From the archives: I remember Montreal
From time to time, we will visit the Wayback Machine to read stories from The Senior Times archives. This story by Joseph E. McDougall was published in November 1989.
I fell in love with Montreal on the evening of Jan. 14, 1924.
I stood in the doorway of Windsor Station looking out onto Osborne St., where a delicate mist of snow drifted across an uncertain street light before a church. To my right, the flakes, now filled with moonlight, blessed the outline of the cathedral dome.
To my right, a park was alive with crystals. Then, as if from nowhere, came the sound of sleigh bells followed by the sleigh. The driver, lost behind the turned-up collar of his coat, leaned forward toward his trotting horse. And, lost in buffalo robes, two lovers held each other close.
I needed no persuasion. This was my city.
My next visit wasn’t to take place until the following September. My impressions were quite different, though not less romantic. I had planned this visit well in advance: a weekend by myself to explore and hopefully to confirm my first impressions. And that’s what happened.
The weather was fine. The long arms of the trees along Sherbrooke St. could not hide the handsome rows of stone-front houses that stretched for endless blocks.
I used to imagine life in one or another of the many mansions that now make up the famous Square Mile of history.
It occurred to me that, surely, I was making my way along what must be one of the handsomest avenues of the world. I still believe I was right.
But even then, I sensed the presence of the threats of time. Here and there stores had opened, changing the fronts of the historic residences. Though harmonious enough, they still were insults to the dignity of the residences they occupied.
Years later, I hailed a taxi on Phillips Square. The driver looked far too ancient to be plying this young man’s trade.
“I suppose,” he said, “you’ve been driving quite a while.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “and a carriage with a fine team of horses before this. In those days, we drove sleighs in the wintertime. On New Year’s Eve, the parties went on in the great houses on Sherbrooke St., and the young lads and their young ladies dressed in party clothes came out of the grand houses with their drinks in their hands to cheer their favourite driver to the finish line at University. They put bets on us. We’d line up at Mountain St. and when the gun sounded, off we’d go.”
He paused and added, “Well, I always won.”
Indeed, I thought of Montreal as a winter city, especially in the first month of my living here, when the skiers trekked only to the mountaintop. When, on a Saturday afternoon, you took your best girl for a sleigh ride on the mountain, gathering all sorts of false information about the city from the bundled driver. And, at the end of the drive, you went down to the Little Blue Team Room, across from the Mount Royal Hotel, where the air was warm with English hospitality.
Later there was hospitality of another sort at the same address as it was radically transformed into the Samovar. There, amid an extravagance of Russian decor, the headwaiter Carl, who knew everyone by first name and managed to be everywhere at once, introduced the acts that were either genuinely Russian or Russian by intent. It was somewhat noisier than the Little Blue Team Room. I liked both in their time.
Or should have said “my time,” for to each of us who knew Montreal in those days, the pictures must be different. To me, the little streets that seemed to belong to a family — Mountain, Drummond, Bishop and Stanley stretching between Sherbrooke and Ste. Catherine — were actually homes.
It’s puzzling the way things change. Plays from New York and occasionally London no longer grace the boards of His Majesty’s Theatre and the Corona Barn where melodramas rocked the boards to the delight of the audience who dined at tables in the gravel courtyard.
Where are they now? Where is the Montreal that revelled in such rampant innocence?