If there was a building in Montreal that occupies a location with the highest historical value, it would be the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, located near the former confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Little Saint Pierre rivers.
The former is a mighty stream that drains from the Great Lakes and serves as the eastern port for Canada. The latter was mostly channeled beneath the city’s streets in 1832, the portion in the museum’s neighborhood as the William Collector Sewer.
The triangular space marked on the 1725 map above is the location of the museum, just south on where the Little Saint Pierre flowed into the Saint Lawrence.
Over the course of four centuries, the property served a variety of uses, including a cemetery used by local Natives and later by Catholics, a fort, the governor’s mansion, a market, an early Parliament House, a customs house, and finally as a museum. It was at this site that French settlers arrived in 1642, what would eventually become an island city.
As the city grew in size and population, the Little Saint Pierre, once a source of drinking water and a natural moat for the walled settlement, was becoming an afterthought.
On the 1843 map above, the section to the east of McGill Street was buried in a sewer, draining into the Saint Lawrence beneath the shoreline boulevard known today as Rue de la Commune.
An archival map from the early 20th century shows the Little Saint Pierre as one of many hidden streams flowing across the Island of Montreal. When the Pointe-à-Callière Museum opened in 1992, the section of the William Street Collector running past the museum was severed from the sewer network and opened to the public as part of the archaeological crypt.
The wall separating the museum from the off-limits section is marked by a rendering of the stream as it appeared in 1642. Not a trace of the sewer smell can be sensed by visitors to the museum. As the museum expands to include surrounding historical buildings, the plan includes opening up the sewer for a much longer public underground walk between the historical buildings above. One can feel like an urban explorer and return home without reeking of urine.
Although New York City has a few examples of streams revived, Montreal has yet to make a serious effort to daylight its hidden urban streams. At the same time, dedicated urban explorers and historians are shining light on their history and impact on the city.
Among them is Sarah Ring, whose 2013 master’s research topic at Concordia University was titled Uncovering the Hybrid Nature of Montreal’s “Lost” Rivers. The 2012 Caroline Bacle documentary Lost Rivers, describes hidden streams in six cities around the world, with five of Montreal’s streams appearing on its web page. Finally, the very detailed site Under Montreal by Andrew Emond takes readers to the underground streams, documenting their disappearance, traveling along the former stream beds, along with an interactive map.
Montreal is recognizing the tourism potential of the Little Saint Pierre River, hoping that as Odessa, Ukraine and Rome have their catacombs, this humble creek that sustained the city’s early growth will again welcome visitors to Montreal. Below is William Street, which runs above the former stream bed. The postmodern-style museum building is on the left.
This stream has a personal connection for me, as my wife is from Montreal. On my date with her to the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, we walked through the William Street Collector. She did not know at the time that I was writing a book on lost urban rivers.