Abridged version appeared in the Montreal Gazette on March 15, 2014

While walking recently in the neighbourhood of the Lucien L’Allier Metro Station, I noticed that the interior of an old, derelict building was quite open to public view. It would seem that someone removed one of the sheets of plywood used to board up the decaying structure and never put it back. I could not resist taking a peek. The inside was indeed quite a mess.

Below, the building as it appeared recently

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The Bell Telephone Company of Canada constructed the edifice in question on Aqueduct Street (today, Lucien L’Allier) in 1891-92. In the early twentieth century, it was occupied by the Northern Electric Company, which had become the manufacturing arm of the telephone concern. In 1906, the ‘Northern’ (as the firm was affectionately known by its employees) moved its operations to Guy and Notre Dame Streets, leaving the previous structure on Aqueduct Street essentially deserted. Throughout most of the rest of the twentieth century the building was used on and off by various manufacturing enterprises for their own purposes.

What most Montrealers do not realize, however, is what the edifice was used for in the first three months of the year 1910. The answer to that is really quite interesting. In point of fact, the old Northern Electric plant on Aqueduct Street served during that 90-day period as a provisional crisis facility for those unfortunate citizens suffering from typhoid fever.

Styled the Montreal Typhoid Emergency Hospital, the then abandoned building was donated by Northern Electric, rent – free for a three month period, to help deal with the explosion of typhoid cases in the city in late 1909, early 1910.

While periodic outbreaks of typhoid were nothing new to Montreal, the severity of the situation at the end of 1909 was. Conservative estimates placed the number of instances in December of that year at 3000.

At the beginning of that same month, it was reported that the five public hospitals (Royal Victoria, Montreal General, Western, Hotel Dieu and Notre Dame) were by then no longer in a position to accept anymore typhoid fever patients, their wards being already full with nearly 200 cases in all. That simple fact left hundreds of other people at home with the disease being treated by their family doctor (if they could afford one), or wandering the streets, all the while carriers of the Salmonella bacterium. To illustrate how serious the situation was, that same first week of early December, one tabloid reported that some eight people died of the malady in the Town of Westmount alone.

By late December, the typhoid epidemic was spreading into the northern suburbs of the city as well. At the same time, the upsurge in the number of cases became the talk in all of Montreal’s newspapers.        

For instance, an editorial that appeared on December 27, 1909, in the now defunct Montreal Star, declared unequivocally “typhoid is epidemic in many well defined areas of the city and its cause is obvious – a polluted water supply.” In consequence, the broadsheet constantly encouraged residents and schools to “boil the water.” The following day, the same journal, in yet another scathing editorial, accused the town’s aldermen of deliberately neglecting to give inhabitants pure water. “It is simple truth to say that aldermanic stupidity and graft are responsible for what we are suffering to-day,” bellowed the newspaper.

In point of fact, it was a commonly held belief at the time that Montreal’s recurring struggle with typhoid was due to the poor quality of the water source. Almost reluctantly, the city’s Health Department acquiesced and agreed to allow the water to be tested at a local laboratory for the presence of typhoid. Throughout 1909, pressure was increasingly exerted on the municipal authorities to test systematically the water, and not just once or twice a year.

Below, bottled water advert from Montreal Star during the crisis

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Montreal Water and Power Company, a private concern created in 1891, supplied the municipality’s drinking water. That precious liquid was drawn directly from the St. Lawrence River (the same body of water into which city sewage was disposed of, and not that far away from the intake source) and pumped up to the McTavish Reservoir where it was conserved for eventual distribution to the residences and businesses of the town. It was totally unfiltered and untreated in any fashion; nevertheless, Montreal Water always denied responsibility for the epidemic and repeatedly claimed that the water was, in fact, pure.

It should be noted that because of its uncovered nature, the McTavish Reservoir became home to much aquatic life, particularly fish. It was not uncommon for tiny, and not so tiny, fish to come through the pipes and into one’s home during the Edwardian Era. Indeed, in early 1910, in the midst of the perhaps worst typhoid epidemic the town had ever seen, a local newspaper reported the odd story of how a family living on Bleury Street hired a plumber to determine why the water pressure in their house was so poor. To the amazement of all, the work revealed the decaying corpse of a lamprey within a pipe as the source of the problem. The gruesome discovery also accounted for the recent ill health of various members of the family of one Mr. F. F. Meagher.

It was in very late December that the question of an emergency facility to handle the overflow from the established hospitals first came up. A nearly unanimous demand for one originated from those closest to the problem – the physicians of Montreal.

The city’s Medical Health Officer, Dr. Louis Laberge, stated that while the municipal administration would like to have created such a resource, he did not believe that the necessary funds could be found, and this despite the fact that local hospitals could handle, at best, a small fraction of all the town’s typhoid patients. One rather influential alderman, Dr. E. G. Dagenais (Chairman of the Health Committee, no less), went one step further when he proffered that “not a cent was available” from the city to help cope with the typhoid question. After further stonewalling on the part of local authorities, private citizens came together on the last day of the year and took the deadly matter, as it were, into their own hands.

Accordingly, on New Years’ Eve 1909, fifteen individuals met at the Mansfield Street home of Dr. Thomas A. Starkey to discuss the setting up of just such an emergency typhoid fever infirmary. Despite Mayor Louis Payette’s last minute claim that he would act on the contentious question if City Council didn’t, Starkey and his group decided that, in this matter, it would be better not to count on anything coming from Montreal’s City Hall. Dr. Starkey was a well-known critic of the municipality’s water supply having spoken on the subject frequently, most notably on February 1, 1909, in a lecture at McGill’s Royal Victoria College.

Working closely with Lady Julia Drummond (one of the founders of the Montreal chapter of the Victorian Order of Nurses), Dr. Starkey was approached by Northern Electric about its empty building on Aqueduct Street. Following this contact, Starkey, a Professor of Hygiene at McGill University, was offered the edifice rent-free for three months. The good doctor accepted and work rapidly began on making the structure suitable for a desperately–needed health facility.

Volunteers, both men and women, generously came forward and furnished the necessary labour in order to prepare the building for its first patients. Men from both the Prince of Wales Fusiliers and the Victoria Rifles cleaned, renovated, sprayed, and whitewashed the interior walls and ceilings. Sinks and faucets were installed; partitions raised.

Meanwhile, donations came forth from various members of the city’s business community. Some offered money while others put forward badly needed supplies: beds, mattresses, pillows, towels, ice bags, hot water bottles, bottled water, etc. The Northern Electric also provided the edifice with 150 lamps and wired the structure accordingly before handing it over to the officers of the temporary hospital.

On Tuesday, January 4, 1910, the Montreal Emergency Typhoid Hospital opened its doors and received its first patient. Mrs. Alice Sole, 25, living at 1400a Des Erables Street was brought to the facility, accompanied by her husband. Practically delirious from the dreaded disease, she was unable to speak. Mr. Sole immediately issued a written statement thanking the temporary infirmary for taking in his suffering wife. Other patients, equally ill and equally poor, quickly followed, such that by noon the next day there were 16 admissions while at the same time another 30 were waiting for ambulances to transport them to the Aqueduct Street service. Within a week, there were over 100 typhoid patients being treated.

Unlike many of Montreal’s institutions during the Edwardian Period, the Emergency Hospital was entirely non – denominational, open to “all creeds and nationalities”. On its very first day of operation, Montreal’s Archbishop Bruchesi dropped by to express his full support. The following day, Governor General Grey and Lady Grey paid a visit, and the day after that, the Anglican Bishop of Montreal, John C. Farthing, was given a tour of each ward of the crisis facility. It seemed that everyone wanted to lend their support to the noble effort undertaken by private citizens of Montreal.

Initially, the Emergency Hospital occupied the first two storeys of the Northern Electric Building. The men’s ward was on the first floor while the women’s was on the second. Within days of its opening, however, it became necessary to prepare the third floor as a second location within the building to accommodate men stricken with the ailment. For some unknown reason, in this particular manifestation of typhoid fever in Montreal, twice as many men were being affected than women. Finally, with the completion of this additional work, the health centre could provide for the medical needs of approximately 300 patients.

Nevertheless, by the middle of January 1910, the epidemic was already beginning to show signs of abatement, despite the fact that there had been 20 deaths attributed to the malady in the second week of that same month. What had become a regular autumnal visitor to Montreal, the creation of the ‘Citizen’s Hospital’ (as the Aqueduct Street facility was sometimes called) seemed to be chasing away the typhoid epidemic.

After denying the severity of the crisis throughout the entire year of 1909, the guilt-ridden municipal administration shrewdly offered a grant of $15,000 to the emergency hospital within a few days of its opening. Annoyed with the intractability of the city throughout the affair, the Citizens’ Committee (the administrators of the temporary infirmary) prudently refused to accept the eleventh-hour money. Needless to say, relations between the two bodies were very poor.

Near the end of January, and just two weeks before a critical municipal election, the city administration was pleading with the press and others not to belittle Montreal with regard to the typhoid situation, lest one bring harm to the “the city’s good name”. Indeed, Montreal’s annual winter carnival was scheduled to open on January 27, in the midst of the typhoid outbreak, and the municipal authorities were already concerned for its success.

By the time the lease for the Montreal Typhoid Emergency Hospital was to expire on April 1, the worst phases of the epidemic were over, and the crisis facility was vacated on that date, its last patient being discharged on March 26. Only a few days earlier, the one and only birth took place in the building when infant Antonea Van Minden came into this world, delivered of a mother stricken with typhoid. Happily, both survived.

There were other bouts of typhoid fever within the city in the years that followed. In fact, smallpox, diphtheria, and scarlet fever were also frequent visitors, but never anything as serious as the winter of 1909-1910. Regular manifestations of typhoid in the city dwindled when Montreal finally established its water filtration plant around the time of the end of the First World War. However, there was one other major outbreak of the disease in 1927, although this time it was due to the milk supply furnished by one particular dairy company.

A few days ago, the battered building that at one time served as the Montreal Typhoid Emergency Hospital was again boarded up. It’s a credit to those devoted, hard working angels of mercy, most of whom were volunteers, who toiled there now well over a century ago that only six individuals actually died within its walls from the awful affliction.

Below, the building exterior as it appeared in the autumn of 2013Image

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