(Published in the Montreal Gazette on October 13, 2012)
After years of benign neglect, Dalhousie Square was just recently restored. Today, in fact, it is fast becoming the centre of a stunning contemporary urban redevelopment that has given rise to an entire new neighbourhood situated just east of Old Montreal in Faubourg Quebec. Residents of this new locality are indeed living in the midst of history.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Dalhousie Square was as prestigious an address as any in the city. Then came July 8, 1852. On that unfortunate day, over a third of our burgeoning town was destroyed by fire, including most of Dalhousie Square. Several period paintings depict the loss of Hays’ House, one of Montreal’s finest hotels located on that very site.
On the southern flank of the same plaza, overlooking the St. Lawrence River, was found a military compound, including the soldiers’ barracks, both of which affirmed the formidable British armed presence in this city. The withdrawal of these colonial forces in 1871 left a tremendous void in the daily life of Dalhousie Square as well as Montreal as a whole.
A decade later, the square was further compromised with the construction of the Dalhousie train station which has stood, since 1883-84, on the southeast corner of Notre Dame and Berri. It was from this depot that the pioneer CPR train left for Vancouver on what was the first transcontinental train trip in North America.
Five years later, that same high, windowed stone and brick structure lost much of its significance with the official opening of Windsor Station in the city’s west end. Then it was further slighted when the CPR inaugurated in 1898 at Viger Square a much larger hotel and station complex one block north of the Dalhousie depot. From that moment on period photos show a vast network of railway tracks running from Craig Street (today St. Antoine) all the way down to the St. Lawrence River.
As the years passed, Dalhousie Station settled into relative obscurity, although it was still used as late as the Second World War when soldiers were often sent down east to Halifax for eventual deployment to Europe.
Today’s reconfigured Dalhousie Square, like the old one, stands between Berri and St. Hubert Streets, immediately south of Notre Dame.
During a recent walk through the revitalized neighbourhood, I was struck by a number of features. Firstly, Dalhousie Station has been thoroughly refurbished to its, albeit brief, glory days. Today, it is home to the Eloize Circus, a leader in contemporary circus arts since its establishment in 1993. There are two entrances: one from the Notre Dame Street viaduct and the other from Berri Street below.
To the south of the now dazzling edifice can be found a series of imitation train tracks put in place as a tribute to the historic vocation of the old site. Here, if you wander east through the rest of the newly arranged and attractive square, one can see under the Notre Dame Street flyover one of the only surviving portions of the aged, massive Montreal fortifications, most of which was demolished in the early nineteenth century. For the longest time, it was used as a support for the old Notre Dame overpass.
Further east can be seen the vast modern urban expansion known as the Faubourg Quebec, and, of course, in the distance, the imposing Jacques Cartier Bridge.
While there, do check out Jocelyne Alloucherie’s sculpture ‘Porte de jour’ and, despite its name, if possible, visit at night when the whole award – winning site becomes almost magical.
(above, Dalhousie Square on October 7, 2004, just after its restoration)