Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reeking of History - Montreal in 1910

A sketch of Montreal building in 1910. Maclean's.

Thursday afternoon Miss Martin and I were in the Windsor Hotel to see an exhibition of pictures by famous artists. One painting by Turner is worth 40,000 dollars. The others, we were afraid to ask the price. Then we went over to the industrial fair. I heard someone mention Mrs. Reford, so you may imagine my surprise to see her. She was just exactly as you have often pictured. The only thing, I thought she was fatter. She was very plainly dressed in a little black suit. Very sweet looking. (Edith Nicholson, in a November 1909 letter. Mrs. Reford is a rich society woman, wife of one of the Montreal magnates mentioned below. Edith seems surprised that she isn't fabulous looking.

In a 1910 Maclean's (on and in the public domain) one Mr. August Bridle compares Montreal and Toronto, with respect to culture and character.

Here is his description of Montreal in 1910.

Montreal is perhaps the only city in Canada in feeling. It is the only city in which a man is likely to get lost so that wandering along the river front up from old Bonsecours and the Nelson Monument one comes on glum old Notre Dame and the Bank of Montreal with much the same feeling, though in a lesser degree, that he suddenly drifts out of Cheapside into the grey gloom of St. Paul’s. The French-English capital of the Dominion is full of losing-your-way spots. The streets have an uncanny knack of swinging down long coutees of semi quaint walls, up the long hills and away- to the last blink of tin roofed spire.

St. Lawrence Main is one of the oddest cosmopolitain thoroughfares in America. The Jews are plastering up their thrifty signs in the vicinage of the Old Jacques Cartier Market. The reckless jehu driving the “Pill-box” or the delivery sleigh careens through narrow defiles of streets, plumb through St. James, the medieval Bonsecours Market and the Champ de Mars behind City Hall; up from the sardine cottages and tenements of the native-speaking, where babies are thicker than Jewry, until he slams his careless steed in to the jam of traffic that swings up from the west end of the street. Close along side, and from that to the docks and the big river, are the sullen sullies of grey warehouses; then mile upon mile of semi medieval Montreal, reeking of history, of camps, of morose Indians and garrulous French voyageurs. Crackling and clanking with the big open life of a sea-port, Montreal stretches its cumulative arms down the river and down, past the big painted liners and the black freight boats, past the indolent horse-deck ferries blundering up from below, past the sleepy tide-becalmed bateaux with all canvas down; until by the time you are beyond these you are miles from the swirl of the retail area, far out on the end of old Catherine Street that cuts a maudlin line to the place where the theatres are only less thick than the churches and the cheap cafes.

From Catherine Street with its clatter of crowds to St. James with its sulky roar of traffic and its atmosphere of money-kings, is the best part of an hours’ drowsy ramble through the old-world anomaly of Montreal, the somewhat historic residence precinct threaded by old Sherbrooke Street. Half lazy and thoroughly respectable and reminiscent, this down-town house area makes Montreal two cities; on the one side stores, theatres, hotels and churches- on the other banks, financial houses, warehouses and wharves- and more churches; always and everywhere the CHURCH. You decide to go through half a dozen of these cool haunts of religion. But the eternal quiet of the cathedral is almost as tiring as the clatter of the streets. Notre Dame has a heavy look. Its galleries are overwhelming. It is vast without being impressive like St. Paul’s or humanly eloquent of dead men like Westminster Abbey. St. James, the pretentious is almost weirdly chaste. It is impossible. But the way, it is too easy to be religious in Montreal; it is almost too easy to be historic.

The marvel is that a place which has so many temples and cornerstone entablatures can be so confoundly busy. Over at the Windsor there is no overplus of religion. You are in a modern world; as much of the Twentieth Century as wireless. In half n hour one may see ten millionaires in the Windsor. The Montreal millionaire is the chief of his class in Canada. He runs Montreal, except for the Church and the actual business of city government. The Mount Royal Club is a pantheon of live magnates, some of whom are up in their eighties, some just getting to voting age.

There’s a swing and a snap about the way fortunes are made in Montreal. And the Montreal magnates know how to spend: on houses and yachts and European pictures and grand opera. The private picture collections in Montreal are equal, if not superior, of any in America. The late George Drummond had a collection valued at more than a hundred thousand. In native grand opera, Montreal has set the pace of production.