Confession time: Out of the small handful of major North American cities I’ve visited, Montreal is my favorite. At once American and European, super sleek and crumbling around the edges, the Sin City of the North is built on contrasts and contradictions. Yet there is a certain serenity to it that I tend to associate with much smaller cities. I’d already fallen in love with its architecture, not to mention its impossibly beautiful people during a short visit in fall 2012. Now, with almost two weeks at my disposal, I was able to really sink my teeth into the city.
One popular site I had missed the first time around is the Lachine Canal, a 14.5 kilometre waterway and public park running from downtown Montreal to Lake St. Louis. If “popular” makes you think of “boring”, think again; the wondrously charming park and its surroundings have enough disused railway structures, abandoned industrial sites and urban grit to appeal to anybody from urban explorers to outdoorsy types to families looking for their perfect Sunday picnic spot.
Opened in 1825, the Lachine Canal used to be one of the largest ports in North America and the main industrial hub in Canada. Factories, warehouses, mills and refiners filled up its banks, bringing in wealth and forever changing the face of the city. Newcomers from rural Quebec and overseas flocked to Montreal in search of work, and ended up founding the historical working-class neighborhoods of Griffintown, St. Henri and Pointe St. Charles.
The canal’s reign extended well into 20th century, but ultimately fell victim to the technological advances of the era. Less dependant on water and rail, industries began to relocate more evenly throughout the city. The working-class communities, for whom the canal had been the primary, if not the only, source of livelihood suffered the most from the transition. Their plight paralleled that of European workers during and after deindustrialization.
Today, though, things have turned around for the canal. In the 1990s, the administration of this National Historic Site of Canada was taken over by Parks Canada, who transformed it into a public park and boating area. Massive redevelopment initiatives have brought back a lot of residential and commercial activity, and property prices in some of the neighborhoods are sky-rocketing. The highest growth has happened around St. Henri’s Atwater Market, a farmer’s market inside a beautiful Art Deco building.
Of course, with redevelopment comes gentrification. As former industrial spaces are turned into trendy loft apartments for the young and the loaded, some of the original charm of the place – not to mention the poorer folks who can no longer afford the soaring prices – is lost. Luckily, at the Lachine Canal, that transformation is not yet complete. The area continues to boast countless opportunities for adventure and intrigue for those willing to take the risk.
In the next update, I enter arguably the most famous one of these sites. But before that I want to take a general look around the area in broad daylight. I start in St. Henri and move towards downtown Montreal.
The truth in stereotypes: In Canada even graffiti is exceedingly polite! I love this country.
Noted for both its manufacturing prowess and its Neo-Roman style, the Canada Malting Plant operated between 1905 and 1980. Today the dilapidated site is a favorite among artists, explorers and locals alike. Three of them – all young boys – peeked out of the lower windows and cheerfully waved at Paul and me while we were walking past.
With old factories and warehouses turned into residential buildings in increasing numbers, many in St. Henri have campaigned for the preservation the plant, a token of a time when industrial property was “not constructed with only purpose in mind but also with the idea of beautiful architecture”. However, after almost 35 years of abandonment, it is doubtful that the building – including these very rare terra cotta silos – can even be saved.
The Montreal and Lachine Railroad was opened in 1847 to give another means of bypassing the St. Lawrence rapids. Though there is no more regular rail traffic, the rusty tracks continue to add texture and meaning to the environment.
In 2009, Time magazine ranked the Lachine Canal as the third most beautiful urban circuit in the world, a win most likely based on the park’s unique balance of natural and industrial elements.
Since 1848, the Lachine Canal has had five locks. But what are locks? This is what an info sign told me:
Like all shipping canals the world over, the Lachine Canal resembles a giant set of stairs, enabling ships and boats to clear Lachine rapids, where the St. Lawrence drops 14 metres over a relatively short distance. All boats heading upstream must necessarily enter several lock chambers for the water in front of them to not crash all over them.
Another info sign explained the use of locks:
Once the boat has entered the lock chamber, the downstream gates are shut behind it. Now that the lock chamber has been made watertight, the upper sluices are then opened, allowing the water to enter the lock and raise the boat.
These stone foundations uncovered in 2002-2003 belong to the Glenora Flour Mills, the oldest mill built by the Ogilvie family enterprise. The mill was ravaged by fire in 1847 and subsequently abandoned. Soon after the enterprise focused its operations closer to downtown Montreal.
And speaking of downtown Montreal, that’s it in the background, lurking jealously from behind the shrubbery.
This is Griffintown, the “poster child for up and coming neighborhoods” in Montreal and the one closest to downtown. At first populated by Irish immigrants, Griffintown grew into a multicultural and multiethnic community in the course of the 19th century. Since 2012 it has been undergoing a quick and intense revival and is now considered one of the trendiest areas to move in the city.
Not everyone is happy with how Griffintown has changed over the last couple of years, however. When asked why St. Henri’s Canada Malting Plant should stay, photographer Daniel Guilbert said:
There’s already condos being built. They’re getting bigger and bigger. A small three-story condo is one thing, but when they’re 14 stories—it’s what is going to transform St. Henri into a new Griffintown.
Luckily, one may still find many unprettified and unprepackaged spots at the Lachine Canal. Street art is everywhere and some of it is quite lovely.
You might recognize this as the header picture of this blog that you’re presently reading. Google tells me the words are from a song by Regina Spektor, a band I’m not a huge fan of, so I’m just going to pretend that they’re local oral poetry or something.
The old CN Wellington control tower was built in 1930 and ceased operations in 2000. At some point it was supposed to be repurposed into a bicycle halt, but that plan clearly fell through. We spotted a couple of mattresses on the balcony on the other side, so at least somebody is making a use of the place.
The Main calls it “arguably the most viewed historical landmark in Montreal”. It is certainly one of my favorite landmarks in Montreal, and especially beautiful at night when it lights up the Lachine skyline. The Farine Five Roses sign on an old flour mill has been a token of Montreal’s industrial past for over half a century now. The mill itself was opened as late as 1946 by the very same Ogilvie family enterprise who also founded the Glenora Flour Mills whose stone foundations we saw earlier. The silos have been unused for years now and the fate of the sign has been debated – each letter being both fifteen feet tall and really old, there are safety concerns – but for now, as per the city’s decision, the sign is staying.
And here we have perhaps the single most prominent abandoned structure in the whole of Montreal, standing tall and proud right where the Lachine Canal becomes the Old Port: Silo #5. Back in 2012, the sheer scale and size of it took my breath away (that’s only about two thirds of it in the picture!) and I wanted nothing more than to see what lay beyond its imposing walls. This time I got to fulfill that dream, and it was every bit as fantastic as I thought it would be. So stay tuned for the next update!