival of thousands of ships of various types every year. The question arose as to how to meet this demand, and the idea of extending the port to the east came about, as there was no easy way of going west — because of the Lachine Rapids, there would significant obstacles in the way.
This expansion required investment to build docks, which meant expropriating properties, building piers, and expanding the port’s capacity towards the east. First, in the 1880–90s and the early 20th century, to Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, which was a Montreal suburb at the time.
EThen, around World War I, more development was planned further east, towards Longue-Pointe, Pointe-aux-Trembles, Montreal East… and this is where development really took place, mostly after 1920, most notably with the development of the oil industry and the refineries built in the east end.
The port went beyond its traditional limits and expanded to eastern Montreal.
This division between residential, inhabited space and the river also characterized a large part of eastern Montreal.
When the St. Lawrence Seaway was created, it became possible to travel along the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes on an uninterrupted route. So, for certain types of traffic, Montreal was no longer a required stop, and the port underwent something of a decline.
The situation was also made more fragile by competition from other Canadian and North American ports. The Port of Montreal’s administrators reflected on how to deal with this.
In the 1960s, with the technological shift to container shipping — a new way of transporting goods — the question arose as to how Montreal could adapt to this new technology, this new way of doing things in the maritime transportation sector.
It was decided that Montreal needed to make this change, but the space required to build a container terminal was not to be found in Old Montreal.
A decision was made to move the port, to invest in building new port infrastructure in eastern Montreal.
From the early 1970s, when this decision was taken, port activities came to an end in what we now call the Old Port, leading to more reflection about what to do with the area. How to redefine it, to transform it.
Beginning in the 1980s, various consultations and work took place, and we began to see the port we know today as a tourist destination, a gathering place, a place that also continues to spark ideas about its future. Its modern reality took shape after 1980.
In Montreal, as in several other port cities where the traditional port has ceased operating, a question often arises about the area’s future.
And this leads to a conflict, a struggle between staunch heritage advocates and others who instead see these spaces as sites to be developed, as sources of profit, areas of densification that can be given new purposes.
I think elements of this tension are apparent in Montreal, as is an effort to find a balance. We’ve seen important places disappear, important traces of harbour life that are now gone. Some of the silos were demolished… and in that case, I’m happy to get a view of the river again. But at the same time, there are places where extraordinary buildings once stood.
So, some things have disappeared. However, we have kept several things, and maintained a willingness to preserve some of these traces.
We can certainly say there is some very significant built heritage in the Old Port. Earlier, I mentioned Rue de la Commune and its many waterfront warehouse-stores.
Of course, there is Bonsecours Market, which is a Montreal architectural masterpiece… and to the west, there is a whole row of store-warehouses from the 1840s-50s-60s that have survived.
Near Pointe-à-Callière, there are other warehouses dating to the 1840s that have survived, bearing witness to this period.
There is Silo No. 5, which is a controversial building, unpopular, but magnificent, in my opinion.
Then, in terms of port activity, there are a few administrative buildings or buildings associated with ship-owners that still stand and bear witness to these activities. There is the Customs House, near Pointe-à-Callière.
There are the old headquarters of the Montreal Harbour Commissioners, and of the Allan Line, which was very important.
There are several buildings that remain and continue to bear witness. These are important heritage elements, and we should remember, appreciate, and understand their relationship to the port.
There is also a significant iconographic heritage.
We were fortunate to have many artists who frequented Montreal, who were fascinated by the port, and who left us with magnificent works of art in the 19th and 20th centuries. Particularly, in the 20th century, there was Adrien Hébert, whose paintings of the Port of Montreal are magnificent.
And there are the photographers, photography pioneers, like Notman (of the Notman Studio), Alexander Henderson, and James Parks. Great photographers from the mid- to late-19th century who really documented the port.
And of course, there were also businesses, port commissioners, and other stakeholders who sought to document the port and its evolution.
There is this iconographic heritage, or in a broader sense, an archival heritage… and there is also an archaeological heritage. Because important traces of the first docks and some of the infrastructures still exist underground.
Lastly, there is also a significant memory-based heritage, a commemorative heritage.
Not very far from the port in Old Montreal, there is a statue of John Young — one of Montreal’s great harbour commissioners — which serves to commemorate one of the 19th-century builders of the port, while also bearing witness to how well appreciated he was by his contemporaries, and the importance they placed on his work.
On the east side, there is the Clock Tower Pier, which is also a memorial commemorating the members of the Canadian Merchant Navy who died in the First World War, and a reminder of part of Montreal’s port activity.
And in terms of toponymy, with a bit of imagination, we can find a few other examples: there is the Bickerdike Terminal—Bickerdike was a port commissioner, merchant, and important businessman.
So, we’ve sought out various ways of remembering — with place names, statues, monuments — important stakeholders in the Port of Montreal.
I think there are several traces of this heritage… and if one is a bit curious, and frequents the port, and is aware of not just the recreation-tourism aspect but also of the memories it holds, there are many traces of Montreal’s past to be discovered.
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