General Articles

Port with a Past

Here’s Montreal Harbor, a big business steeped in legend, glamour and the spicy odors of cargoes from the seven seas

HUGH KEMP November 1 1948
General Articles

Port with a Past

Here’s Montreal Harbor, a big business steeped in legend, glamour and the spicy odors of cargoes from the seven seas

HUGH KEMP November 1 1948

Port with a Past


I TELL you, mate, Montreal’s water front ain’t what it used to be. Not by a long shot. Not like the old days.” The tavern keeper looked at me, waiting to be urged on.

“That’s what people say about everything,” I replied. “What’s so special about the old days?” “Twenty years ago, mate, you wouldn’t have dared step out this door alone at night, not with $10 in your pocket. Used to be a gang along here. The Scottish brigade they were known as, come off the Anchor boats most of them. Used to come in here sometimes, take a razor to some chap standing around, pitch him out the door and off with his money. Mate, I’ve seen seamen rolled 20 feet from the paymaster along this water front.”

I had heard the story before from other tavern keepers, so I paid for my beer and went out. I [jeered around a trifle uncertainly, but there were no members of the Scottish brigade waiting. It was quiet along Montreal’s water front this sultry summer night. Across the road the boxcars lay still in long lines of shadows on the quayside rails. The Empress of Canada lay at her pier, back at last from her long days as a troopship.

I turned east and sauntered along the slow greyfaced curve of Commissioner Street., past the dingy dwellings of the longshoremen and the market clerks, past dark alleys and wooden doorways. The windows along the street were all dark, except where Joe Beef’s and the Neptune Tavern threw out long rectangles of yellow light.

In front of the Neptune I bumped into a seaman I knew slightly and we continued on together. Clearly the water front is many things to many

people and while it is most fun to consider it by night, it is probably more important to assess its daiytime operations.

The port itself is big business. In 1947, 3,433 ships moved in and out of Montreal harbor, with a net registered tonnage of just under six million. These ships carried almost 11 million tons of cargo, made up of more than 150 commodities. Grain headed the list (Montreal is the largest grain-shipping port in the world), followed by bituminous coal and gasoline. In the same year 164,000 passengers m;oved in and out of harbor; 19,000 of them went or came from overseas.

The central authority for the port is the National Harbor Board, a bureau of the Federal Government. Actually the port of Montreal does not belong to Montreal at all, but to the Dominion (the city can’t even collect its sales tax in the dock area). The line of demarcation runs down the centre of Common and Commissioner Streets and east along the river edge about a hundred yards back from the water.

The Harbor Board operates a pretty complex structure. In addition to maintaining some 10 miles of piers, wharves and jetties (room for 105 ships at once) it administers a railway with 70 miles of track; four grain elevators, a cold-storage warehouse, a police force, a small fleet of vessels, a floating crane that will lift 75 tons, and 10 locomotive derricks. The physical assets are worth over $77j^ millions.

The annual turnover is equally impressive. In 1947 the revenue of the port was just under five millions; operating costs just over three millions.

Ships of the World

Î PASSED these facts along to my sailor friend as we sauntered down Commissioner Street, but they didn’t seem to impress him much. He traded me one which seemed to outweigh all the others in his opinion: Montreal water front has Quebec beer, which is probably the strongest beer that flows anywhere on the seven seas.

We walked by many ships—the Norefjord, the Merchant Prince, the Lord Glentoran, the Manchester City, the North Continued on page 5H

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Here’s Montreal Harbor, a big business steeped in legend, glamour and the spicy odors of cargoes from the seven seas

Port With a Past

Continued from page 17

(’caster, the Rapids Prince—and we stopped by the Italo Marsano. From somewhere up on deck came the melancholy notes of an accordion. It played restlessly, running over a dozen Italian folk themes without playing them through.

We called up to the deck, “Who wants to go to a club?”

An invective came back to us in a hard voice, followed by, “Do you think we’d be here if we had any money?”

“You can always go to the Mission.”

“You know where you can go.”

The accordion took up its melancholy chordings again. Seamen, broke and bored, lying out on deck looking up at the lights of the city.

Fabulous Joe Beef

Back to Joe Beef’s, babbling now with the mixed voices of 50 seamen. Ben Lubin came over. Ben runs the tavern now; took it over from his father, who had taken it over earlier after the death of Joe Beef.

When Ben heard that we were doing a story about the water front he went and got some books and newspapers and showed us how Joe Beef’s had been famous for a long time.

“Joe Beef,” said Ben Lubin, “—there was a guy. Sailors all over the world knew Joe Beef and this place here. His real name was Charles McKiernan, a great big guy who started out being a British sergeant, came out here with a regiment in the 1870’s and opened this place. Called it ‘The Crown and Sceptre,’ but his own nickname stuck to it. Used to keep live animals down in the cellar, a trap door leading down to the pit. When the sailors got drunk enough they’d open up the door and look down to see what Joe had. Sometimes he had a buffalo, sometimes a couple of bears. Once Joe’s little son opened the door and fell down. There was a bear in the pit, but Joe jumped right down and fetched the bear one on the snoot and then pitched the little boy back up. Joe got mauled a bit himself, though.”

Joe Beef’s place has quite a legend all right. He used to feed half the bums along the water front and the reformers uptown always held that his was a breeding place of crime and perpetual drunkenness.

But tonight there was little drunkenness and nowhere did crime seem to be breeding. ’Firnes have changed, as they all say, and it isn’t like the good old days.

At the Catholic Sailor’s Club there was a dance going on and 300 seamen were taking turns at shuffling around the floor with 80 young ladies of Montreal parishes who made it their social duty to descend to the water front three nights a week and provide pleasant female companionship for men away from home. Presiding over the dance was Father MacKinnon, a wellmuscled Jesuit priest who lectures at Loyola College by day and interests himself in seamen’s welfare in the evenings. He told me that the club had provided pleasant social evenings and demanded correct behavior and within four years a number of very tough guys had been tamed. And some had learned to dance. There had been incidents, of course, but only twice had the padre had to plant a convincing right to the chin of an argumentative mariner.

The club closed at 11 and the 80 girls moved en masse to the streetcar. Some of the sailors went back to their ships; a more restless group led us up

along St. Paul Street—one block back from the front—and through a narrow door and up a narrow flight of stairs into a large low smoke-filled room. Stevedores, stokers and first mates sat crowded at little tables with bottles of beer and scrawny women. On a raised platform at the end of the room four bored little men thumped away at musical instruments and a pale-faced boy with a bow tie sang a rapid French song with that odd tinny vibrato of Quebec popular singers.

At three o’clock the club closed and some of the sailors went back to their ships, weaving gently over the cobblestone of Commissioner Street, silent for the most part, with only their foe* ‘eps sounding in the sultry night.

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The area çnerally thought of by Montrealers as “the water front” actually extends back from the river’s edge for about three blocks. It lies just below Montreal’s famed St. James Street financial district and is about a mile in length.

If there is such a thing as a cradle of Canadian history, this is surely it. Most of the adventurers of our history stayed here a while and left their marks: Cartier, Maisonneuve, Champlain, Duluth, Cadillac, La Salle, Jolliet and Hennepin all slept here. Their ghosts are still present and their names are on streets and on little plaques that mark the exact spots where they dined and dreamed.

A Corner of History

The streets are narrow and old and grey and winding. Many of the buildings now lean crookedly against each other, sagging with age and atmosphere. Between the faces of the buildings wheel the more venturesome gulls and out from alleys and doorways waft the hundred exciting smells of the importing world.

War, riot and disaster have struck here. In the summer of 1760 the year after Wolfe’s cliff-climbing victory at Quebec City-—British naval ships stood off the water front while a British army marched in behind the drums. F’ifteen years later other hostile ships were standing off Montreal and other troops were marching up the cobbled streets. This time they were Americans, come to liberate the French from British oppression. And seven and a half months later the Americans were back on the water front, tumbling into boats again and fleeing across the river.

Epidemic has taken its toll here too, both during the Irish plague of 1847 and the flu epidemic of 1918. Sailors and passengers have died on rough cots in emergency sheds along the river’s edge, far from friends and home, and lain dead in piles.

And on an open square just up from the water front, the criminals of the new settlement were subject to pillory and execution. Today this has become Jacques Cartier Square, the most atmospheric setting in the whole area.

This is a square three blocks long and a block wide that starts at the water front and runs up a gentle slope to Notre Dame Street. At the bottom of the square are the historic buildings of Bonsecours Market and at the top stands Admiral Nelson, high atop a stone column with his back to the harbor, staring out across the city to the cross on the top of Mount Royal mountain. If Nelson cared to turn his head a bit he could look down on the

Chateau de Ramezay, built by Claude de Ramezay in 1705, later the residence of the early English governors and now converted into a museum.

On a busy market Friday the entire centre of the place is jammed with trucks and horses and wagons and old men and boys with pushcarts. Farmers come for miles to sell their produce. Weaving in and out the vehicles, to the accompaniment of great bargaining sounds, are the people: the solid peasants from the country, the women of the mountainside away from their limousines for an hour, the Chinese, the coal blacks, the American tourists in their white linen suits, the sailors buying food to take home to England. And the bums, shuffling along.

Just around the corner from this square, on St. Paul Street, is the Klondike Tavern, and the shell of Rasco’s Hotel, its gold letters almost obliterated now, but still remembered and spoken of as the place where Charles Dickens sat before a window looking down at the harbor and adding entries to his American notes.

The emissaries of the Catholic religion arrived at the water front with the first explorers and their properties still stand in the area. The Jesuits


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came, and the Grey Nuns, and a new order of the priesthood was established here, the gentlemen of St. Sulpice.

Two churches were built nearly 300 years ago; the first Notre Dame was finished in 1678 and “Bonsecours,” the Sailor’s Shrine, in 1657.

The Sailors Church—known formally as Notre Dame de Bonsecours—has been rebuilt on its original site on St. Paul Street. Despite its name, it is not devoted primarily to sailors, but to the permanent residents of the area, the longshoremen, the importing clerks and the café owners. However, the motif of the mariner is dominant. Over the rows of pews hang models of old sailing ships and from their holds rise the candles of the church.

Workings of a Port

While a port must look very much like a monopoly to the casual observer, it is actually quite a competitive business. Montreal vies constantly with New York and other eastern harbors for business. Its biggest advantage is that it is several hundred miles closer to England and Fmrope than is New York, in spite of the fact that it is almost a third of the way into the North American continent. It is also 110 miles closer to the American Midwest than is New’ York.

Another advantage is its reputation as a high-speed port. Speed of cargo handling means a great deal in dollars, for to keep an average-size cargo vessel tied up in port costs an average of $3,000 a day to the owners. Head man of the port is A. Gordon Murphy, port manager. He has the

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administrative responsibility; discharges this from the Harbor Board offices in a stately old building at the foot of McGill Street, right where the Laehine canal empties out into the river basin and just across the street from the tug master’s office.

The actual nerve centre of the port is the harbor master’s office, a yellow brick building at the south end of the main docking area in the lee of a large pier.

The harbor master, Captain J. P. Dufour, directs all ship movements in the harbor, allocates berth space to every vessel that arrives, clears the ship again for its departure. He handles the movements of an average of 60 ships a day.

Revenue for the port comes from rental charges for berths, warehouse space and service charges for such items as “use of 75-ton crane.”

Food for the World

The Dominion Government touches the port at many points. The Department of Transport Marine Services controls the signals service for the St. Lawrence River, up to and including the port of Montreal: provides the river pilots’ service and the office of the shipping master.

The Department of Mines and Resources enters the picture through the immigration and customs offices. It maintains a detention barracks and a hospital in the harbor.

The shipping master, Captain R. F. Leslie, is in a sense the Government’s labor relations man at the port. He, or his representative, has to preside at the signing on of all crew members and at their paying off.

The port warden is another key figure along the water front, but he is not a Government man. He works directly for the Board of Trade and the shipping companies; has to inspect and clear all cargoes before the ships are allowed to sail. His primary function is to ascertain that they are stowed by the standards of Lloyd’s of London.

Montreal, as the greatest grain port in the world, has four elevators which can store up to 15 million bushels and move it in and out of railway cars and ships at high speed.

The handling of grain at the port is a fascinating sight. 11 is sucked out of the holds of lake ships, carried high up over the docks to the grain conveyors and then overhead to the elevators. It is loaded into the seagoing ships in precisely the reverse manner; picked up out of the elevators, carried out to the ships and then shot into the hold. No. 2 Elevator can deliver grain over 15 miles of rubber belting to all of the 20 steamship berths in the central section of the harbor at the rate of 150,000 bushels an hour.

Montreal has also proven highly popular as a passenger port and a great many Americans think of it as a halfway house between their country and Europe. One great advantage is the pleasant two-day journey down the St. Lawrence to the open sea.

Ditch to the Sea

One of the most interesting things about Montreal harbor is that it is primarily a man-made triumph and not a gift of nature.

When Jacques Cartier first came up the St. Lawrence, his galleon Emerillon (a very small boat indeed, only 400 tons) got stranded at the head of Lake St. Peter and the discoverer had to go on to Montreal in flat-bottomed river craft. Up until the middle of the 19th century navigation on the river between Montreal and Quebec was

limited to ships of 250 tons. Ships drawing more than 10 feet had a tough time getting through parts of Lake St. Peter in midsummer.

Then, in 1850, a husky persuader named John Young descended on the Legislative Assembly and bullied through legislation that would permit the Montrealers to get big loans for the development of their port. By that time the Laehine canal, built, in 1825, had begun to prove itself and to indicate the potential of the Great LakesSt. Lawrence waterway.

Another serious obstacle to the port in the early days was the swift-flowing St. Mary’s current which originates at the foot of Laehine canal and goes on down river for quite a few miles. In the time of the sailing vessels this frequently necessitated the use of oxen to tow ships up the last few miles into harbor. In the log of one good ship, the Caledonia, it is noted that “fortytwo oxen were required to tow us up Saint Mary’s current.”

The steamer beat St. Mary’s current. Montreal launched its first steamboat in 1809. just two years after Robert Fulton’s Clermont. It was the 85-foot Accommodation, built by John Molson for service to Quebec. This led to a glorious era of the paddle steamer, with the river traffic between Montreal and Quebec rivaling in glamour that of the Mississippi.

Today the port of Montreal knows almost every kind of vessel with the possible exception of the Chinese junk. The largest vessel in its experience was the 20,000-ton Empress of Canada. The most unusual visitors at present are several British flattops, veterans of the late war now converted to grain carriers. With absolutely nothing above deck they look like robot hulls, fat and ugly, moving slowly about the harbor with no sign of human habitation.

The channel dredging has gone on constantly since the 1850’s and is now down to an average depth of 35 feet. Planners for the future would like to see it down even deeper and the port facilities extended still farther downriver. But a new vision has come up to confront the builders of tomorrow. The plan of the St. Lawrence seaway hangs ominously on the horizon. Montreal’s present importance is based almost entirely on its position as a meeting place of lake boat and ocean vessel. If the seaway goes through and the ocean ships push on up the lakes (as some of the smaller ones are already doing then Montreal water front may become a pretty depressed area.

Can the Ice Be Beaten?

A final problem that serious port thinkers have dwelt upon imaginatively for years is that of the ice. Montreal is a seven-and-a-half-month harbor opening around the middle of April and freezing over again at the beginning of December. Could it be kept open the year around?

The problem is a honey for the amateur inventor and each year new solutions are presented to the port authorities. The idea that recurs most often is that of stretching electric wires from Montreal to the gulf and keeping the water just below the freezing point. This idea is dismissed each time with a patient explanation about the size of the river and a revelation that the heaviest jams occur down below Quebec where the St. Lawrence is many miles wide.

However, with atomic energy scheduled for release for civilian use sometime in this century, the waterwarming plan does not seem as farfetched as it did in the remote past, hack beyond 1945.