The Tracks

By: Ashlie Bienvenu

Something that always struck me about the Point was the abundance of train tracks. As we stood in front of the library on our November 29th launch day, the constant, overpowering sound of trains could be heard. There were even episodes during the class presentation, before the audio walk, where the train was so loud it was nearly impossible to hear them speak. I remember thinking that it was ironic since the trains were such an integral part of the Point St. Charles community. Perhaps they were saluting us for our job well done, since they have become a kind of symbol of the Point.

The history of Point St. Charles is heavily intertwined in the railway. In fact, Sebastopol Street owes its very existence to the rail yards which run alongside it. It could even be argued that without the railway Point St. Charles, especially the southern part, would not have been the industrial sector it was and would not look the same today. In fact, “after 1856 the Grand Trunk fabricating and repair shops at Point St. Charles acted as a nucleus for the formation of an extensive set of industrial linkages and a large, working-class residential district in the Canal district.”1 Lewis also explains the social and ethnic effects this would have had on the Point, as well as the industrial aspects: “Around these industrial districts grew distinct ethnic neighborhoods. Griffintown was the Irish core of the city; Pointe-Saint-Charles was populated by British Protestants working at the GTR shops; Saint-Henri and Sainte-Cunegonde were French-Canadian suburbs. For the remaining years of the century this district, with its large, mechanized firms and numerous smaller firms, would remain the industrial heart of Montreal.”2

In many places living near train tracks has negative connotations. For example, there is a common saying that if someone is from a bad neighbourhood they are from the “wrong side of the tracks.” I even remember my father and uncles joking with their friend, who lived on Congregation her whole childhood. They would say she was not only from the wrong side of the tracks she was from every side of the tracks. However, many of our interviewees share a common link of having memories of the railway. In fact, some even mentioned the fact that the newer residents, or yuppies, who are regarded as complete outsiders looking to change the face of the existing community, resented the abundance of train tracks in Point St. Charles due to the noise they made. Some even mentioned that these new residents wanted to get rid of the tracks entirely and they were completely against the idea, since they considered the tracks to be an important symbol of the Point. Richard Stilwell, during his visit to our class, even mentioned that he used to walk along the tracks to his school. He also said that, living close to the tracks, he was never bothered by the noise of the trains; it was the nightly smell and noises of the animals being transported to nearby Goosevillage that he remembered the most.

Our group thought the tracks were so important to the narrative of Point St. Charles that we made the Hibernia underpass one of our stops in the booklet for the audio walk. Having been responsible for the section for that stop, I can attest to how many times it was revised and changed. We couldn’t decide what aspect of the tracks we were going to highlight in the short hundred-word site description. It almost seemed like an impossible task at first. How were we going to be able to highlight the linguistic divide of the tracks that cut the Point in half, as well as the industrial aspects in its history, the threat to its existence from newer residents, and the sense of identity it brings to long-time residents? We chose to focus on the linguistic divide and allude to the noise that would disturb newer residents. We were lucky in the fact that later in the booklet we would be able to talk about the rail yard’s workshops to show the industrial aspects of the railway and even Batiment 7 to show community activism toward its industrial district.

We also decided to name our entire project after the tracks: “La Pointe: the other side of the tracks.” However, it was not until our deadline to choose the project’s name that we stumbled upon this quite apt name. We originally wanted to allude to Herbert Ames’ City Below the Hill in our title to highlight the industrial working class nature of the area. But we were not able to come to a consensus on the name; it could have fit but it wasn’t the perfect fit. Finally, stuck in a deadlock of what our future name should be, one of our classmates spoke up and said our title should resemble the “L’Autre Bord de la Track” section. This suggestion of using the tracks, which completely surround the area, seemed the perfect choice and I’m sure many people, including myself, wondered how they did not think of it in the first place, as the tracks are an important symbol to the Point.

Therefore, while the train tracks are an important symbol in Point St. Charles, they were also a very important aspect of our project. They encompass the industrial history of the Point, and even the history of the majority of districts in the Southwest area. They also bring a sense of identity to residents of the Point, as can be seen through our interviewees, as well as the question of who are the insiders and outsiders. They were also a major component of our audio walk project, especially in regards to our project title and booklet stops.

1 Robert D. Lewis, “A City Transformed: Manufacturing Districts and Suburban Growth in Montreal, 1850-1929,” Journal of Historical Geography 27, no. 1 (2001): 27.

2 Robert Lewis, “The Segregated City: Class Residential Patterns and the Development of Industrial Districts in Montreal, 1861 and 1901,” Journal of Urban History 17, no. 123 (1991): 136.