I’ve always had a penchant for the island city of Montreal, the quirky and sometimes convoluted francophone metropolis north of Vermont with murderous winters and perpetual construction projects.But I think what I like best about the unofficial Franglais speaking metropolis is it’s brazenly idiosyncratic, creating a tumultuous culmination of cultures and aestheticism that’s unique and often offbeat, which makes me smile and want to road trip there.
Montreal has quite a few nicknames, but “the city of saints” in particular is my favorite because of the erroneous claim that overshadows the real story behind it. A drive around Montreal will quickly reveal the obvious, a great deal of streets have the aforementioned term in their names. Conventional wisdom holds that Montreal, being historically religious, named their streets after catholic saints and martyrs. But the reality is less of a memorable memorial, and more of a tip of the hat to shady politicians and business deals.
Pretty much, many of the city’s most famous streets were named after influential or wealthy people in the city’s early history, when city developer Francois Dollier de Casson decided to name them after his friends and business cronies. I love etymology. But not all of the saints were deeded lucratively. Among the other various stories, Saint Paul Street in the old port was named after Paul De Maisonneuve, the city founder, and Saint Francois Xavier was formerly named after the afformentioned Francois Dollier de Casson, who named the street to honor himself, until irony would intervene later when the Catholic church actually altered the name to commemorate an actual saint. More amusingly, many of these streets with saint names house the revelrous bars and clubs that Montreal is famed for.
Montreal is probably my favorite city, I really can’t spend enough time up there. Located on an island in the Saint Lawrence River, Montreal is an urban jungle, it’s suburbs extends far beyond the natural borders of it’s island. It’s a mysterious duality, a crossroad of commerce from the great lakes and the Atlantic ocean, and a washing machine of cultures. Though it mostly identify’s itself as being a French city, it seems the official language of this metropolis is actually Franglais, a melding of the city’s two most spoken languages. But that inter-personality doesn’t always come harmoniously, with the province of Quebec striving hard to ensure French stays as their official tongue, which of course has a whirlwind of varying opinions. Some irked locals even went as far as spray painting over the English sections of bilingual street signs in outer boroughs.
Montreal gets it’s name from it’s mountain, Mount Royal, which rises above the downtown skyline and is probably the most identifiable thing in Montreal. At 764 feet at it’s tallest point, the elevation is also used to limit building heights for skyscrapers, so nothing built will ever be taller than Mount Royal. In addition to being one of the city’s most beloved parks (developed by Frederick Law Olmstead of Central Park fame), an interesting local legend has it that Mount Royal is also a dormant volcano. But the reality is that the mountain is actually the result of intrusion of igneous rocks pushed by magma upwards through sedimentary layers, so there is no danger of the mountain ever possibly erupting. A far more unbelievable urban legend is that there is a ghost on the mountain who rises from the grave and toboggans down the hill in his own coffin at night, possibly because he still carries a grudge from when med students at McGill used to sneak into his mausoleum back in the day…but I’ll stop there.
On 8AM one cold January morning, myself and a good friend myself and a good friend found ourselves driving through the mists upon Southern Quebec, the barren trees taking the form of obscure silhouettes in the distance of the sprawling corn fields that lined the quirky rural Route 133, swallowed by an odd nebulous haze that is never found within the modern and vibrant city heart, hangs over Montreal’s outer neighborhoods. We were heading to the city to do some exploring, to dig up the past.
The fog was so thick that the familiar sight of the Montreal skyline in the foreground of Mount Royal was invisible to us in Brossard as we approached the Champlain Bridge. Even on the bridge, the island could not be seen. The vague geometry of the Victoria Bridge in the distance could just barely be made out.
Just outside the old port, where the colonial French facades melds with the industrial cityscape, Rue Notre-Dame runs parallel to the Saint Lawrence banks, congested with their railyards and oil refineries and warehouses, heading north through blue collar neighborhoods with their rows of brick town houses and rather depressing looking parks underneath dirty winter snows.
This part of town is officially known as Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, partially named after the First Nations village of Hochelaga, the Indian settlement first put in the books by intrepid explorer Jaques Cartier. The maisonneuve part commemorates Montreal’s first governor, the aforementioned Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve, who had a pretty tempestuous relationship with the people of the First Nations when the French found their way down the river.
Today, it’s adapted a much shorter nickname, the locals just call it “HoMa”, and the neighborhood would rather you focus your attention on the collection of cultural museums that were constructed here, such as The Biodome and the shiny new Planetarium.
The neighborhood lies “east” of Boulevard Saint-Laurent, which is an important orientational piece of information. The aforementioned boulevard is known as “The Main” by Montrealers, because just about every ethnic culture that exists in Montreal can be represented someway in a storefront or eatery along the 7 mile major city artery. The road is also a historical pivot point in the city’s social building blocks, as Francophones settled “east” of Saint-Laurent, and Anglophones settled “west”. Today, those division lines are really only resurrected in conversations about local history, but HoMa was at one point called “The french ghetto” according to Wikipedia. Today, some Montrealers consider the sprawling neighborhood a “little sketchy plus the Biodome”
Sitting admist a stark landscape of massive power lines and broken barbed wire fences barricaded behind large dirty snow drifts, sat this interesting abandonment. What was once probably a warehouse is now nothing more than a crumbling shell. The inside was a dark and cold world as icy water continuously dripped from the skeletons of rusting steel above us, making noise on the hard concrete floors which had iced over. Trying not to slip on the very slick icy surface, I attempted to photograph the inside, noticing how the roaring hum of traffic outside was suddenly diluted in the cold silence. The inside wasn’t much to see, it was barren with no artifacts left behind. But what had been taken away by man, mother nature had substituted for. The Montreal winter had created snow drifts inside by wayward snow coming in through the holes in the facade, the wind shaped the drifts and created undulated patterns along the surface. The walls had turned into an urban chalkboard, becoming the canvas for numerous graffiti artists or bored teenagers with access to spray paint.
Back outside, we suddenly found ourselves as victims of cosmic relief, as the freezing rain/snow combination that had been brewing in the skies above rained down on Montreal – right after a conversation of how we hoped the fog would clear up soon.
After venturing down a few more side streets, we headed south down Notre-Dame East back towards downtown. Wait, what? Because the island of Montreal is situated at a 45 degree angle and was developed parallel to the river, many streets that are labeled east-west are actually more of a north-south direction, and north-south streets more or less run east to west. Most city residents use a local compass as navigational points, Mount Royal (North) and the river (South), instead of actual polar north and south.
Why is Montreal such a bustling and vigorous city today? It has a canal. The Lachine Canal to be exact. This audacious project would be one of the largest in Montreal history, a testimony of human spirit and ingenuity. Construction started on the canal in 1821, with the intent to bypass the trecherous, boat destroying Lachine rapids on the Saint Lawrence River, a very successful roadblock to travel and trade.
The idea was straightforward; dig a canal straight through the island. By 1825, the canal opened for business, and was awarded the unlikely moniker for the French word for China (La Chine), which was either an homage to early European explorers looking for the fabled Northwest passage, or a jest at Robert Cavelier de La Salle, an explorer looking for China but instead found North America. His reputation became so ridiculous that people began to mock him and started calling him and his his men “les Chinois.”
By 1840, the canal was deepened to allow larger boats to pass through, which officially opened up the lower Saint Lawrence River and successfully created a link with the great lake ports. This fueled the growth of an unparalled period of Montreal industry and growth, as several factories and adjacent neighborhoods opened up shop on the canal, using the watery passageway as a source of hydro power. But after the second world war, other sources of power, such as coal and wood, would render the canal obsolete, as industry no longer needed to be near a water source to function, and the canal sank into decline until the 1970s when the last of the factories closed for good.
Today, the neighborhoods that remain settled near the canal are physically changing into what gentrification looks like, slowly diluting their personalities and story lines as former abandoned factories are being fixed up into office space or condos, and people that would normally settle in neighborhoods like downtown, are finding themselves inching down the hill towards the canal in these newly regarded spaces.
One of those neighborhoods is called Griffintown, situated between downtown and the canal. The amusing story goes that this part of town was named after Mary Griffin, an Irish immigrant and huckster who in the 1800s, illegally leased plots of land she didn’t own, then skipped town before people got word of what was she was up to. Today, the neighborhood sits in the path of the proposed re-development of the Bonaventure Expressway and will eventually be the newly reconstructed gateway to downtown Montreal.
Pointe-Saint-Charles, an unincorporated, roughly trapezoidal area built on the flats between the canal and the Saint Lawrence River, is another neighborhood that the canal built. Originally a working class area of Irish immigrants, today the tumbledown district is just beginning to pick itself up from years of decline and de-industrialization, as hipsters and artists are beginning to invest in it’s authentically rough charm. It’s a differentiating neighborhood, where you can be on a street of duplicated and mundane row houses and corner stores with barred doors, to a block over and finding yourself on pothole ridden roads, sagging power lines, and neglected industrial areas wayfinded by beat up street signs emblazoned with Irish surnames.
Though its nice to see a neighborhood being spruced up and regain some vitality, its current way of life and culture may be threatened in years to come. But so far, Starbuck’s and pretentious bars offering $17 cocktails haven’t invaded yet.
The LaSalle Coke Crane is good sized, but it metaphorically withers in the shadow of the herculean brick edifice across the canal. Covered with graffiti and scared by rust, broken windows and a crumbling foundation, the awe inspiring ruins of the Canada Malting Plant seem to hold the attention of any wondering eye.
Built in 1905 in the working class neighborhood of Saint-Henri, The Canada Malting Plant would make history. Throughout its years of activity created jobs, sold malt to breweries and also promoted the industrialisation of Montreal.
Malt is the result of the transformation of cereal grains by germination. These germinated grains are quickly dried before the plant develops, and this creates enzymes to convert plant starch into sugar for brewing beer and to produce alcohol for distilled spirits.
The original building was constructed in a neo-roman style, which includes arched windows and detailed cornices. This plant was constructed not only with functionality in mind, but also with the idea of beautiful architecture. It was intended to be a showpiece. For example, in the areas where the grain was germinated, light was not supposed to enter, but the architect still added mock windows to the designs in the plant to keep the windows constant. These days it is rare to use this approach because industrial property has negative growth in terms of value, so the industries are built cheaply. This plant was built to last and they wanted it to look good, to forever create an impression in the minds of Montrealers.
In 1963, the demands on the plant where so high that they expanded and built a receiving plant at the port of Montreal. This allowed the grain to be stored before shipment down the canal to the plant in St Henri. The St Henri plant was also enlarged, doubling its production capacity. Eighteen new silos made from poured concrete were added and a new malting annex was built, also made from poured concrete.
In 1970, with the Lachine canal closing, the Canada Malting plant suffered a blow in which it never recovered from. Barges could not be floated upstream anymore so the grain had to be delivered by trucks and trains but this was not the best method to bring the barley because damage and loss could occur during transportation. The transportation costs also proved to be more expensive. With the advent of computer automation the plant became outdated, due to new techniques and technological breakthroughs.
After years of misery, the Canada Malting plant closed their doors in 1980 and relocated to the port of Montreal. The facilities were newer and didn’t depend heavily on transportation, which saved the company money and time.
The plant became abandoned and neglected, its memories burning against the stars. Sometime around 1996, a graffiti artist whose alias is SAIKO, broke into the plant and painted his name on top of the silos. This action (and his visible mark on the largest structure in the area) suddenly drew new attention to the decrepit ruins, and soon other graffiti artists and colorful characters began to venture into the building to leave their mark, or perhaps to undertake more sinister activities forever obscured by the dingy brick walls and collapsing ceilings. When residents of St-Henri started complaining, the building was sealed off. But fencing doesn’t always keep people out, and new entrances have appeared and disappeared as fast as they were created.
Since 2005, the Canada malting plant has been up for sale for 5 million dollars. However, after 20 years of abandonment, this building cannot be recycled. The damage caused by water infiltration, vandals and the decaying mortar would cost more to repair than to demolish, leaving a frustrating and vague predicament many abandoned buildings today face. If anything, the old plant may wind up facing demolition by neglect.
During late May and early June of 2005, Quartier Éphémère invited a lighting conceptualist named Axel Morgenthaler to give this building a last homage. With a bundle of stroboscopic and fluorescent lights, he lit up the top “workhouses” on the upper most floors to simulate the glow of welding torches and of workers performing maintenance tasks on the building. Because of the location’s high visibility and landmark status, it successfully drew the attention of many. I can only imagine how cool that must have been.
The building remains under tight watch, and trespassing isn’t worth the heavy police fines that will accompany your visit. As it is now, the local police and fire department are already plagued with rescue calls to the old plant. Many curious urban explorers and local kids venture inside and get up into the upper levels, only to find themselves too scared to come back down, which requires the fire department showing up and executing an expensive rescue mission. Needless to say, it happens quite often and they are frustrated. Thankfully, the building is just as interesting when photographed from the roadside, which you still can do.
Though I couldn’t go inside, another urban explorer did, and thankfully uploaded the adventure onto Youtube. You really get a sense of the building and it’s environment while watching, the blackness of the secretive subterranean world and its heavy silence are broken by the beam of a flashlight, the sounds of crunching glass and debris crumble beneath each footstep.
Today, the borough of Saint Henri is now known for it’s Poutine, which is a mandatory thing to like in Montreal, and I guess this part of town is doing it best!
The final destination of my trip wasn’t an abandoned one, but it’s a local institution, and a wonderfully bizarre one which was a very agreeable way to end a day of adventuring. Take the Decarie Autoroute west of Mount Royal, and you will soon see a giant orange towering well above the concrete retaining walls of the highway that is three stories high with a diameter of forty feet. This is your destination.
Sitting on the corner of Decarie Boulevard and Rue Pare is Gibeau Orange Julep, also known as (also known The Big Orange). The restaurant was started by Hermas Gibeau in 1932 to serve his trademark orange drink, Gibeau Orange Julep, which is what I came there for – a wonderful and sacred creation that tastes like – for lack of better words – you are drinking a creamsicle. It is also because of this that so many people covet its secret recipe.I heard one person who went home and tried to replicated it using orange juice and milk, and was very disappointed.
In the summer months, the restaurant parking lot is also a haven for car shows – a canvas of muscle cars and hot rods, along with real locals all out to seek some comfort.This bona fide city landmark was around well before 5 star gourmet restaurants and martini lounges made their presence here. It’s definitely worth the haul across town.
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