Montreal’s namesake is the hill situated just west of the old quarter of the city. However, the history of the city was probably most significantly influenced by the Lachine Canal. Today, both Mount Royal and the Lachine canal serve as parks for the city’s residents. Both are must-see destinations for visitors. I snuck out of the ASCE conference one afternoon to do my own exploration. Civil Engineers ought to be most impressed by the old canal.
Mount Royal actually consists of three peaks, the tallest of which has an elevation of 764 feet. It is part of a ancient mountain range that was formed about 125 million years ago by the intrusion process, wherein magma intruded into sedimentary rocks under the area. The first European arrived on the scene in 1535, though the First Nations native people occupied the land as early as 4,000 years ago. Montreal was founded in 1642.
The park on Mount Royal was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed New York’s Central Park and Lincoln Park in Chicago. However it’s said that the park, which opened in 1876, was not completed in accordance with Olmstead’s full design because of an economic depression that affected the region. There are several historic buildings within the park. The view from the Kondiaronk Belvedere provides the best vista of the moderns city below. However, the most famous structure is the 103 ft.-high illuminated Mount Royal Cross. The steel structure was constructed in 1924 by the Saint Jean Baptist Society, but is now owned by the city. LED lights installed in 2009 allow it to display any color.
Montreal remained a relative backwater until the opening of the Lachine Canal in 1825. Seven years later Montreal was incorporated as a city, and by 1860, it was the largest city in British North America. The first explorers of the region named it La Chine , in the hopes that their exploration of the St. Lawrence seaway would yield a path to China and the rich trade opportunities that followed. It’s fitting then that the canal bearing the same name would eventually bring the wealth of trade to the region.
The Lachine canal passes through the southwestern part of the island of Montreal. It effectively bypasses the treacherous Lachine Rapids that occur in the bend of the St. Lawrence River before it flows into Lake Saint Louis. Chief Engineer Thomas Burnett and Construction Engineer John Richarson lead a four-year effort to dig the first successful canal, 14 km long from the St. Lawrence to Lake Saint Louis. Seven locks were required in the original canal.
Over time the canal was repeatedly widened and deepened. A side benefit of increasing the depth of the canal was that hydraulic power could be captured from the falling water. In the mid 19th century, this led to the growth of industry along the canal and an increasing city population. Eventually hydraulic power was replaced by steam and then electricity, but the economic boom had set the stage for a thriving metropolitan area. By the 1950s, the canal was made obsolete by the increasing size of vessels and the eventual opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Lachine Canal closed for good to shipping in 1970, but was reopened in 2002 as a pleasure boating area. Environmental reclamation projects continue to clean up the result of centuries as an industrial corridor. Today, the juxtaposition of rusting old industrial buildings along the renewed banks of the canal provides an inspirational view of industrial renewal.