Published in the Montreal Gazette on November 16, 2013
Sammy Forcillo’s desire to widen Cabot Square before leaving municipal politics later this year is a noble wish and to be highly commended (“Forcillo hopes to leave green legacy on his way out of politics,” Gazette, September 9, 2013, A-2). Any scheme designed to give the city centre more, much needed green space and less motorized traffic is a good plan – in my eyes at least.
I remember Cabot Square from my early childhood when my parents would bring my sister and me ‘uptown’ by public transportation from our modest working-class flat in Verdun. Climbing hard along Atwater Avenue, the Montreal Transportation Commission vehicle would end its run at Cabot Square. From there, we would take the eastbound Number 15 streetcar to the various department stores that ran the length of St. Catherine Street.
When the tramways were pulled from Montreal streets and replaced with busses, a modern terminus was opened on September 2, 1956 to accommodate the new means of transportation. It was styled the “Atwater Terminus”, and it fully encircled Cabot Square.
(Below, two images of the Atwater Terminus in 1964)
Known until 1957 as Western Square when it surely knew better days, Cabot Square has nevertheless been witness to many historical events, most of them related to its proximity to the Montreal Forum directly across St. Catherine Street from the inner-city park. Perhaps the most important of these was the Maurice Richard Riot of March 17, 1955.
On that occasion, thousands of disgruntled Habs’ supporters poured into the street and square after tear gas was thrown onto the Forum ice to protest the suspension for the rest of the NHL season of hockey hero ‘Rocket’ Richard. The now angry throng gathered in Cabot Square and proceeded from there along St. Catherine Street fighting and looting along the way. Despite a valiant effort on their part, the forces of law and order could do little to stop the wanton hooliganism.
(Below, in 1960, the first Montreal Forum that I remember. To the right, Cabot Square)
Of course, other events also spilled over into the celebrated square as, for instance, the near hysteria created by the visit of the Beatles to the Forum on September 8, 1964. The hot – blooded atmosphere was only aggravated by threats by Quebec separatists directed against the ‘Fab Four’ if they went ahead with their two shows. The performances took place anyway, the only menace ultimately being that posed by hordes of teenage girls determined to get closer to their music idols.
Western Square was created by the municipal administration in 1870. Its parameters were four streets: Atwater to the west, Clossé to the east, St. Catherine to the north, and Quiblier Street (today, Tupper) to the south. It initially served the recreational needs of not just Montreal but other towns as well, such as St. Henri and Ste. Cunégonde (today, Little Burgundy), both of which were later annexed to the larger city. The square was, at the time (and still is today), one of the few green spaces to be found in what was then the west end of Montreal.
(Below, Cabot Square seen in the distance from this 1920 St. Catherine Street photo)
What Mr. Forcillo, and other Montrealers, may not know is that there has already been in city history an attempt to enlarge the square. In fact, a little over a century ago, as the land opposite was not built upon, there was a serious endeavour at extending Western Square all the way northward to Sherbrooke Street!
The idea first popped up in the Edwardian Period when the Montreal Star supported the proposal in a July 1905 editorial. A week later, a letter writer suggested that Montreal was significantly behind other municipalities when it came to established green spaces. “It may be that our City Fathers have not gone abroad and used their eyes, else there would be greater zeal exercised in furthering a good cause, and add to their reputation for what contributes to the benefit of the city,” wrote ‘an interested resident’ in the July 22, 1905 edition.
Perhaps not surprising, knowing our city, the issue was still on the table four years later when another letter writer, in the May 5, 1909 copy of that same newspaper, lambasted the administration for its sluggishness on the file. “It would be a lasting disgrace should the present opportunity be neglected to secure this property by the city for a public square. Can anyone imagine a better location for a promenade and grand square, encircled by a fine drive way, which could be improved at small expense and would be something for the citizens to be proud of for all time?”
Despite the furor, nothing further was heard about the matter.
“Good Luck,” Mr. Forcillo.
(Below, two post card images from Edwardian times of Cabot Square, then known as Western Square)