Familiar places in Westmount that were part of the City’s initial urbanization
By Michael Walsh
First published January 24, 2016
A city isn’t so unlike a person. They both have the marks to show they have many stories to tell. They see many faces. They tear things down and make new again.
– Rasmenia Massoud, Broken Abroad
I always enjoy walking our dog through lower Westmount and admiring the houses that adorn the streets — historically, each has a different story to tell. But what exactly is “Lower Westmount”? Most people think that the area south of Sherbrooke Street (running east and west) defines Lower Westmount and the northern portion comprises Upper Westmount.
The real story; however, is much more interesting. It begins approximately 11,000 years ago when the glaciers began to retreat from the Saint Lawrence region. Their weight depressed the continental crust below sea level causing the Atlantic Ocean to form the Champlain Sea that covered Ontario, Quebec, New York and Vermont. This area remained as the sea’s floor for over 2,500 years until the land rebounded to a higher level causing the sea to retreat. (Interestingly, in 1849 a Beluga Whale was unearthed in Charlotte, Vermont during construction of the state’s first railway.)
The Champlain Sea’s retreat defined Westmount’s current topography which is, in fact, four distinct areas that are situated below the third (and smallest) peak of Mount Royal. These areas are: the mountain’s slope to the Boulevard, the escarpment that extends from the Boulevard to Sherbrooke Street, a plateau between Sherbrooke Street and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks and another escarpment that terminates at Saint Antoine which is also the city’s southern limit.
‘… the history of Westmount is that of the urbanization of the small town of Côte St-Antoine, later incorporated into the City of Westmount, and its expansion from the southeast, from the mid 1800’s until 1914, the beginning of the First World War.’
The first official establishment of the French on the territory was by the Sulpician Fathers. In 1684 they built the Seminary of St. Sulpice of the Fort Des Messieurs. Although the actual building is east of the current city limits, the land owned by the Sulpician Fathers extended far westward. The Suplician Fathers divided the land into the long, narrow north-south strips and distributed the parcels to French farmers. This land subdivision is apparent in the current street grid in Westmount and is common across the Island of Montreal.
After the English conquest in 1763, prominent English and Scottish businessmen started developing the agricultural lands to serve as their country estates or summer homes. By the 1840s affluent families started making their primary homes in the territory of Westmount, thereby creating one of Montreal’s first suburban communities. Development spread first along the plateau and sprinkled up the mountainside. Today the building and population densities are concentrated on the plateau in Lower Westmount, while large single-family homes on large lots cover the mountain slope in Upper Westmount.
The decades between 1875 and 1895 the territory, now defined as Westmount, went through many incarnations. Specifically, streets were paved, water and electrical lines installed and street railway lines were constructed. The city was a part of Notre-Dame-de-Grace, an English enclave, until it separated in 1879 and formed its own municipal boundaries as the Village of Cote-Saint-Antoine. Then in 1890 it became the Town of Cote-Saint-Antoine only to be renamed the City of Westmount five years later.
‘Today the building and population densities are concentrated on the plateau in Lower Westmount, while large single-family homes on large lots cover the mountain slope in Upper Westmount.’
From here the story moves to the urbanization of the Town of Côte St-Antoine later incorporated as the City of Westmount. This initially occurred in the south-eastern area between the mid-1800s and 1914 which marked the beginning of World War One.
It is those houses, constructed during that period, which have the most interesting historical backgrounds – what follows is a sample of some of their stories:
Former residence of F. C. Silcock – Manager Bovril Company (1897).
Bovril was initially manufactured in Montreal from 1879-1884 (something so quintessentially British) until a fire destroyed their operations. In 1884 the company relocated to London, England.
Former home of Hudson Allison – a casualty in the 1912 RMS Titanic disaster. Today, the home has two civic numbers: 464 & 466 Roslyn.
The Mount Royal Riding Academy on Hillside
Designed by R. Montgomery Roddon – currently used as an Armoury for the 34 Combat Engineer Regiment (34CER).
50 Forden Crescent
Former stables for the Forden estate – built in 1830. They were converted to a dwelling in 1928.
Finlayson, D. J.& Son Registered (1920).
A former chemical plant that manufactured dry- and liquid yeast, malt flour and noxo (malt in paste chemical form).
4492 St. Catherine Street West, at Melville
The former residence of Peter McKenzie, manager of the Hudson Bay Company (1900).
350 Victoria, corner of Somerville
The former William Bitcliffe store.
From The Standard, December 6, 1915: “Mr. Wm. Bitcliffe saw the great future of the West End, and money was no barrier to the erection of this imposing business structure on Victoria Ave. The finest stock of Groceries and sundries are carried, and in addition a complete Hardware establishment, where is to be found all the specialties and necessaries for Garden purposes, are situated at No. 350 Victoria Avenue, Westmount.“
Today, the building houses the Visual Arts Center.
374 Metcalfe Avenue
The former residence of H. H. Lang of Lang Manufacturing Company (1900s) biscuit and confectionary producers. At that time, they were the largest manufacturer of biscuits in Eastern Canada.
344 Metcalfe Avenue
The former residence of E. W. Gilman, Manager, Canadian Rand Drill Company (1900s).
The company merged, in 1905, with the Ingersoll-Sergeant Drill Company to form the Ingersoll-Rand Company. Company highlights include: providing drills for building the Panama Canal, invention of the Jackhammer (1912) (company tradename), and provided drills and compressors for Mount Rushmore (1927).
14 Melbourne Avenue
The former home (1900s) of W. B. Kingsley, superintendent of the Canadian Rubber Co.’s works.
“Canadian Rubber Company of Montreal was the first company in North America to manufacture rubber. Plant (located at 1840 Notre Dame East) damaged by fire in 1916. Occupied by Uniroyal Tire factory until 1982. The oldest section was demolished in 1995”. (Industrial Architecture of Montreal)
Chequers Court, 3055 Sherbrooke Street West
Erected in 1929, was designed by David R. Brown on the grounds of a former Sulpician farm. The stock market crash, that same year, prevented construction of the additional one-third of the building’s original design.
Images: Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training, and publishing, include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. During this period, he was also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Today, he enjoys spending time with his dog while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at michaelld2003 @hotmail.com or through his blog Westmount Overlooked