Just as today, Montreal summers often appeared fleeting during the Edwardian Period. City residents, long tired of seemingly never-ending, unkind winters, were anxious to take advantage of the milder weather, and the freedom that that warmth so frequently presented.
By and large, those who resided within the fabled Golden Square Mile profited the most from what was referred to at the time as “the heated term.” Large residences, in and around Sherbrooke Street, on grand, tree-shaded estates were recurrently the location of opulent and lively Edwardian garden parties. Moreover, many of these wealthy and influential citizens also owned property in the Laurentians or Eastern Townships, or otherwise in nearby country villages such as St. Lambert, Dorval and Pointe Claire, to which they could escape during acutely harsh July and August days. In these bucolic aestival settings, colourful regattas were often held to mark the blissful time of year. However, a little over a century ago, summer, as winter, could pose its own distinct hardships for those who were not so well off. Unlike today, periods of extreme heat couldn’t be truly alleviated in any significant way. Air conditioning did not exist, and personal swimming pools were unheard of as well. Even the simple electric fan was just beginning to make an appearance, more often than not in many of Montreal’s stifling work venues.
Below, Montreal Star, August 25, 1909
The neighbourhoods nestled near, or along, the Lachine Canal were particularly vulnerable to the oppressive weather conditions. Griffintown, Pointe St. Charles, and St. Henri were customarily neglected, if not totally ignored, by the cash-strapped municipality in so far as the regular watering of the dusty and dirty roads was concerned. Garbage, which was supposed to be removed twice a week, was left defiling the streets and lanes with its foul odour and ugly presence for weeks on end. The unrelenting summer sun only exasperated the problem, scorching everyone and everything found under its rays.
For the children of these disadvantaged districts, the sweltering circumstances occasioned them to look about for some form of momentary relief from summer’s intermittent cruelty. This pursuit often led them into danger.
At the time, very few children of the poor knew how to swim, but that did not inhibit many of them from venturing to the ragged shoreline of the St. Lawrence River or, worse still, to the edge of the Lachine Canal, where the water was murky and its depth quite difficult to assess. Needless to say, during the Edwardian Period, hundreds of children (mostly young boys) drowned in one of these two bodies of water.
On a lighter note – and perhaps of ironic interest to Montrealers today – on a rainy day in July of 1907, a three-year-old lad was actually found bathing, naked, in a particularly large Montreal pothole at the corner of Bleury and De la Gauchetière Street. The Montreal Star reported the revealing story, and included a small sketch of the tiny rascal in question.
Most city dwellers chose not to swim in potholes, however, but so sweltering the town’s tenements could prove to be that many individuals in the more impoverished districts elected to sleep on their verandas or rooftops at night. In fact, during an exceptionally severe heat wave in July of 1905, the same newspaper described how numerous people “in the poorer sections of the city have been sleeping on the pavements.”
In order to spare their little ones from the most difficult days of the summer months, numerous inner city residents sent their offspring to pass the period with family members in the countryside. If truth be told, my late aunt, who lived the first twenty years of her life in a cold-water flat near the now demolished Grand Trunk Railway Station on Windsor Street (today, Peel), was regularly dispatched from Montreal to spend the season with relatives in the Eastern Townships, near Sherbrooke. Fond memories, she so often said.
Yet another alternative open to heat-oppressed leaseholders of the city was a day trip to breezy St. Helen’s Island. Always a popular diversion, this pastoral setting provided visitors with a brief opportunity to recover from the frenetic pace of the muggy town. Bathing and picnicking were the principal activities of those who embarked on the somewhat intricate journey to the island.
In essence, as the first bridge link to the site came about just in 1930, this charming isle could only be accessed during the Edwardian Period by a somewhat unreliable ferry service. The cost each way was five cents ($1.10 in today’s currency), an amount sufficient enough to discourage many of those who lived in poverty from undertaking the outing.
In order to avoid any expense, numerous Montrealers chose instead to venture to verdant Mount Royal Park, and its adjacent Fletcher’s Field, to escape the town’s sporadic wretched sultriness. In this regard, in a July 1905 article, The Montreal Star referred to the mountain as a “life-saver” and “the Mecca of the great mass of city dwellers who cannot take advantage of the breezes of the country.”
Below, girls playing London Bridge in Fletcher’s Field, July 12, 1912
Their commentary went on to describe how on Fletcher’s Field “each evening baseball and cricket, and even lacrosse and football are played, despite the heat.” Indeed, if it were not for the gentle winds of Mount Royal, attested physicians at the time, the always-staggering child mortality rate for the city, would have been even higher.
As luck would have it, personal acts of kindness were not uncommon when the summer weather conditions were known to be intensely dispiriting for so many. For instance, in July of 1908, the Joseph household – at the time, one of the most influential Jewish families in the Province of Quebec – threw open the gates of its leafy estate on Dorchester Street to those underprivileged who were in search of a little reprieve from the sizzling sun. The Joseph’s charming residence, dating from 1859 and known as ‘Dorchester House,’ was situated where today is found the soon-to-be-refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
Below, Dorchester House in Edwardian times
As well, each Edwardian summer, The Montreal Star coordinated a self-styled ‘Fresh Air Fund’ to which dedicated readers were invited to contribute. The moneys raised were utilized to take selected, penniless women and their children to the country for a week or two of sojourning in a refreshing and healthy atmosphere.
Nevertheless, despite all the efforts made to circumvent the perils of extreme summer heat, many could not escape it. Its nefarious effects were often shocking. “Eighty of Montreal’s Children Succumb to Heat in One Week,” captioned The Star on July 6, 1908. The luckless toddlers in question were all under the age of five.
A year later, in August of 1909, the same newspaper recounted how during a particularly awful period of crushing heat some 125 children under the age of five perished due, in part, to the punishing weather.
Not all was doom and gloom in the early twentieth century, however. If Edwardians understood anything, they knew how to have a good time.
As such, many city businesses organized summer picnics for their hard-working employees. For instance, the Au Bon Marché store advertised in The Star in 1910 that their business (then located on St. Catherine Street East, near Amherst) would be closed on June 23 in order that their staff members participate in the annual summer gathering.
A popular destination for such events was often Dominion Park, Montreal’s ‘Coney Island’ as The Star referred to it in May of 1906. Officially opened in the spring of that same year, the amusement ground was located along the shore of the St. Lawrence River at Longue Pointe in the city’s East End. The embankment was skirted by a broad promenade from which there was a beautiful vista of the mountains on the South Shore. The locality covered 15 acres in all, and was the precursor to later recreational areas such as Belmont Park and La Ronde. Dominion Park was a favourite summer-time getaway of Montrealers at the beginning of the 1900’s.
Sohmer Park was also a fashionable spot in the city around that same time. These beautiful grounds were located at the foot of Panet Street, overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The park was officially opened on June 1, 1889, and was so successful that a pavilion was constructed in 1893 that could accommodate 7,000 people. It was in this spectator area that a much-appreciated tournament of boxing and wrestling was staged the evening of March 12, 1909.
With its beautiful panorama, however, Sohmer Park, was more often than not used as an almost magical, sheltered venue for diverse musical presentations and assorted summer tombolas to which Edwardian Montrealers were invariably attracted.
As the days and weeks passed, city dwellers soon found themselves biding their time as the season slowly came to an end. With the arrival of the Labour Day Weekend, many of the more affluent headed to the Brome Agricultural Fair in the Eastern Townships for one last summer outing. Others, who stayed in the town over that long weekend, began the countdown for the imminent arrival of autumn, and the return of their children to school.