What to See & Do in Montreal?
Montreal is one of North America’s oldest cities, and has a combination of 1800s stone buildings (including industrial buildings, office/government buildings, and churches) and modern skyscrapers. Its people are very stylish, and its shopping and nightlife is European in calibre. While the city is predominantly French-speaking it is bilingual in character.
350 year old Montreal is on an island 40 km (25 mi) long and 15 km (9 mi) wide, where the Ottawa River flows into the Saint Lawrence River on its way to the Atlantic, about a thousand miles further east. The most striking landmark is Mont Royal, a 232 m (760 ft) remnant of Lawrence River to the historic heart of the city, the Vieux (Old) Montréal and Vieux Port area to the southeast of downtown.
Directly to the east of downtown is the strongly French flavored Quartier Latin, which is dominated by the emblematic Université du Québec à Montréal The city’s gay district, The Village, lies a bit further east along Rue Sainte Catherine Est. South of the Quartier Latin, and to the southeast of downtown, is the city’s compact Chinatown.
Early French Settlement
Montreal was as an Iroquois First Nations settlement named Hochelaga, who were living there for over8000 years. In 1535, Jacques Cartier happened up on it while trying to find a route to Asia. Seventy years later, Samuel de Champlain opened a fur trading post at the location.
By 1642 the French built a fortress named Ville Marie to defend their inland fur trade that reached north up the Ottawa river, west to the end of Lake Superior, and south down to the mouth of the Mississippi. By 1735, a road was built connecting Quebec City to Montreal. During the early 1700s, the name of the island came to be used as the name of the town, and the name Ville-Marie soon fell into disuse.
British Colonial Era and Industrialization
By 1760, the British had defeated the French in the New World (leaving them only the island of St Pierre & Miquelon, and the lands west of the Mississippi. These lands later became the “Louisiana Purchase” by President Thomas Jefferson from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803. Under British rule, the French were allowed to keep their language and their Catholic religion. British immigration to Montreal expanded, as did the fur trade, now run by the North West Company.
After the American Revolution, Canada (Lower Canada or Quebec) grew quickly from displaced United Empire Loyalists who were granted land. Many settled in Upper Canada (west/upstream) of the Ottawa River, and many also settled in the Eastern Townships, south of the St Lawrence. In 1782 the population was about 6,000 and by 1821 the city has 18,000 residents.
The 14-kilometre-long Lachine Canal was completed in 1825 to circumnavigate the rapids on the St Lawrence, lifting ships through 7 locks. This led to various manufacturing industries locating in Montreal along the canal. Montreal officially became a city in 1832. Montreal was the capital of the United Province of Canada from 1844 to 1849, and quickly became the undisputed economic and cultural centre of British North America. Many of those stone buildings around the harbour and the canal are still there today.
Montreal was the eastern terminus of the Grand Trunk Railway which connected Montreal and Toronto. The city was the western terminus of the St Lawrence and Atlantic Railway, which in 1853 connected Montreal to Portland, Maine for year-round shipping when Montreal’s port was locked-in by ice. In 1855, the Grand Trunk line was extended east to Levis (on the south bank opposite Quebec City) and then further to Riviere du Loup. In 1856 the GTR expanded west of Toronto to Sarnia, where Lake Huron emptied into the Detroit River.
In 1880, the Canadian Pacific Railway was formed to connect the various provinces of Canada, most importantly British Columbia on the Pacific coast. The railway started at Montreal and crossed northern Ontario, the flat prairies, and then climb over the Rocky Mountains, the Selkirk Mountains, and the Coastal Mountains to hit saltwater at Port Mood. The first trans-continental train travelled from Montreal to Port Moody in 1886 (it was extended to Vancouver in 1887)
The city grew further by annexing surrounding communities between 1883 and 1918, which transformed Montreal into a largely francophone city. Montreal’s population surpassed one million in the early 1950s.
Post War Growth
In the 1950s and 1960s, Montreal added several significant infrastructure items: a new metro system was added, the St. Lawrence Seaway was opened, and Montreal’s harbour was expanded. As well, the TransCanada Highway was blasted into a trench across the Island along with bridges and tunnels across the St Lawrence. And the city’s downtown was filled with a number of skyscrapers. From 1962 to 1964, four of Montreal’s ten tallest buildings were completed: Tour de la Bourse, Place Ville-Marie, the CIBC Building, and CIL House.
All the rock from the Metro subway and the Trans-Canada construction was dumped in the St Lawrence River to create islands that were used for the land to host the “Expo 67” world’s fair in Canada’s centennial year. A decade later Montreal hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics.
During the 1950s, Quebec underwent The Quiet Revolution, which pitted Quebecers against the dominance of the Catholic Church as well as against the linguistic and economic domination by the English. This led to the rise of separatist sentiment, and the October 1970 “FLQ Crisis” which cause the federal government under Pierre Elliott Trudeau to invoke the War Measures Act. This led to the political rise of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) and their election and the 1977 passage of Bill 101 which made French the official language of Quebec. This also led the federal government to adopt a bilingual official languages policy across Canada.
Separatist sentiment grew further, and the PQ government held several Separation referenda. The uncertainty caused a significant number of Montrealers, mostly Anglophone, to move themselves and their businesses to other provinces. This outflow of people and economic clout made Montreal’s growth stagnant in the 1980s and 199s.
The concept of having one municipal government for the island of Montreal was first proposed by Jean Drapeau in the 1960s. In 2001, the provincial government announced a plan to merge major cities with their suburbs. In 2002, the entire Island of Montreal, home to 1.8 million people, became merged into a new “megacity”. Some 27 suburbs as well as the former city were folded into several boroughs. But by 2006, these were “demerged” and the island of Montreal now has 16 municipalities.
Trans-Canada Highway History
Here are some highway history notes (from west to east):
Trans-Canada Highway History: Ottawa to Montreal
Trans-Canada Highway History: Montreal Bridges
Trans-Canada Highway History: Montreal Highways/Autoroutees
Trans-Canada Highway History: Montreal to Quebec City
Trans-Canada Highway History: Quebec City Details