Following the St. Pierre River of Yesteryear

What we have affectionately called the Vincent Eggen pool, the resurgence of an old marsh

As a part of the 2019 Jane’s Walks, Les Amis du Parc Meadowbrook and Revitalisation Saint-Pierre teamed up to offer two walks pertaining to the historic St. Pierre River.

Our guide, environmental historian Laetitia Deudon, is studying the river as part of her doctoral thesis at Université de Montréal/Université de Valenciennes and has done research in Montreal, Ottawa, New York and Aix-en-Provence in France to follow the evolution of the river over the centuries.

Environmental history looks at the relationships between society and its environment and how one influences the other. It works mostly with old maps, written archives, archeological data and place names (street names, notably) as well as morphogens, landscape elements that preserve the memory of age-old environments.

With respect to place names, we learned that “St. Pierre,” the name  given to the river, the lake and the old town, as well as a street, pays tribute to Baron Pierre Chevrier de Fancamp, a noble from Picardie, France. He was a founding member of the Société de Notre-Dame which financed the colonization of Montreal. Another interesting place name in Saint-Pierre is the rue du Moulin. Streets usually named as such often refer to a windmill but here, the mills were much further away, at the entrance of Lachine and the exit of lac Saint-Pierre. In this case, the street is named after a watermill that used to be in the area. We even saw a morphogen of the St. Pierre River by observing how St. Joseph Boulevard in Lachine forms an elbow shape as it would have followed the path of the old St. Pierre River.

The St. Pierre River does not easily reveal its secrets. Some maps contain errors, while others do not show the river at all but then it reappears in later maps in altogether different areas. The first maps and references date back to the middle of the 17th century. They speak of fertile prairies and abundant fish and game along its river banks. Some sections of the river would have been up to 10 or 12 feet wide and fed by rainwater, it snaked along flat areas. Man had the first impact on the river by clearing the land in the area. Then, agricultural use during the French seigniorial regime and hydraulic work accentuated the tendency of the river to jump its banks and flood the Coteau Saint-Pierre area in the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century.

As early as the end of the 17th century, colonial authorities tried to harness the river by straightening it to make it more navigable for transport of goods and also to feed the growing number of mills of the Sulpicians. The French tried to build a canal around 1680-1700 but found the Montreal bedrock a formidable barrier for builders used to the softer clays of Europe.

From then on, the history of the St. Pierre River is closely linked to that of the Lachine Canal. What used to be an asset became a nuisance in the 19th century with the frequent floods and the increasingly unhealthy aspects  of the river; domestic, farming and industrial waste all found their way into the river. In 1821, work on the Lachine Canal got underway in earnest. A first collector, the William collector, a section of which can be seen at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, was built in 1832. A feat of Victorian engineering, this masonry conduit encased the river below ground at its eastern end. More work followed in 1897, in 1914-1915 and in 1932 – with the building of the Great St. Pierre collector, this time a concrete work further burying the river – and later in the 1960s.

Economic development and the sanitation movement, which especially targeted stagnant waters and marshes as sources of epidemics, finally won the day and the river, like many others in Montreal,  all but disappeared from view. Today, only 200 meters of this once important river remains to be seen on Meadowbrook.

For more info on Montreal’s sewer system, please consult

You might also enjoy


Leave a Reply