Griffintown: A forgotten industrial era now gives way to a living space enriched by the history of an entire homeland
Quorum invites you to come discover a part of the greater story of Griffintown, located in the South West of Montreal. As a gem of a bygone industrial era, we now believe that it is time to give Grif’ its rightful place as a potential living space, a space that is dictated by its future residents’ vision and aspirations.
From the agricultural days to the early stages of the industrial era
Griffintown is one of the districts that inevitably contributed to Montreal’s economic rise. A cradle of the Irish working-class population, the Griffintown district is one of Ville-Marie’s most ancient boroughs. Formerly known as Fief de Nazareth, the lands of this area, mostly agricultural, were conceded to Jeanne Mance in 1654 and administered by the nuns of the Hotel-Dieu. For over one hundred years, the fief was almost exclusively under livestock grazing, apart from the Sainte-Anne Chapel (which was destroyed in 1885) at the corner of what we now call Wellington and Young Streets.
In 1791, an Irishman name Thomas McCord signed a lease on the fief that was left for his associate, Patrick Langan, to manage. Story has it that Mr. Langan fraudulently sold the lease to Mary Griffin, the visionary spouse of soap manufacturer Robert Griffin. It was then that Griffintown became industry-based, and that it was also established as the very first working-class borough in America.
At the beginning of the 19th century, fortifications that surrounded the district were demolished by the government, therefore connecting Griffintown to the urban Montreal life. Thanks to the Lachine path that was already there (on current Wellington Street), plans of regular-sized and equally-split subdivisions were devised by surveyor Louis Charland, according to Mary Griffin’s guidelines. The district was renamed Griffintown, which then entered in the industrial era that had already taken shape in the Western world.
Deep and proud Irish roots
Populated by Irish, English and Scottish immigrants, Griffintown quickly became the birthplace of Montreal’s Industrial Revolution. In less than a quarter of century, there was more operating machinery in Griffintown than in any other Montreal district. In 1825, there were 1 192 inhabitants, 13 factories and warehouses, as well a residential suburb of 137 working-class homes in Griffintown.
The building of the Lachine Canal, in 1821, consolidated Griffintown in its strategic industrial position and attracted the immigration of a substantial workforce, mainly consisting of Irishmen that crowded a working-class village named Goose Town, located at the southernmost part of the district. Between 1843 and 1848, the Lachine Canal’s width and depth was doubled; docks of merchandise disembarkation were created and the locks’ depth was increased so that cargo vessels could access the canal from the river.
Efforts were rewarded, because in 1848, Griffintown was made up of 29 factories and of thousands of inhabitants who came from the working-class and who were somewhat poor. Living conditions were miserable and crime was part of their everyday life. Set up between numerous factories, the residential neighborhood was one of poorest and bleakest in Montreal.
Despite these sad living conditions, the Irish still continued to seek refuge in Griffintown in order to escape from the famine that arose in Ireland. Forming an exploited and cheap labor force, the population was confined to live in ill-conceived hovels that were real disease incubators. In 1847 and 1848, a devastating typhus epidemic caused close to 6 000 deaths out of a population that approached 45 000 Irishmen and women. Most survivors became orphans and poorer than ever. Griffintown saw its future mapped out: it would be industrial, working-class and decidedly Irish.
The Glorious Age
In the second half of the 19th century, various railways and seaways were built, all of them operating through Griffintown. The booming development of factories and industries took a turning point. In 1861, there were 53 factories in the district, each of them continuing to grow in size. The diversity of its field of activity (metal, wood and leather work, food and chemical products, railroad equipment, foundries, etc.) allowed Griffintown to enjoy an uncommon vitality. Workers, willing to forget their hard working conditions, met in pubs and taverns that quickly emerged. Griffintown soon confirmed its position as Montreal industry’s nerve centre.
In 1873, the tide suddenly turned and the Long Depression erupted. There were massive layoffs of workers and living conditions, which were more than precarious, became more difficult. Griffintown managed to emerge from this dark financial period and as of 1880, the borough was given a fresh impetus.
A good number of industries continued to grow until the middle of the 1920’s thanks to transportation infrastructures that strategically positioned Griffintown as the focal point of trading and disembarkation of goods. As an important driving factor for the industrial growth in Canada, district factories were multiplying and diversified their field of activities. Although the district’s economy was very prolific, living conditions were not improving for its inhabitants, and the residential sector continued to be populated by an impoverished Irish community.
The fall of Griffintown
At the end of the 1920’s, many industries gradually developed into warehouses. Some companies, such as the National Breweries and Dow Breweries, were stronger than ever, but an economic stagnation was emerging. World War II provided the neighborhood with some relief and the workers’ living conditions started to improve. But in 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway developed, making the Lachine Canal obsolete.In 1963, the city of Montreal nevertheless decided to rezone the district into an industrial zone, a decision that did not help to keep companies within the sector.
Then, in 1964, the locks of the canal, located on the side of the Port, closed its gates, followed by the gates closing at the other end of the Lachine Canal. Despite all the efforts that have been put in by the Irish community, who fought to revitalize the district and to turn it into a residential space, the borough crumbled and Griffintown started to look like a ghost town.
Griffintown’s promising future
Today, Griffintown comes back to life and sees its residential appeal on the horizon. By immersing oneself in the heart of Grif’, you rekindle with over three centuries of history embedded in the streets, buildings and in a canal that has evolved and that reflects the very first working-class borough in America. If you listen closely, you can hear the pulse of an environment that still tries to express its eagerness and its willingness to be.
Quorum is proud to be part of the greater story of a new life, which is a promise of a place where past, present and future are the stepping stones to a brighter tomorrow.
1845, rue William,
Montréal, H3J 1R6