The trials and tribulations of an old port

Before its current vocation—a unique recreation destination stretching more than two kilometres in length and visited each year by millions of people in search of fun leisure activities—the Old Port had a far more traditional mission.

Already in 1642, the Amerindians used this spot to beach their canoes, which were laden with furs, and meet the “white man,” their client. This is where the country’s first commercial activity took place.

Later, in the 1830s, the first docks were built (1,000 metres of docks), needed due to the arrival of steamships.

This seaway was treacherous for ocean-going vessels because of the high tides (up to six metres), strong currents and, especially, many shoals, and so in the mid-1800s, dredging work to increase the depth of the navigation channel between Quebec City and Montreal began. The exercise would be repeated 10 times over the next 140 years, and the channel deepened from 4.2 metres in 1851 to 11.3 metres in 1999.

In spite of this, the river between Quebec City and Montreal remains one of the most dangerous waterways in the world. The master of any commercial ship measuring 100 feet in length or more must cede the command of the vessel to a licensed pilot, appointed by the Canadian government.

This practice isn’t new. During the time of New France, a law already required a specially trained pilot to helm any vessel navigating these troubled waters. Today, between the municipality of Les Escoumins and Montreal, the ship will change pilot three times!

Other problems that plague the old port include warm spells, thaws, ice jams—up to 15 metres high—and floods, the worst of which occurred in 1889 and was described in the April 19 edition of the newspaper La Patrie in this way:

“The water flooded over the six-foot-high protection walls and in some areas, such as Pointe-Saint-Charles, reached levels of ten feet high.”

Sections of Saint-Jacques, Craig, Notre-Dame, Sanguinet and Saint-Paul streets, and even Square Victoria, were flooded. The daily went on: “…the entire main floor of the Bonsecours Market completely disappeared under water.”

But with economic activity in full swing, bolstered by the railway that now ran right up to the docks thus transforming the port of Montreal into a transportation hub for goods and especially grain, these events were soon forgotten. This led to a series of new developments: a seawall, four major berths, one of which, the Victoria, later became the Clock Tower Pier, and grain elevators, including the famous Silo No. 5, in 1903.

In 1960, the port faced another challenge when transoceanic vessels abandoned the port of Montreal. To ensure its survival, it turned to container handling, becoming, in 1968, the first container terminal in Canada.

But ultimately, the port couldn’t weather the storm. Eight years later, the site was closed, and all activities were moved to the eastern part of the city.

Cast adrift from its mission, the port entered into a deep coma.