Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 21, 2014
At one time, Montreal was awash with tiny, narrow streets dotting its colourful neighbourhoods. Some, like Eleanor Street in Griffintown and Theatre Lane near St. Urbain, were so limited that two horse-drawn waggons travelling in opposite directions could not descend the road at the same time. One carter would have to wait at the intersection for the other to pass. Most of these lane-like streets were residential in nature.
As the years passed, more and more of these side road oddities were abandoned by people looking for larger accommodation, perhaps even with a garage! The suburbs beckoned.
Nevertheless, many of these minute streets still exist, if in name only. Others, however, have been built over and have consequently disappeared entirely from the municipal map. Take St. David’s Lane as just one example.
St. David’s Lane (known until 1863 as St. Edward’s Lane) ran from Notre Dame north to St. Antoine. It was located just east of Inspector Street and provided very basic housing for the many men who worked at the nearby train stations. Slowly devoured by the march of time, the historic road was finally and totally obliterated with the construction of the Bonaventure Expressway in the middle of the 1960’s. No trace whatsoever of its previous existence remains.
Some others survive in name only. St. Felix Street, found immediately south of the Bell Centre, is today bounded on both sides by parking lots. Also originally proceeding from Notre Dame to St. Antoine, this diminutive lane was at one time home to fifty or so families all living their lives in an extremely intimate setting. Indeed, in March of 1910, the closeness went so far as to produce a love triangle tragedy that was, for the times, of epic proportions.
Just a little east of St. Felix is found another side road known as Ste. Cecile. It too ran north – south, from St. James Street to De La Gauchètiere. Before 1907, it was known as St. Margaret Street.
Like St. David and St. Felix, it was during the Edwardian Period unpaved, with one or two storey structures found on both sides of an extremely narrow roadway. Sidewalks consisted of wooden planks that were, after a torrential downpour, often found floating down the street. Otherwise, Ste. Cecile was icy in the winter, muddy in the spring, and dusty in the summer.
Below, Notman photo of St. Cecile Street (formerly St. Margaret Street), circa. 1900
The working-class flats were either clad in wood or in brick. They were exposed on two sides only and were, therefore, normally very dark. The street’s only redeeming feature was found by looking northward where an impressive view of the splendid cupola of St. James Cathedral (today, Mary Queen of the World) could be contemplated.
Today, the still constricted Ste. Cecile Street is situated simply between St. Antoine and St. James Streets, the part north of the former having been covered over a couple of decades ago by the 1000 De La Gauchètiere tower. The part that remains is enclosed by two relatively tall structures, one of which is the old Gazette Building on St. Antoine Street.
Finally, there is Charlotte Street (or lane, as it was often referred to) located just south of St. Catherine and moving two blocks from St. Dominique to Cadieux (today, De Bullion Street). It was perhaps the narrowest road in Montreal and certainly one of the most notorious located as it was in the very heart of the city’s Red Light District.
Charlotte Lane first appeared in street directories in 1858 with about 20 civic numbers, one of which was extremely infamous early in the twentieth century. At number 17, in December of 1909, several individuals, including owner Jenny Murray, were taken in by police for having been found as “inmates in a disorderly house”. Each was fined ten dollars, or a little over $200 in today’s money.
Charlotte Street, in 2014, is considerably wider and, like many parts of the city, is now quite gentrified with expensive apartments and condominiums located on both sides of the previously renowned road. Its new residents are probably totally unaware of the many human dramas that unfolded there years ago when ‘Charlotte Lane’ was little wider than six feet.
Below, Charlotte Street, photographed by me in January of 1975