The St Pierre River

by Sally Cole

Montreal owes its location to the St Pierre River.  The history of the city and the river are deeply intertwined.

When Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1611, the river teemed with fish.  Game birds nested along its shores.  Strawberries, fruit trees and nuts thrived.  The rich river habitat had, for millennia, offered indigenous peoples a healthy diet and food security as they hunted, fished, gardened and traveled along the river.

The river provided access to, and shelter from, the mighty St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers.  The original inhabitants had cleared more than 60 acres of land by the St Pierre River where they were growing corn, beans and squash when Champlain chose these cleared meadows, now the site of Place Royale.

The meadows proved fertile for European farmers and settlement grew. The site was to prosper as a hub in the North American fur trade and as a port for lumber export to Europe.

In the 19th century, the St Pierre River offered waterpower for mills and tanneries, propelling Montreal’s industrial development and the city’s emergence as a major commercial and finance centre. Serving as the city’s first sewers, the river also gave itself to assist in managing public health and sanitation as population density and industry increased.

Geography

The St Pierre River is one of more than 30 rivers and streams that once traversed the Island of Montreal. It traveled from its source on Mount Royal via several tributaries to Cote St Luc, Ville St Pierre, St Henri and Verdun to Pointe à Callière in Old Montreal and Angrignon Park in Lasalle.

It flowed over the Notre Dame de Grace (now St. Jacques) Escarpment, draining the higher ground and widening into a lake below that was once called Lac St Pierre, and later called Otter Lake, now the site of the Turcot highway expansion project.

Early Changes to the River’s pathways

As settlement grew north and west along the river’s banks, the waters of Otter Lake were gradually drained and diverted to supply mills downstream and to build canals to bypass the Lachine rapids.

The first brick sewer, the William Collector, was built at the mouth of the river in 1832-38.  An engineering feat in its day, it can be visited today at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum located on the site. Throughout the 19th century, the industrializing city straightened, dredged and diverted the St Pierre River as it built the city waterworks, supplied steam engines to drive industry, and integrated the river into an urban sewer system. By the mid 19th century, when the first railway yards were built, Otter Lake was a marsh (that later swallowed two locomotives).

By the early 20th century, more than one third of the river had disappeared into sewers.  In the 1930s the city built two giant concrete conduits in the St Pierre River to collect Westmount waste and carry it away through Cote St Luc and Verdun for eventual treatment in the east end.

In the 1950s, sewer construction for new housing in the suburb of Cote St Luc covered open sections of the Little St Pierre tributary and the Cote St Luc plaza was built on a wetland of the original St Pierre river drainage. In fact, Andrew Emond, a Canadian photographer, has explored and documented the evolution of the underground system of the river in a fascinating series of photos, maps and commentary. (See http://undermontreal.com/riviere-st-pierre-part-i-start-to-finish/ )

That even 200 metres of the Little St Pierre River survive today is only because this tributary of the St Pierre River was a key feature of the 57-hectare recreational park Canadian Pacific Railway created for its workers in 1917 which became the Meadowbrook golf course in 1949.

Fast track to the 21st century

In 2010, real estate developer Groupe Pacific (GP) submitted a proposal to the city of Montreal for “The Petite Rivière Project.”

Action #1 was to:  “Bring the distressed Petite Rivière stream back to life as a healthy, restored river.”  In its original proposal, the developer stated that GP itself would purify the river through a system of reed beds and shallow ponds (like Central Park the GP proposal boasts!) to manage rainwater and snowmelt and to bring back the biodiversity of the river’s habitat for amphibians, birds and small mammals.  The regenerated river and wetlands would become the centrepiece of a new park — “The Petite Rivière Park” –for the new residential community.

But today GP refers to the Little St Pierre River as a “smelly ditch” and has sued the City of Montreal, demanding that the “open sewer” be buried.  We are now a long way away from Groupe Pacific’s proposal to make the Little St Pierre River the centerpiece of its real estate development!

Importance of the River Today

Although only 200 metres of this historic river system survive, the St Pierre River continues to play a defining role in public debate about the future of Montreal and the kind of city we want to live in. Beyond its historic and cultural importance, the river is a site of past and potential biodiversity, a preserve of century-old trees and a sanctuary for migrating birds.

The St Pierre River drainage also has an important role to play in future rainfall, ice melt and flood control.  Climate change is increasing the number of extreme weather events like storms and floods. Wetlands and riverbanks are an economical, clean and natural means to help manage rainfall and flooding

Many of the world’s great cities including Seoul, Paris, New York, London and Toronto are working to bring back — they are “daylighting” — their original rivers, streams and wetlands. These cities recognize that it is crucial to use their underground rivers and wetlands to manage increasing drainage problems in the face of the rising frequency and scale of flood events.

They also know that clean streams, rivers and wetlands within their cities add measurable value to real estate and immeasurable aesthetic pleasure, educational opportunities and health and well-being to residents.

 

Pollution: Causes & Solution

The pollution today in the St Pierre River is a relic of Montreal sewage practices in the last century. The river is polluted because Cote St Luc and Montreal West have allowed crossed sewage and drainage pipes to mix household waste and storm water. 

The solution in 2018 is to correct the problem: to separate this sewage and storm drainage system in order to CLEAN the St Pierre River — NOT to bury the river and pave over it as a 19th century city would have done.

Let’s Clean and “Daylight” the St. Pierre River

Let’s Keep the Brook in MeadowBROOK!

Links

The film Lost Rivers by Montreal director Caroline Bacle explores the phenomenon of daylighting: http://undermontreal.com/lost-rivers-documentary

Gazette journalist Marion Scott also covered the River extensively in 2009 https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/from-the-archives-our-islands-lost-rivers

See also “At the mouth of Riviere St. Pierre during the early stages of Montreal in1700” and “Approximate path of river, circa 1800” in http://undermontreal.com/riviere-st-pierre-part-i-start-to-finish/

 

 

 

 

 

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