Western Avenue /1
The history behind the familiar: de Maisonneuve Boulevard was originally named Western Avenue
By Michael Walsh
November 18, 2021
Bicyclists who enjoy the great roads on Western Avenue will have reason to thank the Westmount Council who have decided that the avenue shall be used exclusively for bicycles and light vehicles…
– Montreal Gazette, April 27, 1897
Have you heard the expression “A thorn in one’s side”? It is a fitting description that personifies the relationship between the Village of Cote St. Antoine and the owners of Western Avenue.
During the 1870s, the street was a farm trail comprising two dilapidated bridges (on Metcalfe and Lansdowne Avenues) spanning running watercourses. Its state of disrepair constituted both a danger to residents and an embarrassment to the municipality.
Added to this, Council was powerless to make improvements because the street was provincially regulated by the Cote St. Antoine Road Company aka the Turnpike Trust. (Another street, Cote St. Antoine Road, was also owned by the Turnpike Trust). The Turnpike Trust financed its operations by issuing shareholder bonds and collecting revenues through tollgates.
Our story begins with the Council’s difficult task of acquiring full municipal ownership of the street while balancing the best interests of its citizens to create today’s attractive boulevard.
To begin, Western Avenue was in existence before the formation of the Village of Notre-Dame-de-Grace. First mentioned in Council minutes on March 1875 when Molson Avenue was opened and connected to the easterly portion of the street.
In June 1877, the street’s name was changed to Ontario Avenue. Council, however, kept referring to the street as Western Avenue and, as such, the name remained until 1965. The portion of the street that ran from Greene Avenue to Atwater Avenue was named Luke Street (commonly called St. Luke) and changed to Western Avenue in March 1896.
‘The street’s original owner was Dame Christian MacGibbon and was acquired by a Sherriff’s Sale to the Cote St. Antoine Road Company in 1886…’
The intersection of Western Avenue and Cote St. Luc Road was acquired through expropriation in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway for tracks towards Montreal. One year later, F. L. Decarie constructed an incinerator for refuse burning.
The City of Montreal also used its powers of expropriation in 1916 to extend Western Avenue westward from Melrose Avenue to Lachine Road.
The street’s original owner was Dame Christian MacGibbon and was acquired by a Sherriff’s Sale to the Cote St. Antoine Road Company in 1886 and described as follows:
A tract of land situated in the parish of Notre Dame de Grace… being a road in process of construction, known and designated as Western Avenue containing sixty-six feet in width by 6,380 feet in length, English measure… beginning at its southwest end from the road, generally known as “Cote Saint Luc” at a distance of 1,250 feet from the southeast line to the road called Upper Lachine road… with a wooden bridge, and the remaining timber of another wooden bridge in ruins, together with a wooden sidewalk…
– Montreal Gazette, January 20, 1886
By 1879, the improvement of Western Avenue became a priority of Council. Specifically, during that year, the Village of Notre-Dame-de-Grace changed its name to the Village of Cote St. Antoine. That change involved the establishment of a Corporation, or “Body Politic,” known as the Corporation of the Village of Cote St. Antoine.
Among its new powers was its ability to negotiate with the Trustees of Turnpike Trust and other corporations that owned roads within the municipality. These entities were offered either an annual grant or an offer to purchase. In addition, Western Avenue was incorporated under the Consolidated Statutes of Lower Canada, and the Corporation was liable to indictment for its poor condition.
During that period, Council was inundated with residents’ complaints concerning the street’s poor condition and the dangerous state of its bridges.
Out of frustration, the Secretary-Treasurer was requested to have posted up at each end of Western Avenue… notices cautioning the public that the bridges on said avenue are in a dangerous condition and that the said avenue is the property of and under control of the Cote St. Antoine Road Company and not of the Municipality.
– Council Proceedings, 1881
By 1888, Western Avenue was still in disrepair. Council sought legal assistance and was informed that for the Corporation, under the statutes of Lower Canada, purchasing the street was the only means of gaining control. In addition, the Corporation could indict the Cote St. Antoine Road Company for not keeping Western Avenue in good repair.
This was illustrated that same year when the Corporation sought legal opinion to lay drains and sewers on Western Avenue and was informed this could not be done without the Trustee’s permission. The street, however, was extended eastward to the City limits one year later.
‘By 1888, Western Avenue was still in disrepair. Council sought legal assistance and was informed that for the Corporation, under the statutes of Lower Canada, purchasing the street was the only means of gaining control.’
By November 1890, Council approached the Turnpike Trust, asking under what terms they would relinquish control of the street. In addition, Council informed the street’s residents that this expenditure would increase property values. To that end, converted farmland worth 2 cents per foot would convert into property worth 30-50 cents per foot.
In response, the Montreal Turnpike Trust made a bizarre offer: they would relinquish the roads within the Municipality of Cote St. Antoine contingent upon the Town purchasing 50 toises of quarry stone at $12.50 per toise. (One toise of quarry stone measures 6 feet by 6 feet by 6 feet). Not surprisingly, Council rejected this offer.
The road Trustees countered by offering to repair the road and bridges plus remove tolls to outside the municipality for a period of 5 to 10 years. In return, the municipality will pay $3,000 per year. At this point, Council used a wait-and-see approach – and, not surprisingly, three months later, no repairs occurred.
This resulted in the issuance of a notarial protest that required the Trustees to make all necessary repairs within two months. This had no effect, forcing Council to allocate $3,000 on stones and macadam for road improvement. In return, the Trustees would give the municipality a clear title.
‘One might ask – why didn’t the town repair the road and charge the company? Their concern was that in doing so, the company could deprive the town of the road’s usage and place a toll booth within the municipality to recoup the costs incurred.’
The President of the Trustees, William Weir, refused the municipality’s offer; however, he was willing to strengthen the bridges. By May 1892, no repairs were performed, causing Council to issue another notarial protest. One month later, the road company made another offer to sell, which Council refused. Instead, the municipality commenced legal action against the road company for not keeping the road and bridges in proper order.
One might ask – why didn’t the town repair the road and charge the company? Their concern was that in doing so, the company could deprive the town of the road’s usage and place a toll booth within the municipality to recoup the costs incurred. (As an aside, residential growth in Notre-Dame-de-Grace occurred after the road company removed their tollbooth within that municipality).
Therefore, as a compromise, the City repaired the Western Bridge on Metcalfe Avenue and charged the company. In return, the Lansdowne Bridge was torn down in 1892 by the Trustees and replaced with an earth filling.
With the issue of the dangerous state of the bridges settled, the Town discontinued legal proceedings.
By September 1892, with both sides exhausted over this matter, the road company offered all rights of Western Avenue, 66 feet in width, from Greene Avenue to Claremont Avenue for $5,000. The Town offered $4,200 and an additional $800 as soon as that sum is spent on macadam from Claremont Avenue to Cote St. Luke Road (today a continuation of boulevard de Maisonneuve). Council also added “free access to Cote St. Luke” road in their offer to the company.
Assuming a satisfactory outcome, the City widened the street to 80 feet (the standard width is 66 feet) and expropriated a strip of land fronting Metcalfe Avenue (owned by the road company president) for the purpose of straightening the street.
By July 1893, Council needed to confront, and resolve, an unforeseen obstacle – proprietors fronting the street refusing to pay their share of macadamizing costs.
Finally, in October 1893, the deed for street transfer was passed to the Town. As a “parting shot,” the President of the road company asked for interest on the cheque from the day it was drawn – the request was not entertained.
By May 1894, Western Avenue, now under full municipal ownership, was macadamized from Claremont Avenue to Cote St. Luke Road. One year later, four-plank sidewalks were laid.
That same year, despite citizens’ objections, the Montreal Street Railway Company laid tracks for their Park & Island cars on Western Avenue from Claremont to Victoria Avenues.
The erection of apartment houses began in 1910 with the amendment of By-Law 190. This allowed construction between Olivier and Wood Avenues (1910), Metcalfe and Kensington Avenues (1911), and Olivier and Greene Avenues (1911). It prohibited their construction between Kensington and Metcalfe Avenues (1911).
In 1911, the City opened Western Avenue from Atwater Avenue to Wood Avenue.
By 1928, traffic lights were installed on Sherbrooke Street and Western Avenue. Interestingly, Westmount was the first municipality on the island to use traffic light systems. In addition, Westmount was the first in requiring traffic to come to a complete stop before entering or crossing any main road.
‘By 1928, traffic lights were installed on Sherbrooke Street and Western Avenue. Interestingly, Westmount was the first municipality on the island to use traffic light systems.’
Other street improvements included: an artificial ice rink (1957) bounded by Lansdowne Avenue, Western Avenue, Academy Road and Saint Catherine Street, and the Western Avenue Tennis and Practice Courts (1935).
The street became home to several churches: Westmount-Park-Melville United Church, at Western and Lansdowne Avenues (1929); Church of the Advent, at Wood and Western Avenues (1952); Church of the Redeemer at Western and Clarke Avenues (1962); and Church of St. Leon, at Western and Kitchener Avenues (1901).
Two schools made Western Avenue their home: King’s School, at Western at Grosvenor Avenues (1931) and Westmount Park School. The latter purchased several lots of land on Western Avenue for $80,000 in 1912. The funds were used by Council for the extension of Western Avenue – a Councillor is on record stating “I don’t think a park should reach down to Saint Catherine Street.”
Other buildings worth mentioning include the Protestant Infants Home and Contagious Disease Wing (1902) and Wonder Bakeries (1954).
The Atwater Baseball Park, built in 1893, occupied the area now comprising Alexis-Nihon Plaza. The park was the home ground of the Shamrock Lacrosse Club, the Montreal Baseball Club and the Atwater Baseball League.
Atwater Park was sold in 1950 to Montreal industrialist Alexis Nihon. The area covered 222,419 square feet – 41,286 in Montreal and 181,133 in Westmount. Interestingly, the property is a land-holding administered by the province for the Gentlemen of St. Sulpice.
The years that followed tell a story of controversies, traffic disruptions and end with a tragedy. Beginning in 1963, work commenced on Montreal’s metro system, with a portion running under Western Avenue from Wood to Greene Avenues.
Two years later, the City of Montreal adopted a By-law, giving the name of de Maisonneuve Boulevard to de Montigny, Burnside, St-Luc and Western Avenues. In addition, the section of Ontario Street located between Saint-Urbain and Union Streets was also renamed. Despite protests against this change, Council “fast-tracked” approval of a “By-law to Change the Name of Western Avenue to Boulevard de Maisonneuve” on October 22, 1965. (Interestingly, the word “Western” is Germanic, not English, and borrowed into today’s language.)
Further changes were made to the street. In February 1976, Council passed a By-Law that closed a portion of de Maisonneuve Boulevard from the west side of Melville Avenue to the east side of the junction of Academy Road (which used to end at de Maisonneuve). Several years later, the former roadway was incorporated into an island-wide bicycle path network. This move remains a contentious issue to this day for automobile and pedestrian traffic.
Our story ends with a senseless tragedy that occurred at Dawson College’s de Maisonneuve entrance – a lone gunman entered the building on September 13, 2006, killing one person and injuring 19 others.
As you can see, the serene appearance of the street hides a turbulent past – being aware of these events changes one’s perception while walking past the silent stately homes.
Feature image: St. Leon Catholic Church, old postcard, Public Domain
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