Published in the Montreal Gazette on December 3, 2011.
“At last Montreal is to have a Coney Island”, asserted the Montreal Star in its May 17, 1906 edition. Indeed, one of the great summertime city attractions for Edwardian children was Dominion Park, “the finest of its kind on the continent”.
Officially opened in the spring of 1906, Dominion Park was located in the city’s East End at Longue Pointe along the shore of the St. Lawrence River. The embankment was skirted by a broad promenade from which there was a beautiful vista of the mountains on the south shore. The locality covered 15 acres in all, and was the precursor to later recreational areas such as Belmont Park and La Ronde.
Each and every one of the pavilions on the extensive grounds was painted white and all of the site was illuminated electrically – quite an innovation for the period.
The arrival of electricity in the day to day lives of the general public was, in fact, one of the principal affirmations of the park. Indeed, the most eye – catching structure on the site was a 125-foot electrical tower, replete with 7000 light bulbs and a revolving search light. The spire was located near 225 by 100 foot artificial lake which received the boats from the various water rides.
The most popular attraction at Dominion Park was Scenic Railway, situated on the east side of the grounds. The state of the art roller coaster ended its three minute run with a spectacular descent into tunnel known as Dante’s Inferno. The exhilarating ride, well over a kilometre in length, terminated at a high elevation over-looking the shore of the majestic St. Lawrence River. Time and time again, the Russian Mountain (as it was also known) proved the most popular enticement at the park.
Of course, there were other diversions as well – the Old Mill, Aladin’s Palace, and the Myth City Building, one room of which included ‘moving pictures’, also quite a novelty for the time.
There were two most unusual representations at Dominion Park that year. The first was of the Johnstown Disaster of 1889 (the result of the bursting of a dam in Pennsylvannia) in which over 2200 people were killed. The second was of the notorious San Francisco Earthquake which had occurred only a month or so earlier in the spring of 1906, killing over 3000 people.
When the park first opened, it was billed as the “Greatest Amusement Park in All Canada” and had cost over $350,000 to construct. Admission was .10 cents for adults and .05 cents for children.
By mid-summer of its very first year, Dominion Park was attracting tens of thousands of people every day, especially in the early evenings when its cool riverside breezes were consider a welcome break from the sultry city.
Of course, many of the charms of the park were the performances put on by men and women from all over the world. For instance, in July of 1906, the Tokio (sic) Royal Japanese Troupe put on an impressive exhibition of juggling, high rope-walking, balancing and other acrobatic feats which was greatly appreciated by most everyone.
However, a few people objected to the risks taken by performers at the amusement centre. In a Letter to the Editor of the Montreal Star dated August 18, 1906, a Mr. J. P. Reddy of Ottawa strongly protested the dangers presented to many of the entertainers at the park. “Cannot the public seek amusement otherwise than that by which the performance is of such danger to life and limb”?
Nevertheless, Dominion Park was still a most popular seasonal stop for children. In fact, so favoured was the destination that one city newspaper organized summer jaunts to the location for its newsboys and newsgirls who sold their daily in the streets of the city. Interestingly, some of the distribution family were as old as 50 and some as young as five.
By the time its first season reached an end on Sunday, September 16 of that year, more than one million people had visited Dominion Park, with thirty thousand attending on the last day alone. So successful was its first season considered to be that Mr. H. A. Dorsey, the president and manager of the company, promised many improvements for the following year.
Alas, after an equally successful second season, Dominion Park was almost entirely destroyed by a fire which ravaged the site in November of 1907, necessitating the complete reconstruction of the entertainment centre for the summer of 1908.
Dominion Park, I have been told, was located at 6500 Notre Dame Street East