I often wonder if Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Black ever totally recovered from their terrible affliction. It’s surely never easy to lose a child but on three dark, dismal days in December over a hundred years ago, the Montreal couple lost four of their five children to scarlet fever. I think every so often of them when in the evening around five o’clock I zealously step back in time to another age and, in a sense, another city – to the Montreal of the early 1900’s.
You see, my time machine is found in this city’s municipal library which, like many others, holds an extensive collection of microfilmed copies of various national and international newspapers. Collectively, they compose a treasure house of historical information and data about those who came before us, in this our own singular journey on the planet earth. By always selecting from the local papers of the early twentieth century, these newspapers become for me, perhaps somewhat ironically, a living journal of a town and citizenry now long gone.
The modus operandi is quite simple and familiar to all researchers in history. I choose the desired film, install it on the appropriate reader, turn on the power, look at my watch (as there is a one hour time restriction) and, voilà, into the bustling streets and malodorous alleys of an erstwhile Montreal I step. A unique adventure unfolds which, with a little fancy, is both stimulating and rewarding. Edwardian Montreal steps forward, as it were, and presents itself to me. And what a town it is, as the period was the zenith of this city’s command and mastery of the “Dominion of Canada.”
An extraordinary metropolis of incredible contrasts and inherent contradictions is quickly revealed. Poverty is omnipresent in all its abhorrent manifestations. An entire urban underclass survived on the periphery of society. I’m constantly staggered by the casual attitude taken towards a plethora of social evils and injustices prevalent at the time. Life expectancy was just under fifty. Astoundingly high child mortality rates abound in the early 1900’s. In 1903, for example, nearly 5,000 of the 7,905 burials which took place in the Catholic cemetery were for children under the age of ten. “Industrial accidents” take other children – those in their early teens – to a premature grave as child labour flourished yet unabashed.
But my time machine takes me to another Montreal as well – one just up the hill – the Golden Square Mile of power and wealth, where were found the real beneficiaries of an economic growth that was absolutely dizzying in scope. This borough of privilege on an island of acute social distinctions was home to euchre parties and smoking concerts, to first rate theatre and debutante balls in the palatial Windsor Hotel, overlooking an inviting Dominion Square. The affirmation of great affluence could be seen in every nook and cranny of this very delimited urban landscape.
Now seated before my reader, I nimbly rotate the handle, specifically advancing my microfilm to where I had left off the day before. Ah, that’s it. Monday, April 25, 1904. Now let’s see what happened on that day –
Judge Wurtele of the Court of King’s Bench died today. There is talk of a Japanese attack on the Russian city of Vladivostok, while the editorial expounds about what the clergy say or do not say about the state of the world in 1904. And many Montrealers are still deploring the Great Toronto Fire of six days earlier when over 12 hectares of our sister city’s core were destroyed.
Losing all track of time, I rest my eyes but for a moment (or what seemed like a moment) and let my spirit wander……wander back in time to an exhilarating epoch of adventure and growth.
King Edward’s visit to Ireland is going well. Montrealers may as of today buy a $24 round trip train ticket with Canadian Pacific to travel to the World’s Fair in St. Louis. For those who want to stay put , residents might always attend “The Eternal City” currently playing at the Academy Theatre. Tickets run from .25 cents to $1.50.
With little effort, my mind drifts in and out of that day’s history until, finally, I deftly advance my reel to the next 24 hours – Tuesday, April 26 and, still oblivious to time, my musing continues.
“Excusez-moi, M. Wilkins,” your one hour is almost over and someone else requires your reader.”
“Ah, oui, c’est vrai, Madame. Merci.” However, I am disinclined to part but will reluctantly leave to tomorrow my next passage and pilgrimage into the past.
And so it is that newspapers from yesteryear come to be a silent witness of the trials and tribulations of a bygone era and a bygone people. They were composed and assembled by those very people who lived the times, and those individuals are, in a sense, our civic ancestors. Moreover, they teach us that a city is the striking creation of many people – some of whom are still with us, and others, many others, who are long gone.
So I leave my time machine and cross the threshold back into these remarkable times in which we all now live. Nevertheless, I continue to look forward to once again bridging time and frequenting anew my Montreal of the early 1900’s.
Please accept, Mr. and Mrs. Black, my deepest condolences.