Amerindians in the area
Recent excavations at Pointe-à-Callière indicate that the site was inhabited by several waves of First Nation Peoples over several thousand years. However, there is nothing that indicates either a similar presence or any long houses in Pointe-Saint-Charles. Some thirty years before Ville-Marie was founded, Champlain mentions a plain to the west of the mouth of the Petite Rivière in his writings.
Better documented is the fact that even after farms had appeared in Pointe-Saint-Charles, Iroquoians came here to hunt and fish. Their stay coincided with the migration of the white goose, whence the name for this part of the Point, Goose Village.
The Rural Period
In 1654, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve granted land on that point to Charles Lemoyne, Seignior of Longueuil, and it was his name that was given to the neighborhood following this. Lemoyne’s brother-in-law, Jacques Le Ber, was also given an adjacent lot.
In 1659, the Sulpicians, who had recently settled in Ville-Marie (1657), established Saint-Gabriel farm, which eventually extended from the Wellington Bridge to Charlevoix St. and from north of the Lachine Canal to Saint-Pierre Rd., which was also known as Lachine Rd. (now Wellington St.), to which it was connected by the first street in Pointe-Saint-Charles, De la Ferme. It was on this site, on August 29, 1659, that Sulpician Jacques LeMaistre and a farmhand, Gabriel De Rié, were killed in an Iroquois ambush. A commemorative plaque has been re-installed through the efforts of the Société d’histoire de Pointe-Saint-Charles, on the wall of Fire Station No. 15, on Richardson St.
In 1662, Marguerite Bourgeoys obtained a land grant where she established a farm and a workshop used to educate young girls. In 1668, she bought land and a house from Jacques Le Ber. Following successive acquisitions, the farm property eventually extended from what is now Butler St. to Bridge St. and from the river to Mullins St.
In 1693, François Le Ber sold his land to François Charon, founder of the general hospital in Ville-Marie and a community of monks which operated the hospital until 1731, when it was sold to the Hospitallers of St. Joseph and Charon’s community was dissolved.
In 1737, Marguerite d’Youvilles’ Soeurs de la Charité (Sisters of Charity) settled in Pointe-Saint-Charles on a piece of land that bordered the point, to the south-east.
In the middle of the 19th century, 80% of Pointe-Saint-Charles belonged to religious communities.
The Industrial Period
At the beginning of the 19th century, the English-speaking businessmen of Montreal, who were afraid that competition from the port of New York would take over trade arriving from the interior of the continent, as a result of the opening of the Erie canal, (which was to open in 1822), started work in 1821 on a canal to connect Lachine to the port of Montréal. The Lachine Canal was opened in 1825. In order to be able to meet the needs of larger boats, it was expanded and re-dug, first in 1843, then again between 1874 and 1885, to its current size. Almost all the people working on the canal were Irish.
In 1843, a strike broke out on this site as well as at the Beauharnois site, where the same contractor wanted to impose salary cuts on the workers. At this site, the army intervened to stop the strike and eight workers were killed, making it the bloodiest strike in the 19th century. Despite that, the strikers did not win their cause. In 1873, another strike broke out at the Lachine Canal and the strikers were supported during the work stoppage by an innkeeper from Vieux-Montréal called Joe-Beef. The park located at the corner of Centre and Richmond streets was named in honor of this benefactor.
In 1837, the first factory was opened along the canal, the Glenora mill operated by Goodies & Ogilvie, which was built on the north side of the Saint-Gabriel lock. In 1845, Augustin Cantin, the only French-Canadian industrialist to own a site along the canal, opened a shipyard that would build several ships, including some that were used to build the Victoria Bridge. A street in the neighbourhood bears his name.
The work done to expand the canal and dig the overflow canals made it possible to install hydraulic turbines (a practice in effect in Europe from the time of the Middle Ages) which brought several industries here to set up operations along the shores and take advantage of this source of energy. This led to the rapid growth of what was quickly to become the most important and largest industrial park in North America, for almost a decade (ça semble court). No fewer than 13 metallurgy plants were installed there; for a long time this was the largest concentration in this sector.
John Redpath built a sugar refinery southeast of the Saint-Gabriel lock. It started production in 1854. At that time, it was the tallest building in Montréal. In 1913 Bell built the Northern Electric plant, an immense complex eight stories tall which was used to manufacture telephone equipment. Until it closed, in 1975, it was the largest employer in the Point, with 8,000 employees.
At the same time, the railway sector also grew. In order to ensure access to a port that was open to the sea year-round, investors from England, the Grand Trunk Railway Company, purchased the railway line connecting Saint-Hyancinthe to Portland, Main, along the Atlantic coast in 1853.
At that time, it was easier to cross the Appalachian mountains by train than to cross the St. Lawrence River, which could only be done by barge. John Young, a Montreal businessman, came up with the idea of building a bridge to cross the river and connect the south shore railway companies to the port of Montréal. Based on their experience in this field, the British joined forces with a few Canadian investors in the Grand Trunk Railway Company, particularly the Sulpicians and Sir George-Étienne Cartier, their lawyer, and started work to build the Victoria Bridge, the first to cross the St. Lawrence River, in 1854. It was just upstream from the Sainte-Marie current, in Pointe-Saint-Charles, that they decided to build this bridge, which would be considered, at that time, as the eight wonder of the world. (2)
More than 3,000 workers, most of whom were Irish, worked on this project at the peak of the work in 1858. The bridge was inaugurated in 1860. In 1923, as it collapsed under the weight of its financial burdens, the Grand Trunk Railway was bought by the federal government, which created Canadian National. CN was later privatized by the Mulroney government in 1995.
Demographic and Real Estate Boom
Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a demographic and real estate boom. In 1847, several thousand Irish immigrants, victims of a typhoid epidemic and unwanted by all, were taken in the Soeurs hospitalières and the Soeurs grises, in rudimentary sheds near what would later become the entrance to the Victoria Bridge in the area known as Goose Village or Victoriatown. It is estimated that approximately 6,000 Irish people died and were buried in a common grave where the workers who built the Victoria Bridge erected a commemorative monument, a black rock, which they dredged up from the river bed.
The population grew from 200 in 1854 to 500 in 1865, and then 4,000 in 1875. At that time, the population was essentially 25 percent French-speaking and 75% English-speaking. In 1881, the population reached 10,000 residents and its growth peaked at more than 30,000 between1900 and 1950. This population also stood out as a result of its multi-ethnic make-up. In addition to the English, Irish, Scots, and French-Canadians, Pointe-Saint-Charles also welcomed contingents of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants looking for better living conditions at the start of the 20th century. The vast majority of these people, who came from the countryside, had little education and essentially provided unskilled labor, which satisfied the needs of local industry.
This led to the construction of hundreds of dwellings to house the growing, yet poor, population. In the 1850s, the Grand Trunk Railway was the first company to start building duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes in rows on Sébastopol St. to house the workers who worked on building the Victoria Bridge and in its shops. Most of the houses in the Point were built from the 1880s to the 1920s. The first workers’ houses were built close to the streets and generally included four to six flats and a carriage entrance that provided access to the backyard where, as the population exploded, additional houses were added. It should be noted that the Pointe, which lay in a flood zone, was often flooded by the St. Lawrence River during the spring thaws ever year and particularly in 1882.
In 1874, real estate developers created the municipality known as Saint-Gabriel Village which included the portion of Pointe-Saint-Charles located east of Island St. It was annexed by the City of Montreal in 1887, as a result of financial difficulties.
Industrial Decline and the Community Period
Towards the 1950s, the development of the road network, following the construction of highways, combined with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the closing of the Lachine canal and the creation of industrial parks in the suburbs, which relied primarily on trucks, resulted in the successive closing of several dozen plants in the south-west. The reduction in employment led immediately to a drop in population, which declined to 24,000 in 1960, and then stabilized at about 13,000 in 2000. Therefore, it was a result of new and desperate needs that the people living n the Pointe, initially the women, set up a series of popular and community organizations. There are still 23 active organizations that work in various fields such as nutrition, housing, health and social services, the defense of women’s rights, urban development, the protection of the heritage, etc. This period was marked by new experiences such as the Pointe-Saint-Charles community clinic and legal services which the Quebec government used as models for its CLSC and legal aid network.
Over the last two decades, immigrants of various origins (Haïtiens, Africans, Asians and South Americans) have gradually moved into the neighborhood and many young people have also opted to live in Pointe-Saint Charles, which is a sign of renewal and vitality for the future.
Text by Luc Latraverse and Gisèle Turgeon-Barry. Translation by Sheryl Curtis.