Brooks in the City
From creeks to sewers. A look at how and why the island of Montreal pushed its creeks underground
“How else dispose of an immortal force
No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown
Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
In fetid darkness still to live and run –
And all for nothing it had ever done
Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
No one would know except for ancient maps
That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
If from its being kept forever under,
The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
This new-built city from both work and sleep.”
- excerpt from A Brook in the City by Robert Frost, 1923
I ‘ve already written a bit about how most of Riviere St. Pierre has been lost, but it’s definitely not the only river or creek to have suffered this fate. Perhaps “lost” isn’t the best word to use. While the majority have been removed from both the landscape and our collective memory, their waters can still be found beneath us, flowing through the island’s sewer system.
The relationship between sewers and streams is one that I’ll be returning to often. While the the two may not always follow the exact paths, there are often direct links between where a creek once flowed and where a sewer exists today.
By looking at early maps of the island like the ones drafted before the mid 1800s, we can get a better sense of just how many watercourses used to flow over the landscape. Using a series of older maps and one provided by the city’s water monitoring group, I put together the following map to give an approximated view of the island’s past and present surface hydrology:
Unlike a city such as Toronto, where traces of former creeks and rivers are often quite obvious, signs of Montreal’s lost watercourses are a bit harder to come by and require a bit more digging.
Take for example all the things that used to flow in and around central Montreal:
The most we can hope to see of this former network is in a quiet corner of Outremont, where small sections of the creek once known as Ruisseau Springgrove appear. Discounting the street in the area named Springgrove, one could presumably find further evidence of this little stream on the way up Mount Royal. Everything else shown in the map above has been erased from the landscape entirely. Even the twin ponds of Parc Lafontaine whose curves take the approximate shape of the creek that once passed through Logan’s Farm are concrete-lined fabrications. When necessary, their contents drain into the sewer that runs beneath the southern portion of the property.
Generally speaking, one would have to drive a half hour or more away from the centre of downtown, out to Dorval, Ville St. Laurent or the East island before they came across a bona fide creek. Even then, many of these have been partially covered or have had their tributaries amputated. The few sections that do remain visible are often found within either golf courses or areas designated as parkland. They also tend to exist in the small portion of the island that doesn’t make use of a combined sewer system. Not surprisingly, many are also highly polluted.
Charting the evolution of the island’s creeks can often be a daunting task. Older maps from the early 1800s show only approximate paths with many minor creeks apparently deemed unworthy of inclusion. By the time more detailed maps started to emerge around 1820, we see that many of these watercourses had already started to disappear.
By the 1870s, little of the original network of streams in the city could be found, having been used to help provide a steady flow of water through the city’s developing sewer system.
Fortunately many of the areas found outside the city, can be traced relatively well. In particular, the creeks Molson, Raimbault, Provost and portions of St-Pierre can all be seen in a fair amount of detail on maps maps from the 1900s, right up until the early to mid-1950s before they too were driven into the sewer system.
Whereas maps are able to show us part of the picture, books tend to reveal less about most of these creeks. Photographs are uncommon and names are often only mentioned in passing without any further details regarding their size, their flora and fauna, and the role they might have served for those who lived near them.
Confusing matters further are the multiple names ascribed to individual creeks. Ruisseau Provost and Ruisseau Cote-des-neiges were both used for the system that once flowed from the edge of Mont Royal all the way down to the north shore of the island. The English might have had a different name for it altogether. Today the creek’s waters flow through one of the island’s largest collector sewers: the Meilleur-Atlantique, a title which refers only to the main streets it passes under. I don’t imagine it will ever be called anything else, although underground explorers such as myself might someday give it a goofy-sounding name for their own amusement.
So hopefully this gives people some idea of what used to be found on the island. We’ll look at some of these systems in a bit more detail eventually, but I figured it would be of benefit for some to give a general overview out of the way first.