While working my book, Montreal 1909, and my Edwardian research in general, I happened upon this fascinating article about an individual who left Montreal in 1853 and returned only 50 years later – in 1903. These were his impressions. There is a photo on page 11 in that same edition of The Montreal Star of the man in question. There was even a follow-up Letter to the Editor in The Star a few days later which commented upon the article found here below:
(Extracted from The Montreal Star, August 22, 1903)
‘TIS FIFTY YEARS SINCE
Story of What Montreal Looked like Half a Century Ago
“Thinging (sic) it over in my mind all the time, the pictures of Montreal as it used to be were as distinct as they were sixty years ago, but since coming back and seeing all the changes the old pictures have been obliterated completely and the old scenes wiped out.”
This from a former Montrealer, Mr. William H. Delisle, of Chicago, who has returned for a visit to Montreal, after an absence of fifty years.
To talk to Mr. Delisle, a strong, active man of seventy-seven, a gentleman of the old school, with pleasant manners, and a vast fund of interesting information about old times and old places, is to be transported back sixty years ago, to the days when some of the present leading streets were orchards and fields, when there were no steamships, no trains, and most of the people in the city knew each other. Since then the changes have been marvellous, and appear strikingly so to a man who has been away from the city for half a century.
Mr. Delisle, who, with his wife, is visiting his daughter, Mrs. Miller, 34 Shuter street, has never lost touch with Canadian affairs, and is proud of the growth of the young country, in whose future he has great faith.
Since he left here fifty years ago Mr. Delisle has lived in many cities and for years under an alien flag, but his memories of Montreal are affectionate and vivid. Leaving Montreal, he went to Toronto, thence to Brantford, where he passed six years, and was closely identified with the life of the city; thence to Bay City, Mich., and since then has lived in Detroit, Indianapolis, Terre Haute, where he owned a mine, and Chicago, where he has spent some years.
CAME OUT IN 1839
“I was a young lad when I came out here in 1839,” said Mr. Delisle, in telling the Star the experience of those years. “I was with Mr. Arthur, who was in the dry goods business. My family knew some of his connections in Edinburgh and, like all lads, I wanted to travel, so I was glad of the chance to see the world. Montreal was very unlike what it is at present. We were on Place d’Armes then, and I remember that the towers were standing. The bells were in them, and they used to make a great noise, being low down. The only big building now standing, which was there within my recollection, is the Bank of Montreal, and that is a familiar landmark. As a lad I used to be sent on messages to The Cross. Do you know where that was? Well, it was down by Hochelaga, and was a well-known locality. I have a dim recollection that there was really a cross standing there, but of that I am not sure. There must have been at one time to give the place a name. Residential Montreal was in the lower part of the city. What is now the business part was then a good residential neighbourhood, and there were fine houses in what are now pretty bad localities. On the other hand, Sherbrooke street was chiefly orchards and fields, and well in the open country.
“At one time I was with the Mussen firm – I see, by the way, that the house is being altered – and another old firm was that of Laurie, but most of these people are unknown here now, though in some cases I have heard since I came of their sons and grand-sons. My old friend, Mr. Kinloch, is still living here, and we have enjoyed many a good chat since I came back. We both knew everything about everyone in the town, in those days, and we have had much amusement talking over our old experiences.
“The other day I reminded him of a well-known character called ‘Three-Fingered Jack,’ who was a famous dun. If any one wanted money collected, they might rely upon this man being able to do it for them, and his methods were not always pleasant. He would go up to a man talking to a lady, and remark: ‘Those are fine clothes you are wearing while you talk to a lady, but does she know that they are not paid for?’ There was one occasion when he did a very smart trick. A firm here wanted to collect a bad debt of one hundred dollars, and told him he could have half if he collected it. Seeing him some time afterwards, the man who had made the arrangement with him, asked ‘What have you done about collecting that $100?’
‘Oh, I have collected my half,’ said Jack quietly.
“We had to rely on caleches in those days, if we wanted to go any distance. They were queer old traps, which stood in the Place d’Armes. As soon as a man went near them the drivers rushed to him, and began to bargain. There was no fixed tariff, but all tried to make all they could.
“When a bargain was being made to go to such a place, the driver always asked:
“A man who wanted a caleche and was bothered with the bargaining, said in reply to the question: ‘Where to?’
‘And back?’ at once asked the quick witted driver.”
TRAVELLED IN STAGES
“As far as transportation was concerned we were very badly off. People travelled in stages. From Quebec to Niagara the journey was made in a stage and took a long time. The first railway in Canada was between Montreal and Lachine, and the tickets were large round bits of copper. The country people supposed that these pieces of copper were part of their change, and used to stoutly refuse to give them up when the collector came around.
“Copper coin was very common. At one time, when I was in business here I remember we had as much as two hundred dollars in copper coin, which we did up in packets of twenty-five cents each, and piled in rows and rows on shelves. A curious thing that we used in this way to collect the copper coin of all countries and of all periods. We have had as many as a couple of hundred different varieties of coin at one time in the place. Merchants issued their own coins or ‘tokens’ but it was easy to know to whom each belonged.
“The sailing vessels which came out from the Old Country were very slow. Once when I was on my way out with the new spring goods for the dry goods trade, we got into ice fields, and were eleven weeks on our journey. The sad part was that the ladies said that we might as well have gone to the bottom of the ocean, for the new spring goods did not arrive until the middle of June.
ALLAN LINE DESIGNED
“Bryce Allan, the brother of the late Sir Hugh Allan was the captain of the vessel, ‘The Albion,’ and the Allans then made up their minds to establish a line of steamships and no longer be dependent upon the wind. No one seeing the magnificent harbour, and the great number of steamships, who remembered it in the old days, can fail to be struck with the wonderful changes made in the half century.
“What changes, too, there are in the streets and buildings. Long ago Dr. Black kept a school on Beaver Hall Hill, where afterwards stood Zion Church, which was connected with the famous Gavazzi riots. Mr. John Greenshields, whose descendants live here, married a daughter of the old doctor. Victoria Square, as it is called now, was then Haymarket Square. That whole locality has changed.
“When I was married in 1850 it was the residence of the late Mr. John Lovell, the well known printer, who then lived on Tecumseh Terrace, which was a fine locality, somewhere near Craig street. My wife was a Miss Evans, a niece of Mr. Lovell’s, and we were married by Rev. Dr. McGill. It was a Christmas Eve, and there was a terrible snowstorm raging. We went to our little cottage, on what is now City Councillors street, but which was then in the country, and could hardly get to the house, as it was snowed up.”
REBELLION LOSSES BILL
One of the more interesting of Mr. Delisle’s stories of Old Montreal, was in connection with the famous trouble over the Rebellion Losses Bill, in 1849, when Lord Elgin was pelted with rotten eggs, as he drove from signing the bill at the House of Parliament.
“There was tremendous excitement in the town,” said Mr. Delisle. “It was known that the bill was to be signed, and a great crowd assembled on the Champs de Mars. There were speeches, of an excited nature, but the speaker I remember best was Mr. Perry. After he had spoken and called upon all the sympathizers to follow him, we rushed to the Parliament Buildings and well do I remember seeing the carriage with Lord Elgin, and the sides streaming with rotten eggs which the angry crowd threw there.
“I was here at the time of the ship fever, and through two sieges of cholera; also through two fires. The fires in those days were attended by volunteers, for there was no organized fire-brigade. We went to the nearest well, and passed the buckets by rope from hand to hand.”
Mr. Delisle is a public-spirited man, and has always taken a keen interest in the affairs of the place in which he happened to be living. He was during his residence in Brantford president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer of no less than thirteen societies, including the St. Andrew’s Society, of which he was also president in Bay City, Michigan. While in Brantford he was asked to run for member, but declined. In politics Mr. Delisle is Liberal. He has had among his many experiences newspaper work, and for a long time contributed regularly to an American newspaper.
Mr. Delisle’s belief in the future of Canada is unbounded. He feels that railways are the making of the country, and that the opening of the vast new districts will mean within a very short time a tremendous increase in the population of the country and its prosperity.
Below, Montreal circa. 1853, as depicted from St. Helen’s Island