Griffintown flood, 1873. Note child holding rat (from the Canadian Illustrated News, April 26, 1873).

Ever since a local newspaper reported in the early 1900’s that the municipal sewer serving the then densely populated community of Griffintown drained unencumbered into the still waters of the Montreal harbour, the topic of this city’s underground waste conduits has been one to avoid at the dinner table. The additional information that, at the time, men working on the ships moored in the port regularly bathed in those same foul  waters is what we now call “too much detail.”

In fact, sewers are rarely in the news of their own merit  – whether dinner time or not. Every so often, however, a tale will surface that puts the malodorous matter on the front page. Last year’s collapse on Sherbrooke Street of a key conduit near Lafontaine Park is just one relatively small case in point.  Yet a far more interesting story took place in the early 1980’s during restoration work on a major north-south watercourse in the vicinity of the Jacques Cartier Bridge. The culvert in question (the diameter of which in some spots could accommodate an automobile) dated from the mid – nineteenth century and was reported to have been a masterpiece of Victorian drain construction. Engineers were so astonished at the quality of the ancient brick-lined ducts that they consequently limited their refurbishment to the lower part of the channel which is, in any event, always more vulnerable to decay.

While the task of the repair job initially proceeded well, it suddenly slowed down significantly, to the general consternation of the foremen and other overseers responsible for productivity. Even so, after a little delving it was quickly discovered that the always inquisitive labourers were continually distracted from their work by the variety of effects, especially Victorian and Edwardian coins, that they were stumbling upon at the site. One way or another, it would seem that a great deal of loose change found its way into that rancid network located just beneath street level. On one occasion, to the general horror of most observers, workers were actually spotted sifting through the sewage  sludge looking for potentially valuable specie!

Now, while I recall once reading that workmen in the New York City sewer system often encountered bizarre hybrid creatures in their day to day toil below the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple,  I don’t recollect ever having heard anything about coins. Be that as it may, this whole bizarre account surely gives new light to the frequently – employed expression: it’s just money down the drain!

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