Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 16, 2012.
Many years ago, while restoring the ornate gingerbread facade of my Victorian row home on St. André in the centre-sud borough of the city, I observed that a couple of rather elderly women had stopped to watch the work in progress.
The year was 1977, and as it turned out the women were sisters who had grown up on the street during the Edwardian period. For over two hours, as I recall, they reminisced in my presence about their childhood memories of the neighbourhood.
To this day, I vividly recollect one of the many subjects about which the aged siblings spoke with great fervour – the nightly arrival of the ‘gas man’ who, with his seemingly-‘magic key’, would turn on the road’s only gas lamp, much to the delight of the local children.
It is indeed difficult for us living in the energy abundance of the early twenty – first century to appreciate the overall darkness in which our civic ancestors passed their evenings. Most, in fact, didn’t venture out after sunset. On the other hand, today, an end of the day stroll along St. Catherine Street takes place in a brightness that is almost equivalent to a promenade taken during the daytime.
In contrast, when William G. Ross, manager of the Montreal Street Railway Company (the forerunner to our very own STCUM) returned to the city in the fall of 1909 from a business trip to Denver, Colorado, he made this eye – catching observation: “There are as many lights on one street in Denver as there are in the whole City of Montreal”.
Around the same time, the Montreal Star also editorialized on the sensitive subject under the heading “Our Dark Streets”. “Visitors all remark our meager street lighting”, the newspaper wrote in its October 20, 1909 edition. “Two or three of our business streets are well-lighted by the private enterprise of the shops that line them; but to turn off them into even the finest of our side streets, is like entering a dark room”, the perspective concluded.
Only a couple of years earlier, a Letter to the Editor (also in the Star) recounted how the entire campus of McGill University was ‘illuminated’ at night thanks only to a grand total of four lamp standards. The letter writer could not help but note the irony in that lamentable situation when he sardonically wrote:
“This does not appear to be in keeping with the reputation of a great university with its course in electrical engineering”.
The dim streets and alleys were especially challenging for children, frequently leading them into trouble. Either by becoming victims of crimes committed in the darkness or, indeed, criminals themselves, boys, who were often left unsupervised, were time and again drawn into their unremitting dramas.
Back street tenements, or ‘rear tenements’, as they were also known, were shanties that were particularly problematic for youngsters. Tucked in behind the main building, largely devoid of light, and only accessible through dark passageways or sometimes equally unlit lanes, they became breeding grounds for shadowy crime. In addition, the fact that they were not visible from the street meant that they could easily fall into disrepair and neglect. They also often became places of ill-repute and other suspicious activities. Some of the worst back street tenements were found in the densely-populated community of Griffintown, immediately west of the city centre of the time.
In a Letter to the Editor in the autumn of 1907, a concerned citizen made the following compelling argument:
“If we had well – lighted streets, alleys, etc., we should not hear of so many ‘hold-ups’ and robberies in the heart of the city – to say nothing of the residential quarters. Crime does not bask in the rays of electric light; it seeks for whom it may devour in dark places. Montreal in many places is miserably lighted – there should be no necessity for such false economy”.
The relative darkness of Montreal’s Edwardian streets not only led to crime but also to accidents – many of which proved fatal. That was certainly the case with fourteen- year-old Joseph Linner who in April of 1909 was horrifically killed (along with another young boy) by a tramway at the corner of Mount Royal and Papineau Streets. A few month’s later, the youngster’s father sued the city for damages claiming that the intersection in question was totally deprived of artificial lighting at the time of the tragic evening mishap.