Watercart in the streets of Montreal during the crisis of 1913-1914.

Late Christmas Day 1913 a major break of approximately sixty feet in length occurred in the principal conduit bringing water into the City of Montreal. There had been a problem earlier that December in the very same spot for which a temporary repair job was quickly completed. Everyone knew that Montreal was very vulnerable in so far as its water repository was concerned because of the simple fact that there was just one supply route.

The now broken pipe (which was nine feet in diameter) was the sole feed of water into a city of more than 350,000 people. The ruptured culvert was located immediately in back of the Verdun Protestant Hospital for the Insane, which was more commonly referred to at the time as the Lunatic Asylum (today it is called the Douglas Hospital).

So enormous was the task of correcting the misadventure that it took until the end of the day of January 2 to do so. This meant a full eight days with virtually no water whatsoever for Montrealers.

Fortunately, there had been a major snow storm shortly before the Christmas Day breach so citizens could bring buckets of snow into their homes for them to melt there. The city also sent out horse-drawn watercarts to help alleviate the suffering. The ringing of a bell would announce the arrival of the wagon on any given street. The few institutions which  still had artesian wells on their property (like the Hotel Dieu) quickly re-activated them, putting them to good use.

The old Western Hospital on Atwater (today the Children’s) had the good fortune to be situated strategically close to the City of Westmount which had its own independent water supply network. Thoughtfully, the town’s fire department deployed a temporary fire hose in order to furnish the hospital with the precious liquid.

One of the main suppliers of bottled water in those days was the Laurentian Water Company. In the midst of the crisis, demand increased to such an extent that the company was forced to limit its delivery to established clients, many of whom were in Westmount. It wasn’t the water that was lacking but rather the ability to deliver it. In fact, many rigs destined for Westmount were encircled by thirsty Montrealers to whom drivers were forced to sell their supply!

During the eight day drought, everyone feared fire. In the middle of the crisis, a near panic – stricken Montreal Fire Chief Tremblay reported to the City Hall that there was just enough water left in the McTavish Reservoir for one big fire. In addition, stories circulated within the city that the dam at the junction of the River St. Lawrence and the old aqueduct was about to burst. Had this happened, it is believed that all of Point St. Charles would have been flooded.

What everyone dreaded finally occurred at 290 (today’s address) St. Louis Square when fire broke out at 14:25 on Thursday, January 1, 1914.

Combating the blaze was indeed aggravated by the water disruption. In fact, despite the enormity of the conflagration, the firefighters were reduced to battling it with only three streams of water, the pressure for which was thoroughly inadequate. Indeed, at times no water whatsoever was emanating from the hoses in question. Only the heroics of the men and their remarkable ingenuity contained a fire which it was originally feared would raze the entire block bounded by St. Louis Square, Laval, St. Denis, and Sherbrooke Streets.

In terms of the potential for real catastrophe, it was perhaps the most dangerous eight days through which Montreal had ever passed up to that point in its history. However, exactly 84 years to the month later did this city experience anything equal in possible peril, and that was the Great Ice Storm of 1998.

This photo is from my personal collection and depicts the St. Louis Square Fire of January 1, 1914. Note the absence of fire hoses.

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