Following Rivière St. Pierre
A five-part series following the Western reaches of Montreal’s most famous lost river
In a golf course to the west of downtown Montreal, you’ll find the last remaining portion of Rivière Saint-Pierre that still exists above ground. 200 meters are all that are left of a river system that once flowed freely over the landscape. The rest of it’s been retrofitted into the city’s sewer system or lost entirely. This one brief open stretch is found at the river’s upper reaches, in the town of Montreal Ouest. If one were to follow the river’s original path downstream from here, fifteen kilometers later you’d find yourself standing at the tip of Pointe à Callière. It was here, where the river spilled out into the open waters of the St. Lawrence that the city of Montreal first began.
“Here I examined the country very carefully, but after looking everywhere found no spot more suitable than a little place to which pinnaces and shallops can ascend. And near this Place Royale, there is a small river, which leads to some distance into the interior, alongside which are more than sixty arpents of land, which have been cleared and are now like meadow, where one might sow grain and do gardening. [...] So, having examined very carefully and found this spot to be one of the finest on this river, I ordered the trees of the Place Royale to be cut down and cleared off, in order to level the ground and make it ready for building.”
- Samuel de Champlain, 1611
Much has already been written about the origins of Montreal so I won’t waste space explaining it in detail here. Here is the Coles Notes version: while native Indians had already made use of the land surrounding the mouth of Rivière St. Pierre for centuries, Samuel de Champlain was the first French explorer to take notice of the area’s potential for a permanent development. In 1611, he made note of the land and came to the conclusion that its conditions were favourable for establishing a fur trade outpost. By the year 1642 the village of Montreal was officially founded.
Over the course of Montreal’s evolution, Rivière Saint-Pierre (or the Petite Rivière Saint-Pierre) has slowly been altered and effectively removed by man. By the early 1700s, attempts were already being made to rework the river, the goal being to create a passage to bypass the unnavigable waters of the Lachine rapids. Its plump middle stretch (often referred to as Lac Aux Loutres), would soon diminish in size, perhaps as a result of the Saint-Gabriel canal project which attempted to draw water from the lake to supply the town mill.
Approximate path of river, circa 1800. View Larger Map
The first phase of covering the river occurred in 1832 with the creation of the William Collector; a vaulted stone conduit that covered the initial 350 meters. The river had long been used as a convenient dumping ground for both human waste and anything else that needed to be disposed of. As a result its waters grew increasingly foul to the point where it eventually started to become an issue for public health. Covering this portion of the river was to be the beginning of an “of sight, out of mind” policy towards waste disposal that still exists today.
From there, the river’s westward portions would gradually suffer a similar fate, but not before further straightening, dredging or repositioning depending on what stood in its way. Following its course on maps is often confusing as its position changes frequently, often vanishing on one map, only to reappear later on another. Even more frustrating are the older maps, which are less than precise and display a certain amount of creative license (or guesswork) on behalf of their cartographers.
As the city became more industrialized during the mid to late 1800s, the river began to serve several functions. The city’s waterworks company created a tailrace for its wheelhouse using a portion of the river in Verdun, while further north, leather tanneries made use of its flow to help drive steam engines. More often than not, though, the river was quickly becoming integrated with the large-scale sewer system that was starting to be developed.
By the mid 1930s roughly a third of the river had now disappeared to the sewers system, much of that lost with the construction of the St-Pierre collectors. Today, these two 15’ and 17’ concrete conduits collect the majority of wastewater from Westmount to outlying communities as far west as Cote St Luc. The two sewers bring the flow towards a point in Verdun. From there everything is funneled down into the southeastern interceptor where it begins its long journey towards the island’s wastewater treatment plant at the East end of the island. Out of sight, out of mind.
Presently, only the 200 meters of river mentioned in the beginning of this entry remain visible. It makes a brief appearance in Montreal Ouest within the grounds of the Meadowbrook Golf Club. The water of the river (really more of a rivulet at this point) first sees daylight at the end of a four foot concrete pipe and by the time it reaches the edge of a Canadian Pacific Railway yard, it heads underground again. It was CPR that first owned this land and who later used it to establish a recreation club for its employees.
It’s safe to assume that this one particular section of Rivière Saint-Pierre was spared only for the natural charm it helped give the golf course. Besides, what would Meadowbrook be without a brook? A bit west of this, on the same property, a trickle of water is all that remains of a former tributary. It barely registers as anything today, but the shape of its outer banks suggests a time when there was once something more substantial flowing through here.
The Meadowbrook Golf Club has been in the news recently. The present owner of the land wishes to sell a portion of it to developers who are eager to put up subdivisions. Not surprisingly, this has been fought tooth and nail on behalf of locals who see the golf course as a vital piece of green space for their neighbourhood. Three and a half centuries after Champlain first ordered the land surrounding the mouth of Rivière Saint-Pierre be “cleared off” and to be made “ready for building,” we arrive at the upstream end of this same river to find (not surprisingly), similar demands are still being made today.
So it’s from this point where we’ll follow the river underground; through the limestone infall found below the railway tracks. It doesn’t look like much, but it soon gets interesting once inside.