The history behind the familiar: Melville Avenue’s origins are quite fascinating
By Michael Walsh
Previously published May 5, 2018
A street you have never visited is a book that you have never read! You never know what you are missing!
Mehmet Murat Ildan
If I ever had the time (or courage) to perform a “straw poll”, along Melville Avenue, the question I would pose would be the origin of the street’s name. My presupposition is that several people would erroneously make a connection with the American novelist Herman Melville (1819-1891) best known for his novel Moby Dick.
In fact, the story of Melville Avenue’s origins is quite fascinating. It begins with a Town Council that (thankfully) had the “patience of Job” to overcome the many obstacles in extending the street, as we know it today, from Saint Catherine to Sherbrooke Street.
To begin, the street was originally called Dufferin, honouring the Earl of Dufferin Governor General of Canada 1872-1878.
The Town Council changed the street’s name to Elgin in recognition of Lord Elgin Governor General of the Province of Canada (1847–1854).
“A letter from William Smith (an interested proprietor) requesting the name of Dufferin Avenue be changed to Elgin Avenue… duly resolved that the name of said Avenue be changed to Elgin Avenue as desired and that the necessary notices be given to the Registrar.”
Council Proceedings, November 2, 1896
The name Melville was first used, in the late 1800s, for a frame Presbyterian church located on Stanton Street and Cote Saint Antoine Road. A dispute between “wet” and “dry” members of the congregation caused a division resulting in the former moving to a new site and the latter remaining at the current location and renaming their church Saint-Andrews. The new site was Elgin Avenue and the architect was Edward Maxwell.
“The design for Melville Church was commissioned from Edward Maxwell in 1900. The Melville church design was based on the English medieval church country church. This effect is enhanced by its location beside Westmount Park, where its tower can be observed, as from a village green, across the open space of the park.”
Canadian Architecture Collection, McGill University
Services began in 1900. Five years later, the Melville Presbyterian Church amalgamated with Westmount Methodist creating Westmount Park-Melville United Church.
The street was renamed Melville Avenue in 1912, in honour of several distinguished members of the church’s Presbyterian congregation.
“…Your Committee has had under consideration the advisability of re-naming certain streets and avenues in the City in order to prevent the confusion which frequently arises on account of the duplication of some of the names in the City of Montreal and other adjoining Municipalities, and it is recommended that the following changes be made… Elgin Avenue changed to Melville Avenue…”
Council Proceedings, May 20th 1912
By the 1970s Westmount Park-Melville Church’s congregation had dwindled and no longer had the resources to maintain the property. There were discussions concerning the building’s demolition making room for a seniors’ residence. Luckily for the City, the Serbian community was looking for a new church and is well described as follows:
“They wanted a finer place, where they could christen their children, marry their daughters and yes, mourn their dead… They are not the largest, nor the most vocal of Montreal’s immigrant communities. But they are the most determined and selfless, or they never would have acquired the church on Melville Avenue… ‘There are men earning no more than seven or eight thousand dollars a year who went to the bank and borrowed a thousand dollars so we could make the final payment’, a woman of the Serbian community was saying yesterday… Thus they raised nearly $200,000 in a community of perhaps 2,000 persons…”
Montreal Gazette, November 1st, 1976
Renaming the street, over the years, was a simple task in comparison to configuring it as we know it today.
Elgin Avenue, as it was known at the time, commenced at Saint Catherine and terminated at Western Avenue (today named De Maisonneuve). A simple resolution, by Town Council in 1897 to extend the street to Sherbrooke unleashed a flurry of legal litigations that lasted for three years.
“…That the Road Committee be instructed to put the roadway, being a continuation of Elgin Avenue to Sherbrooke Street, in proper order so that the Town can exercise its right of passage.”
Council Proceedings, 13 May 1901
“…Mr. M. W. Trenholme being present was heard in reference to his investigation of matters relating to the strip of land Cad. 244, Subd. 1, over which the Town had decided to exercise certain rights, said strip being part of the roadway at the east side of the Park…”
Council Proceedings, June 12, 1901
Legal proceedings that involved the Murray Estate (from whom the Town purchased the land) threatened the usage of Elgin Avenue as a public roadway.
“…That the Murray Estate be called upon by notarial protest to maintain the Town in the use of the roadway… to Western Avenue, and to do whatever was necessary to ensure the future use of same and such roadway; also that the Murray Estate be notified in same protest that the Town, in attempting to use the said strip was threatened with legal proceedings by Messrs. Brown and others, and further, that the Town is and was prepared to contribute whatever land may be necessary as its share of said roadway.”
Council Proceedings, July 2, 1901
‘Renaming the street, over the years, was a simple task in comparison to configuring it as we know it today.’
The Town argued that the Park property in question was agreed to be set apart by the Murrays in 1873.
“…Seeing the homologated plan of 1893 shows a line traversing the Park property purchased from the Murray Estate, providing a strip of 20 feet in width adjoining lot 244-1 for the continuation of Elgin Avenue, said strip being shown on the Official Plan and Book of Reference is lot 236A-36 being the land originally agreed to be set apart by the Murrays in 1872 under an agreement… That the Town Solicitors be and are hereby authorized to plead in their suit now pending against the Town…”
Council Proceedings, December 16, 1901
The Court ruling, six months later, awarded the Town “servitude of passage” (right of way) through the Murray Estate property:
“…That the Estate Murray be forthwith notified of said judgment and be called upon forthwith to protect the Town in its right of use of the roadway granted to the Town by deed of sale of said Estate to the said Town of Westmount… 28th November 1898 and duly registered the said right of use being granted in said deed in the following terms to wit, “with the right of used of said roadway on the north easterly side of said emplacement, said road being known as part of said subdivision… and the continuation thereof to Western Avenue and to pay the damages awarded against the Town in said suit amounting to the sum of $221.91 with interest from date of judgment and costs, and further that the Town does not intend to appeal from said judgment…”
Council Proceedings, July 3, 1903
Ultimately, this process was resolved with the sale of the property south of Sherbrooke Street to the Town for fifty cents per square foot ($3550.00) and that the on-going lawsuit, now in the Superior Court, against the Town be discontinued.
“…besides a release of Municipal taxes general and special, to this date on the piece of land to be acquired and a cancellation of the servitude of passage conceded by the Murray Estate to the Town as regards the part of the same twenty foot strip of ground south of Sherbrooke Street, the offer of the Murray Estate to pay eight hundred dollars in release and extinction of its warranty responsibility in respect of the said servitude of passage… and that the Solicitor be accordingly instructed to prepare the necessary by-law for the opening of the section of Elgin Avenue over the length of the strip of land to be acquired as aforesaid and the prolongation of Melbourne Avenue across the same…”
Council Proceedings, February 1, 1904
The street was finally extended, by 1904, with costs shared by the residents of Elgin Avenue and Town.
“…That the costs of opening a section of Elgin Avenue from Sherbrooke Street south-easterly a distance of about 355 feet, shall be paid as follows, to wit, thirty per cent thereof shall be borne and paid for by the owners of real estate situated on each side of the opening of said section of Elgin Avenue after the opening takes place, by means of a special assessment… the (remainder) paid for by the whole Town.”
Council Proceedings, February 15, 1904
Following that period, the residential development of the street was quite uneventful. Homes were built, families took advantage of the nearby park, local schools and Westmount Library. In the 1920s the Canada Bread Company Limited operated their bakery facility at 315 Elgin Avenue.
The residents’ quiet was interrupted on October 27, 1981 when the street gained national attention: The Globe and Mail headline stated “Westmount victim known to police – Car bombing kills Montrealer”. The story continues:
“One man was killed and another injured yesterday when the car they were riding in was ripped apart by a powerful explosion as it travelled down a quiet street in affluent Westmount.”
Globe and Mail, October 28, 1981
Apparently, an explosive device was placed inside a 1977 Mercedes. The article provides further details:
“The bomb went off… as the car drove south along Melville Avenue… after the blast it continued down the street for about 200 feet before jumping a sidewalk, knocking down a signpost and coming to a halt (in a) softball diamond directly in front of Westmount Park Public School… about a dozen windows in an apartment building were shattered by the force of the explosion and flying debris.”
Luckily, no bystanders were injured – thankfully, it was a study day at the school and because it was raining, when this occurred, no children or their parents were at the park.
One must agree that for what appears as a quiet residential street – the number of stories it contains is quite remarkable. Armed with this knowledge let’s step back in time and discover some of the street’s original residents.
John H. Louson, clerk, Canadian Pacific Railway – 1899
Albert A. Staunton, real estate agent – 1899
Mrs. Barwick, wid. F.M. – 1899
Jas. A. McKee, salesman – 1899
Arthur C. Shaw, clerk, Canadian Pacific Railway – 1899
R.C. Young, Trust & Loan Company – 1899
From Evolving Financial Markets and International Capital Flows: Britain, the Americas and Australia 1865-1914, Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman:
“In 1843 the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada was incorporated by special act of the Canadian Parliament for the express purpose of lending money on the security of real property.”
Grant Dufresne, J. R. B. Smith & Company – 1899
W. E. Walsh, agent – 1899
John Allen junior, builder – 1899
Eben Dowie, construction engineer – 1899
Eben Dowie & James Oxley were the first people to patent the use of chilli powder, in 1899, as an extermination ingredient. This substance is still used to this day.
From the USPO, Aug 22, 1899, Publication number US631738 A:
“Be it known that we, Eben Dowie, consulting engineer, and James Macdonald Oxley, insurance manager, of the city of Montreal, in the county of Hochelaga, in the Province of Quebec, Canada, have invented a certain new and useful Composition of Matter to be Used for Evicting Rats and other Vermin, of which the following is a specification. Our composition consists of the following ingredients, combined in the proportions stated, viz: Chilli pepper, twenty percent; hellebore, five percent; sulphate of lime, eight percent; phosphate of lime, eight percent; carbonate of lime, fifty-four percent; oxide of iron, five percent. This mixture is thoroughly mingled and makes a fine powder.”
Jas. Marshall, manufacture’s agent – 1899
George Johnston, conductor Intercolonial Railway – 1900
The Intercolonial Railway of Canada in operation 1872-1918 was one of Canada’s first Crown corporations.
Alfred D Thornton, assistant manager, Canadian Rubber Co. – 1900
“The Canadian Consolidated Rubber Company was headquartered in Montreal, and opened a branch in Edmonton in 1911 to serve as a distribution point for its products which were manufactured in Ontario and Quebec… supplied rubber belting, packing, hoses, waterproof clothing, felt footwear, automobile and carriage tires, and druggists’ rubber sundries.”
Arthur Shibley, associate secretary-treasurer Westmount – 1899
Mrs. Louisa A. Simpson, daughter of Sir George Simpson – 1900
Sir George Simpson was the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company (1820-1860).
“The governor of a territory stretching over most of British North America, Simpson had to be more than an efficient businessman. He had to be a politician, and, since part of the HBC’s domain was disputed by the United States and Russia, a diplomat as well. The conflict with the Russian American Company over trading territory on the northwest coast dated from the reorganization of the HBC at the time of the merger in 1821. Simpson and HBC governor John Henry Pelly travelled to St. Petersburg (Leningrad, U.S.S.R.) in August 1838 to negotiate an agreement with Baron von Wrangel, the most influential director on the board of the Russian company.
These talks became the basis for a contract between the two companies, signed in 1839 by Simpson and Wrangel, by which the Russians leased the Alaskan panhandle to the HBC. In return the British company undertook to provide the Russians, based at Sitka, with foodstuffs at favourable prices. The strength of this arrangement, which ceded de facto control over Russian territory to the HBC, was such that in 1854–55 during the Crimean War the terms were respected and, at the suggestion of Simpson, both the British and the Russian governments agreed to exclude the northwest coast from the theatre of war.”
The Canadian Encyclopedia
R. D. Anderson, commercial traveller – 1899
Robert Oliver, ladies’ cutter – 1899
Images: Michael Walsh – Featured image: Andrew Burlone
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. Prior to moving to Montreal, he was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education evaluating bilingual primary and secondary school programs. Today, he enjoys spending time with his (huge) Saint Bernard 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