Published in the Montreal Gazette on Saturday, February 4, 2012.
Early in 1902, Henry Hogan, long-time Montreal hotelier, sat down with a representative of the Montreal Star and quietly reminisced about his 51 colourful years as owner and manager of the prestigious St. Lawrence Hall Hotel.
Situated on the northwest corner of Great St. James Street and St. Francois Xavier, the St. Lawrence Hall was unquestionably the most important and venerable public accommodation in this city until the opening of Windsor Hotel on Dominion Square in 1878.
The most exciting and eventful decade of the hotel’s illustrious existence was undoubtedly the 1860’s when all of North America was plunged, directly or indirectly, into the horrors of the U.S. Civil War. As Great Britain was more or less supporting the southern Confederacy, and as Canada was Britain’s colony, Montreal and Henry Hogan’s hotel became a hotbed of intrigue and conspiracy unparalleled in this city’s history. It is even rumoured that the assassination of U.S. President Lincoln may have been concocted with its very walls.
The population of Montreal in 1861 was a modest 92,000 and that very year, with the outbreak of hostilities in the United States, many a rich Southern family headed here to escape the terror of the conflict. Those who came to Montreal invariably established themselves at the St. Lawrence Hall Hotel. Northern ‘copperheads’ also headed to this city but they usually sought out less expensive accommodation! Nevertheless, according to an article in the Montreal Star dated November 19, 1927, there were so many impetuous refugees, both Yankees and rebels, from the bloody U.S. campaign within the walls of the Hall that Hogan kept, in the event of trouble, a peephole in his office which permitted a full, yet discreet view of the entire main parlour of the hotel.
At the time of the 1902 interview, Henry Hogan reflected for several hours on his many memories of this city and his hotel. Several topics were covered – from the Great Fire of 1852 (when a quarter of Montreal was destroyed), the visit to Canada in 1860 of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), the struggle to secure the Confederation of the British Provinces in North America and the role played by the old St. Lawrence Hall in those negotiations.
However, it was when Henry Hogan raised the matter of the so-called ‘Trent Affair’ that he became particularly animated. Hogan then proceeded to recount with remarkable clarity how, in 1861, the British steamer ‘Trent’, carrying Confederate delegates to Europe, was forcibly boarded by agents of the U.S. Government. The two Southern representatives, James Mason and John Slidell, were arrested by Captain Wilkes, commander of a United States war cruiser. That event, perhaps more than any other, brought the U.S. and Britain dangerously close to a North American conflagration.
“British troops,” said Hogan, “were hurried from Great Britain, and by the middle of the summer of 1862 several thousand picked British troops had arrived in Canada, including the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards and the 2nd Battalion Scots Fusilier Guards. The men of these battalions were quartered in the Nuns’ Building on St. Sulpice and St. Paul streets, which were called Victoria barracks. The officers were quartered temporarily at St. Lawrence Hall and had their own private mess-room in the new wing of the Hall, facing on Craig street” (today St. Antoine).
Clearly, throughout the 1902 discussion, Hogan revelled in his extraordinary recollections of this city and the significant role played by his hotel in them. He also spoke at considerable length about the Gavazzi Riot of 1853, the most tragic civil disturbance in Montreal’s history in terms of lives lost. Alessandro Gavazzi, the central figure in the bloody affair, and his secretary both sojourned at St. Lawrence Hall during their brief stay in this city.
Sadly, after a brief illness, Henry Hogan died in his quarters in his hotel in October of 1902. His funeral, which took place on October 11, was “one of the largest and most representative ever held in the city. There were people present from all walks of life – the highest dignitaries rubbing elbows with servants who had grown gray in Mr. Hogan’s employ”.
The funeral cortege proceeded along the thoroughfares of the city he so loved – St. James Street, Beaver Hall Hill, Union Street, Sherbrooke, Park Avenue on its way to Mount Royal Cemetery. Along its path, thousands of Montrealers paid a final tribute to one of their own – an extraordinary man who left a singular imprint on the annals of Montreal.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the St. Lawrence Hall struggled greatly after the loss of its inspiration and proprietor. After eight years of protracted difficulty, the oldest part of the hotel was finally closed. The main building, which personified so much of the colourful history of this city, was demolished in 1910 while the Craig Street Annex met the wrecker’s ball on October 9, 1933 – the 31st anniversary of the death of its founder, Henry Hogan.