When Alderman Louis Rubenstein died suddenly early in the morning of January 3, 1931, his loss was deeply mourned throughout the city. Prominent sportsman, engaged philanthropist, and a champion of labour, he had captured the hearts of all Montrealers by his generosity and commitment to this town he loved so dearly.
Rubenstein was born in Montreal on September 23, 1861, the son of Max and Leah Rubenstein. He had many siblings, both male and female. His parents had emigrated from Poland in the early 1850’s and had established themselves in Montreal where all the men worked in the silver and brass plating business on Craig Street. In point of fact, the Rubensteins were one of the oldest Jewish families in the city.
While Louis was also apprenticed in the plating trade, he was probably best known for his passion for sport, particularly figure skating. He had triumphed in several North American competitions in the 1880’s but it was his victory in the figure skating championship in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1890 that drew the most attention and recognition to him. Rubenstein was also an avid curler and hockey player. Extolled one Montreal daily at the time of his death, “He was indeed the pioneer of winter sports in Canada.” It is also worth noting that, as a young man, wherever he went representing Canada at the amateur level, he always paid his own expenses.
Later in life, Rubenstein, who never married, also pursued a political career, elected by acclamation in 1914 at the age of 43 to the Montreal City Council. There, he steadfastly represented St. Lawrence Ward until the day he died, using his prestigious position unabashedly to champion the rights of the working class. The colourful councillor had no political enemies as such and was consider by all to be a good and decent man.
Whenever a celebrated visitor came to Montreal, it was frequently Alderman Rubenstein who would take charge and make the individual feel right at home. His charm and
acute sense of humour made him always the gracious host.
Rubenstein’s life was a true litany of achievement and duty. He was president of the Canadian Wheelmen’s Association for 18 years and also retained, for a period of time, the presidency of the Royal Life Saving Society. He held similar executive positions with M.A.A.A., Y.M.H.A., St. Andrew’s Curling Club, the Bowling Association, the International Skating Union along with being a life governor of the Montreal General Hospital. He also found time to oversee the construction of the Rubenstein Public Bath on Jeanne Mance Street (today where stands Complexe Desjardins). In addition to all this, Rubenstein, a devoted traveller, had journeyed about the world several times.
“As second senior alderman of the City of Montreal, he was beloved and respected by all his colleagues. No one ever heard a bitter word from him in the council. A good sport and pleasant fellow, he was linked with the past and it will be impossible to fill his shoes.” So spoke alderman W. H. Biggar, leader of the City Council at the time of Rubenstein’s death.
“Linked with the past,” indeed he was. A little known fact in the life of Louis Rubenstein was that his civic gallantry began at a very early age. In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, April 29, 1877, the young boy was awakened from sleep by an out-of-control fire that was raging behind his family’s home and business at 537 1/2 Craig Street (today 71 St. Antoine Street West, and part of the Steve’s Music Shop complex). In virtual total darkness, Rubenstein ran from his home west along Craig Street until he came to the Central Fire Station where he alerted the men to what was happening. He was all of 15 years of age.
The blaze on St. Urbain Street (opposite today’s Place d’Armes Metro Station) was one of the worst in Montreal’s history, taking the lives of some seven firefighters and four civilians before it was put out. Several adults, including the caretaker of the building in question, ignored the flames and just went about their business. One can only wonder how much worse the outcome would have been had in not been for the intervention of the adolescent Rubenstein.
Today, in the old Fletcher’s Field that Rubenstein undoubtedly knew so well, there is befittingly a humble memorial to this most remarkable Montrealer.