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Montreal occupies a unique geographic position in North America: it was founded at the exact spot where the St. Lawrence River becomes impassable for ships sailing upstream from the Atlantic. The swirling Lachine Rapids, southwest of the Island, make it impossible to continue inland. Nor can traffic pass to the north of the Island, for the des Prairies and Mille-Îles rivers there are also blocked by rapids.

All this made Montreal a gateway to the continent, obliging Natives and early European settlers to make several portages to reach the regions upstream, via the Outaouais (Ottawa) River and the Great Lakes, and from there the Mississippi and the Prairie river systems, as they made their way to the Pacific.


In 1642, the French who had come to found Montreal settled on the very spot where river traffic was halted, on a point of land at the mouth of a little river, the last natural harbour before the rapids. As archaeological artifacts show, this site had been known to Natives for millennia. Today Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, stands on the birthplace of Montreal and houses in situ archaeological and architectural remains, making them accessible to the public.



Plan de la ville de Montréal,


Montreal was no sooner founded than it began building an economy based on the fur trade with Natives from the "Upcountry." The town was fortified in the early 18th century, making it also a military bridgehead for the French empire in North America and a valuable trading centre for the fertile agricultural lands around it.

After it was conquered in 1760 by the British, Montreal retained its role as a fur-trading centre, but also struck out in new directions. As had been the case under the French Régime, everything traded to the north of the English colonies (later the United States), between the interior of the continent and Europe, had to pass through Montreal.


The fortifications were torn down in the early 19th century and, since British imports had to pass through Montreal, the city became the main regional trading centre between Lower Canada (now Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario). Its role as a hub was confirmed once again with the opening of the Lachine Canal in 1825 (bypassing the rapids of the same name) and, not long afterward, with the building of harbour facilities. The growing number of commercial buildings was a clear sign of its important role.


Starting in 1850, Montreal became industrialized, and rapidly grew into Canada's first industrial city. From the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, it also served as a distribution centre for all of the newly confederated Canada in 1867.

Around the same time, a canal was dredged in the St. Lawrence, so that bigger and bigger trans-Atlantic vessels could sail all the way up to the harbour. These were real boom times. The Lachine Canal was widened to handle the expanding inland shipping traffic, and the hydraulic energy it provided attracted all kinds of factories, which set up along its banks.

Ocean-going ships and inland transportation also came together on the steel rails converging on Montreal. The very first train bridge ever across the St. Lawrence was erected at Montreal. The Victoria Bridge created a direct link with the United States and with the Atlantic in winter (when the St. Lawrence was frozen), for freight and passengers. The city became Canada's main railway centre. Even the old city centre, itself a transit and administrative centre for both goods and passengers, underwent a radical transformation.


During the 1880s, the Prairies, and later the West coast of Canada, were connected by rail with Montreal, which now openly billed itself as Canada's metropolis. Two Montreal companies eventually managed to create uninterrupted routes all the way to the Pacific coast, accomplishing this feat ahead of all other North American railways systems of the time (in the United States, transfers were still needed to get goods and passengers across the continent). Huge continental railway stations were built in Montreal to serve the new Canadian rail systems.

At the turn of the 20th century, the port once again saw new development, as gigantic facilities were built to handle Western grain shipments.

Very close by, in the old city centre, Canada's Wall Street had gradually taken shape in the 19th century, and now St. James Street (also known as Saint-Jacques) took on considerable importance at the dawning of the 20th century. Meanwhile, a new downtown was springing up where the train tracks had been extended to the more affluent part of the upper town, near Mount Royal.

Canadian Pacific, owner of the first true North American transcontinental railway, established its head office there. By 1903, the company had a fleet of transatlantic ships and another fleet in the Pacific, making it the only railway company in North America with a transcontinental system. Europe, North and South America and Asia were now linked through Montreal.










In Montreal as elsewhere, the post-war period brought an unprecedented development boom—indeed, it could be seen from the late 1930s on, in the new downtown, with the construction of a modern railway station. Once again, the railways had proved a valuable motor of development and innovation. In 1967, the city also proudly showed its modern face to the world, with Expo 67, the universal exposition, set on and in the St. Lawrence.

This spectacular concentration of urban heritage properties, an eloquent illustration of Montreal's role as a continental hub, is unique in its compact nature, more so than in any other North American metropolis. This is for two reasons. First of all, the city is located precisely at the breakpoint for shipping traffic, unlike New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore. In addition, Montreal never became a megalopolis like New York, so its major facilities were confined to a relatively small area.

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March 2003