From bank robbers to urban explorers. A look into the long and sordid history of people entering the sewers of Montreal
“The drains, too, this hot weather, at their grated bars tell tales of the stagnant petulance imprisoned within them.”
- regarding the Craig Street sewer, Montreal Witness, 1872
“It was a constant fight against humidity, disease and decay. It seemed as though all the crap that had oozed from the slums of Montreal for over a century had collected here.” – Marcel Talon’s account of the sewer, 1993.
Since launching this website, three questions I’ve been asked most frequently have involved what sewers smell like, how I get down there to begin with, and whether or not I’ve ever run into anyone else while inside of them. The first two make a good deal of sense. After all, who wouldn’t want to know what raw sewage smells like? And how does one get inside a sewer?
But the third question involving encounters with other people is a curious one mostly because it hasn’t happened yet. Not only that, but I can’t ever imagine it happening either- at least not here in Montreal. Our sewers aren’t exactly the most easily accessible things in the world, nor are they the most hospitable of places. I’m not even sure how often people working for the city venture underground to have a look at things these days. The preferred method seems to involve the use of remote controlled video inspection systems.
The question likely stems from the often mythical stories from elsewhere around the world involving people found underground, from the “Mole People” of New York City, to the Cataphiles of Paris. Of course, Hollywood movies and various popular works of fiction have long relied on the underground as a staple home to a variety of miscreants and monsters. Perhaps it’s images such as this that come to mind whenever a city’s sewers are mentioned:
Most well-known stories involving the underground tend to be set in places other than Montreal though. CBC journalist Brian Stewart once stated: “No one has ever sought to rhapsodize over Montreal’s sewers, however, and certainly no one ever famous has seen fit to hide there.”
But despite this, it would be a mistake to pretend that there hasn’t been a long history of people who have passed through these systems.
For the most part, this aspect of Montreal’s history may not exactly be the stuff that legends are made of, but it is one that deserves to be documented in more detail than it has already.
“When we see men at work on the sewers from time to time, the generality of us citizens are impressed that some wise movement is being made towards ameliorating the sanitary condition of the city.
- letter to the editor, Montreal Evening Post, 1879
The earliest records of Montreal’s sewers tend to be fairly cut and dry affairs. Most are either city planning documents or financial records and references to people tend to be limited either to the names of engineers or foremen. Occasionally we’re given the number of workers employed, but little else emerges from the bureaucratic muck. It isn’t until the 1870s where we begin to get a bit more detail beyond mere technical and financial matters.
A foreman’s daily work journal from 1877 detailing the reconstruction of the Colborne Street sewer makes reference to workers unable to continue due “sore hands.” Elsewhere in the journal remarks are made about the weather (“splendid day”), which is about as much personal interjection as one could hope to find in such a document.
Fortunately, newspaper articles written during this era offer a bit more colour to the projects taking place in the city. As its name would imply, an 1876 issue of the Canadian Illustrated News contains drawings depicting the reconstruction of the Craig Street Sewer. This 8 foot tunnel which took three years to complete, presently runs underneath rue St Antoine. It was built to help improve the poor drainage of the smaller sewer set in place years earlier. It would also become the principal waste conduit for the city. For the first time, not only do we get to see a picture of a sewer in Montreal, but we get to see the workers as well.
The scans from the paper are frustratingly dark and fuzzy, but here we see the faces of men working amongst the stationary wooden derricks, the crib work, and work horses pulling wagons. In one frame we also see an excited looking group of men collecting their money during pay day.
An article written a year later in the Montreal Daily Witness reveals that the crew for the Craig Street Tunnel works was “91 French-speaking to 61 English-speaking.” Typical of the time, this French majority is described as being “excessive.” Another article states that of this crew, “not a life had been lost and accidents had been rare” and as proof of the project’s success in this particular area, we are told that the physician’s bill was a mere $32.
Also in the Daily Witness, two years after the completion of the tunnel, is found a wonderful account involving one writer’s trip through the Craig Street sewer. The article describes the sights, the sounds and, yes, even the smell of the sewers. It is a report that’s as true today as it was back then.
“It was a happy disappointment to find so little odor present, after having heard so much about sewer gas; the smell was just perceptible and that was all. The atmosphere was unpleasantly warm and the work of wading through the water rather fatiguing.”
Through this article we also learn that boats were once used for sewer inspections, as revealed in a second-hand anecdote involving two workers almost getting swept away after losing a pole used for steering. Despite this near-dire story though, the underlying tone of the story is one of adventure and often humour.
“The garments assumed for the occasion had evidently been designed with a view to utility rather than beauty, and the good people who stared at the uncouth apparitions assembled in Victoria Square might well be excused for their curiosity. “
Decades later, news from this same sewer would take on a much darker tone after an eight year old girl fell into it through a manhole cover that a city worker had inadvertently left open. She was quickly swept away with the sewer’s current. The news made the New York Times.
Through more detailed articles in the Montreal Gazette, we learn that grappling irons were dragged through the sewer, and one brave soul from Verdun even donned a diving suit to search for the missing girl- a task that many men were said to have refused. Despite these efforts her body was never found.
Things Pick Up Underground
In the beginning of the 20th century, more details begin to emerge involving work in the sewers, mostly during their construction. Waves of immigration from countries such as Italy and Poland add new players to the labour scene, new contractors and further tensions amongst workers often desperate to find work. New tools such as mechanical trenchers also begin to be put to use, thus reducing labourers required for certain operations such as trenching. Concrete begins to replace masonry requiring a different skill sets and much experimentation as was the case with the Notre Dame de Grace sewer.
Sewer construction slowed down over the course of World War I, but during the years afterwards, in particular the Great Depression, an enormous amount of work underground was accomplished. Montreal really had no choice at this point, due in part to an aging sewer system no longer able to keep up with the growth of the city. Newly paved streets in particular caused excessive amounts of water to enter the sewers.
One month prior to the great Stock Market Crash, over seven million dollars was authorized by Montreal’s City Council to cover over Riviere St. Pierre, a project which would result in one of Montreal’s largest sewers.
In the midst of the depression work continued to increase thanks in part to an enormous “work-for-relief” scheme devised to replace direct aid for the unemployed. Between local, provincial and national levels of government, an additional 11 million was spent to help put an estimated 10,000 men to work building fifteen different sewers.
It must have been viewed as win-win situation for all involved, especially from the City’s point of view. On one hand, it would receive an upgraded sewer system built using a large, and readily accessible supply of labour, and on the other, the “social menace” of direct aid could be avoided entirely. In one telling quote from the City’s initial report, the project could help deter “a form of Socialism analogous with the dole system of Britain, destined above all to erect parasitism and shiftlessness into a social system.”
A few details of this workforce can be gleaned from the Gazette archives. Preference was given to married men and to those with families. They were paid upwards of 40 cents an hour- a rate higher than what was commonly paid.
“Inspectors will be named by the city who will make contact with parish authorities and secure lists of the biggest families in Montreal. From that list will be chosen the men who are to go work for the winter be removed from direct relief.”
Another article further explains that “if some men are unable to stand the work, or will not work, replacements will be made in the same fashion. “Won’t works’ will be dealt with severely, according to a plan now being studied at the City Hall.”
Around this same time, we are are also treated to an unfortunately brief article in the Gazette following an inspection of a newly constructed sewer beneath rue Iberville.
“Donning rubber boots, rubber coats and hats, reporters scrambled down a man-hole and spent nearly an hour learning all about Montreal’s biggest east end sewer at first hand. Obliging company officials and sewer commission engineers explained the construction details as the curious news-gatherers- carrying flashlights, and warned not to smoke – waded about in water which was sometimes up to a foot deep. Reporters were assured that the water was not “sewage” – they took their word for it.”
Incidentally, two panels over on the same page is another story about a local politician scheming to have unemployed men trucked out to Ste Therese to collect peat from bogs to be used as fuel. “So certain am I that the majority of men on the dole are anxious for anything to keep them employed, I am going to try all kinds of things to keep my ward men busy.”
Evidently the sewers weren’t enough to keep everyone busy.
Many sewer projects were put on hold during the second world war, including efforts to further cover Riviere St. Pierre. The post-war population boom and the expansion of the island’s suburbs changed all that. Its from this era that we’re treated to an abundance of photographs from the City Archives, displaying proud (and sometimes weary) looking faces of inspectors, engineers and workers looking very much at home in their underground settings. On the backs of some of these photos are printed the names of those posing in group shots, including engineer Gustav Lebeau whose name appears in a 1949 issue of the Ottawa Citizen. In it he briefly describes his department’s daily work in the sewers.
“The big collector sewers are large enough for two cars to pass and the maintenance men walk through them daily on inspection trips. That, says Lebeau, introduces the element of danger. A brief rainstorm in the city can fill the passages to the top in a few minutes and men trapped below would drown. Often when men are underground a man is stationed on the surface with a barometer and to watch the weather if rain threatens.”
Decades later, in 1970 the Montreal Gazette published by a young Brian Stewart and likely amounts to the most in-depth English language article ever published about being inside its city’s sewers.
While it threatens to veer towards hyperbole, it’s the sort of article that often does its subject matter justice.
“Sometimes the brick walls, dripping and aging in the dark, are suddenly washed golden by the flashlight beams of wading men. And as their lights play on twisting currents destined finally for the ocean, this scene, in this place, is not without a fleeing and eerie beauty.”
More interesting are the quotes from the sewer inspectors themselves who speak of their encounters with rats, the odd “wild cat” as well as the hazards involved in their occupation. “You can only work here if you don’t think about it… about what’s in the tunnel. I keep busy, I never think about it, so it never bothers me.”
An (almost) Perfect Sewer Plan
No story about a city’s history of people and sewers would be complete without at least one good story involving criminal activity. While Montreal’s sewers have been the subject of countless contracting scams and likely used for the discarding of illegal substances, only one case involving criminals stands out as being noteworthy- even legendary.
In 1992, career criminal Marcel Talon hatched a simple plan: dig a tunnel from the Craig Street sewer into the basement level of the Bank of Montreal. It’s here where money is (or once was) held temporarily before being placed into vaults. Knowing this, Talon gathered together a small group of accomplices and worked out the timing so that they could walk in, hold the place up, get downstairs, load up their bags with money. While the police had the building surrounded, they’d use their tunnel as an escape route.
As mentioned toward the beginning of this entry, the Craig Street sewer presently runs below rue Saint-Antoine, and conveniently enough, passes very close to the north side of the Bank of Montreal building. All that would be required would be the digging of an additional tunnel roughly 30 feet in length.
Of course, all this required months worth of research and preparation. Using sewer maps from the city’s planning department, they decided the best entry point into the sewer would be roughly 2kms East of the bank using a manhole near St. Denis and rue Saint-Louis. Neither the manhole they used or the small side-pipe they used to enter the Craig Street sewer appear to exist today.
As to not arouse any suspicion before entering the sewers, they disguised themselves as city workers, and went so far as to spend $35,000 modifying a truck to look like an official city works vehicle. Since the manhole was situated at the edge of the street curb, they simply had someone park overtop of the manhole while they were busy underground.
An inflatable zodiac, complete with an electric motor was used to get from their entry point over to the area that was to be tunneled. The sewer usually only has two feet of water flowing through it. Not only this but it’s very much full of a century’s worth of sediment including a good number of rocks brought down through the sewer’s snow dumps. Given this, they went so went so far as to build three dams to raise the water level high enough to accommodate their boat. From there it was (almost) all smooth sailing.
They smashed their way through the side wall of the sewer and in early spring of 1993 began work on the tunnel towards the bank, building dykes around the entranceway to prevent it from flooding during wet weather. Judging by photos it appears as though they made a fine mess of the sewer during the process.
Today this section of the Craig Street sewer is considerably tidier looking, but traces of Marcel Talon’s tunnel can still be found today. Its entrance, wisely bricked off by the City.
In order to prevent their 1.5 meter tunnel from falling in on itself, they used wooden beams and telescoping metal poles for support. Thirteen meters worth of excavation and an unspecified number of days later they reached the foundations of the bank which they spent close to a day smashing (and burning) their way through. Eventually they reached a point where a single drill-hole could be made through to the money room. Once they had determined the thickness of the walls they were able to dig out a section that left a 7cm thick section between the tunnel and the room on the other side.
The idea was that the remainder could then be taken care of with thermal lances and magnesium bars. On the day of the hold-up, someone inside the tunnel was to be given the signal to start the burning process. Upwards of 200 million dollars would be gathered up and then they’d escape.
All this was supposed to have happened and most likely would have had it not for one occurrence that put an end to their planned heist. While Talon and his gang were elsewhere, a tree, no less than 10cm in diameter fell through into the tunnel. It was the result of sub-surface erosion or perhaps the weight of a snowplow. Regardless of the cause, it left a meter wide sink-hole in the sidewalk in front of the bank. The city was immediately called in to investigate. From that point on it was game over.
Despite the best efforts of police and other investigators, the would-be thieves were never found. It wasn’t until Talon, later arrested for the robbery of an armoured truck, signed an immunity deal with Crown prosecutors in 1994 that all was revealed. A year later, Talon authored a book about his criminal activities entitled Et Que Ca Saute! Loosely translated: hurry it up!
A decade later, the book was used as inspiration for the movie Le Derniere Tunnel, set in Montreal and not filmed in the Craig Street Sewer, but in the nearby and significantly drier Brock Street tunnel.
Urban Explorers Take Over
As mentioned earlier, sewers are no longer frequented by people to the same extent that they once were. It’s been close to twenty years since the island last constructed a large-scale sewer and occupational health and safety regulations have pretty much ensured that sewer inspection gangs are a thing of the past. In addition, sewers are routinely dealt with externally. Instead, high-power vacuums attached to trucks are used to deal with clogs while CCTV or SONAR devices get used for actual inspections. That only leaves people such as myself and a few other like-minded urban explorers left roaming these systems the old-fashioned way.
For the most extent, it’s been urban explorers who have been keeping the tradition of sewer-walking alive and well. As a bonus many have taken the time to document their experiences. Of note are underground trailblazers Urban Exploration Montreal (UEM) whose website holds a nice record of their first foray into a storm drain back in 2002. While they never did venture into the combined sewers of Montreal, they did make valuable (and inspiring) inroads through other equally impressive underground systems.
Adding to the list of contributors are nel58 who stepped things up considerably when she, TaP and D-v-S delved into the Saint-Pierre Collector during the winter of 2005. News of their adventure soon made it to Toronto and elsewhere via the website UER and helped establish Montreal as a city that had great potential for underground exploration. Having heard of her endeavors, I wasted no time in meeting up with her when I first moved to Montreal in the fall of 2006.
Shortly thereafter we nervously made our way into the Craig Street sewer. Ill-equipped and unsure of what we were getting ourselves into, we received our first taste of a 125 year-old sewer. We were unaware of the history behind it and of the people who had made their way through it prior to our arrival. Much like the reporter from the Montreal Witness in 1877, we were taken in by the sewer’s peculiar beauty. From that point forward we only wanted to see more.