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Everything You Probably Never Cared to Know About Manhole Covers

A general field guide to manhole covers found on the streets of Montreal

Montreal watermain manhole cover.

Everything You Probably Never Cared to Know About Manhole Covers

A general field guide to manhole covers found on the streets of Montreal

I ‘m going to go out on a limb here and assume that manhole covers aren’t things that most people pay much attention to. I can’t blame them. I probably wouldn’t give them much thought either, but because they often play an essential role in allowing me to get inside the places I go, I find them a bit difficult to ignore. Even when visiting other cities and have no intention of going underground, I’m still looking at the covers, hoping to catch a glimpse of something unique to the area or to get an idea of where things lead. I can’t help it. It’s a curse.

So on the off-chance that anyone else is interested in these sorts of things, I decided to put together a bit of a guide for the most common ones here in Montreal. And please, no “man hole” jokes. I’ve heard them all before and only eight of them are actually funny.

For a city that often prides itself on being creative and open to the arts, it’s a bit surprising how little effort Montreal has put into the visual design of its manhole covers. If that seems like an odd statement, consider how other cities such as Vancouver, Seattle, New York and Tokyo have commissioned works from various artists for theirs. Not surprisingly, the results are often quite striking. Montreal, on the other hand, seems to have settled for a fairly bland and generic system for marking things. If you’ve never noticed manhole covers here, this is probably the reason why. With that in mind, let’s have a look at what Montreal has to offer.

Sewage

These days, there are two basic types of sewer manhole covers: one set for use out in the middle of the streets and another set for use in pedestrian areas. Both have fairly large square holes which aids proper airflow and ventilation through the system, both are very heavy, and in dire need of some dressing up.

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An example of a typical lid found on busy roadways. The fine cross-hatch pattern helps reduce noise levels (and aids traction) as cars pass over them. I imagine it must prevent a fair amount of unnecessary tire wear as well. The covers often have “adjustable” or “auto-adjustable” written on them. It refers to how the lid can be raised or lowered to be kept level with the pavement after roadwork occurs. The decorative diamond pattern around the outside edge is about as fancy as they get. Sometimes the wording changes slightly, but that’s about it.

The second type is a bit more nondescript with a square peg pattern. Here’s one with a minimal level of ornamentation and information. You’ll typically find these on sidewalks or grassy areas:

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On the other hand, Westmount has some nice designs on older lids that the city hasn’t gotten around to replacing yet. This one’s actually quite common, but many are starting to get worn down from years of traffic:

 

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(For those inclined to look, the full patent information from 1932 can be found here. It seems that even back then, noise from vehicles passing over sewer lids had started to become an issue for locals.)

Elsewhere in Montreal, these capsule shaped sewer covers can still be found here and there. It’s a terrible shape for a lid because it means they have a tendency to accidentally fall down through the hole below which is the last thing you want to have happen:

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Water Drainage

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Though not technically covering manholes, you’ll find catch basin covers on pretty much every street, parking lot in Montreal. They’re designed to collect and transfer surface runoff into the sewer or stormwater system while keeping out larger objects like trash. If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. Really, the only interesting thing I can say about them is that the groves are always positioned in a way that prevents bike tires from getting caught in them.

Electricity

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Much of downtown Montreal has its electrical system running underground as opposed to over tr. The lids sitting above the maintenance chambers for this system containing either cables, fuses, transformers or circuit breakers are easy enough to spot. They’re labeled “Montreal Conduits.” They’re fairly large and are most often found alongside sidewalks or in close proximity to buildings. They almost always have the same “woven” design with some minor variations with the placement of ventilation holes.

An older version with Hydro Quebec’s logo in the middle are less common but serve the same purpose:

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And of course in Westmount, entirely different designs can still be found from their own electrical distribution company (P&L = Power and Light):

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Telecommunications

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Similar in size to the electrical conduits, are the maintenance vaults for Bell’s communication services. They’re easily recognized by their hexagon pattern and a Bell logo (either old or new) stamped into the middle. It’s a pretty standard design that can be found in other cities across North America serviced by Bell. You’ll find these either on sidewalks or out in the middle of the street.

Potable Water:

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These lids generally sit atop a small chamber that allows for inspection and maintenance of the city’s drinking water system. They’re easy enough to spot from a distance by the square piece that sits in the middle. At first I thought the square part was ornamental, but it turns out it’s purely functional. It can actually be pulled out, which presumably allows workers to open or close a valve without having to remove the lid entirely when water is bursting everywhere. You can find these on just about any street in Montreal as well as in several other communities around the island.

There are also still a few older covers to be found around Montreal that date back to the earlier days of its water distribution system:

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The MWPC (Montreal Water & Power Company) helped establish Montreal’s first long-distance network of watermains during the late 1800s. The company was eventually expropriated by the City of Montreal in 1928. This particular one can be found adjacent to the Cartier Monument alongside Parc.

And a later manhole cover installed by the Montreal Water Works who bought out the forcemains which now transfer water to the McTavish reservoir:

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Odds and Ends

You’ll find these (or similar-looking) covers where steam or utility tunnel systems are found. There are several like these to be found in the blocks surrounding the garment district of Mile End for a system that no longer seems to be in use:

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The ventilation shafts found along Montreal’s metro system will often have one of these enormous lids sitting nearby:

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Finally, a pair of these lids associated with the area’s gas lines can be found near the corner of St. Denis and Laurier. I’ve yet to see them anywhere else:

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So I guess that just about (ha ha) covers it. Know of any other interesting ones in Montreal or elsewhere? Let’s see them!