Flushgate 1885 – or – Montreal’s first urban explorers

Montreal's sewer system in 1962; the route taken by P.W. St. George in 1885  can be traced from near the centre
Montreal’s sewer system in 1962; the route taken by P.W. St. George in 1885 can be traced from near the centre

If you ever get the feeling news in Montreal goes in cycles and can be a bit repetitive, this one’s for you.

Sudden and widespread public interest in wastewater treatment is not, apparently, a new phenomenon. It seems as though we’ve had a ‘flushgate’ once before, all the way back in 1885.

A smallpox epidemic struck Montreal that year, killing about 3,200 people (primarily in the cramped eastern wards of the city) and an unknown number in the surrounding region. In a city then of roughly 200,000 people, this was a catastrophic loss.

As you might imagine there was considerable public discussion about what should be done to lessen the impact of disease. We should consider for a moment that, while Montreal was in the infancy of its modernity at the time (and the city was responsible for sanitation, sewage, public health etc., then as now), the general understanding of how disease was transmitted was steeped in ignorance and superstition.

And so, people began to suppose the epidemic was related to congested, antiquated sewage systems, and began pressing the city to flush it all out into the river.

The city engineer in charge of sewerage, P.W. St. George, disagreed with the notion old blocked-up sewers were causing the epidemic. At the time the city’s sewers were comparatively modern (having been built for the most part in the two preceding decades) and, according to his own analysis, the flow rate was appropriate for the estimated amount of waste.

But then, as now, people didn’t care what the experts had to say.

The citizens of Montreal were convinced the only way to stop the spread of disease would be to flush and then clean the sewers all at once. St. George countered it would be fruitless and expensive.

I can understand why so many people would be utterly convinced a great flushing and cleaning of Montreal’s sewer system was the self-evident solution to the epidemic (and if it’s any indication of just how terrible a disease smallpox was, consider that it was the first infectious disease to be eradicated globally, and this was accomplished via mass inoculations no less!), so it’s also understandable why P.W. St. George came up with an unorthodox stunt to prove his point.

In so doing, he also became Montreal’s first urban explorer.

On the morning of September 7th 1885, St. George, along with reporters from both the Montreal Gazette and Montreal Star and three city officials, met near the intersection of Victoria and Sherbrooke, between McGill University and the McCord Museum. There they put on rubber boots and oilskin jackets and clambered down into Montreal’s sewer system. Over the next three and a half hours they would zig-zag their way under Montreal down to a planned exit at Rue Monarque, near the Molson Brewery and roughly three and a half miles from where they had started. The fresh air of the Saint Lawrence River would be there to greet them. All along the route city workers had removed manhole covers to provide light and a degree of ventilation, and a man with a ladder kept pace with the subterranean group from above lest they needed to be rescued. St. George was said to have passed out cheroots to help mask the foul odour.

What they discovered, as the Gazette reported the next day, was a modern brick and cement sewer system that was in remarkably good shape. The velocity of the current at their feet was measured and determined to be more than sufficient to carry the waste away, indeed, they were relieved to find very little sediment. For these reasons the Gazette reporters concluded neither a great flushing nor cleaning would be of much use.

However, they did discover a number of privately-built wooden drains connecting to the larger city sewers, and these tended to be older, rotted out and otherwise blocked-up. These drains were a problem unto themselves, though they didn’t seem to be having any particularly negative effect on the structural integrity or flow rate of the city’s existing sewage system.

One hundred thirty years ago, the people of Montreal were debating whether or not it was wise to flush out the sewers. Plus que ça change…

Then, the experts made their case for why a great big flush would not be beneficial for the city.

Today, the experts have made their case for why it is.


I first read of P.W. St. George’s epic underground journey in John Kalbfleisch’s This Island in Time – Remarkable Tales from Montreal’s Past and would like to extend the necessary credit for inspiring this article. His book is required reading for any Montrealphile, and provides a unique and thought-provoking perspective on this city’s colourful history. Highly recommended.

If you are by now thoroughly fascinated with Montreal’s sewer system, then you absolutely must check out Andrew Emond’s excellent and immersive website, Under Montreal. The sewer map image above was found on his website.

Flushgate: where do we go from here?

Montreal's massive east-end water treatment plant
Montreal’s massive east-end water treatment plant


You can be forgiven for finding this whole affair rather annoying, though I will happily point out we’ve collectively never given as much of a shit about sewerage and sewage treatment as we do right now. Flushgate, as it’s come to be known, is single-handedly responsible for teaching Montrealers what the ‘Southwest Interceptor’ is, not to mention generating a very strong public reaction against the idea of dumping waste into the river.

So bully for us; we’ve collectively learned something interesting about urban planning (a notoriously ‘unsexy’ topic as the pundits will tell you) and have demonstrated, unequivocally, that we’re keen to de-pollute the waterways around the island. It’s Montreal’s dirty little secret – we’re generally of the mind the waterways around our island have been so terribly polluted by years of lax regulations and waterfront heavy industrial activity that we’ve shit the bed, so to speak, and ruined any chance at being able to go for a swim come summertime. Isn’t this why we don’t have any beaches…?

To recap the situation for anyone unaware: the City of Montreal wants to dump eight billion litres of untreated sewage directly into the Saint Lawrence River. Perhaps ‘want’ is the wrong word – the city argues it’s a necessity. But the city lacks the ‘sovereignty’ (if you will) to just up and do it, and so it consulted with both the provincial and federal governments.

The general consensus among environmental scientists is that, while it’s generally speaking not a good idea to dump raw sewage directly into the water supply (and we get nearly all of our drinking water from the river), Montreal lacks the infrastructure to do anything else given it needs to empty a sewage collector in order to execute necessary infrastructure work as part of the Bonaventure Expressway renovation project.

Three days before the federal election, then Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed a ministerial order cancelling the planned dump, so that an independent environmental assessment could be conducted to determine what if any effects this might have on fish reproduction around the island and downstream (and by the way, there’s nothing like being on verge of losing a federal election to get a chain-smoking Tory do-nothing cabinet member to suddenly take her job very seriously, but I digress). And so, even though Montreal’s assessment was that it was a necessary evil that wouldn’t ultimately do much harm to the local environment (and the provincial environment ministry agreed with that assessment), we nonetheless had to wait for Ottawa to confirm what was already known.

And as of the day of this writing Canada’s new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, has given Montreal a conditional green light to dump the waste. The conditions are principally that Montreal develop a contingency plan and increases both the quantity and quality of its environmental monitoring during the dump. The dump is set to commence in the evening of November 10th 2015.

An alternative solution, proposed by the environmental group Fondation rivières, argues that tanker ships should transport the waste and, conceivably dump it out in the Atlantic, where the waste would dissipate over a far larger area. I can’t imagine this could be done cheaply, and I don’t think there’s any port infrastructure designed to pump sewage onto tanker ships (because why?).

The waste, by the way, is mostly human in origin, and not industrial (which, as far as I know, is treated differently). So if the ‘tanker option’ were explored, someone would have unenviable job of cleaning out several tanker ships’ worth of human waste residue post-dump.

The Environment Canada report issued on November 6th indicated that if the dump takes place before the annual winter freezing of the river, then it will likely not have any particularly deleterious effect on local fish reproduction. Also, given the strength of the current, the waste likely won’t be concentrated at our island’s shoreline, but will be dispersed downstream.

Again, it’s far from ideal, but it won’t be an ecological disaster. Aside from these rare instances of raw sewage dumps (it’s happened twice before in the last 12 years), Montreal normally treats its sewage, and is one of the few major North American cities to do so. And of the wastewater treatment engineers who have been consulted (or otherwise have commented) on this issue, it seems that the immense volume of the Saint Lawrence River, in addition to the speed of the current, will pretty much ensure the waste water is diluted to the point it will be harmless. Dilution, as they say, is the solution.

Though Environment Canada favours the dump as a necessary evil, they also want the city to start collecting hard data so that the impact can be fully measured. Apparently this was not already the case, something I find rather alarming. Perhaps I’m naive, but I assumed the city would have already been conducting environmental assessments of this type. Environment Canada also indicated that, if the dump is delayed and the infrastructure work is put off, it may lead to more dumps at less opportune times in the future as a result of a system rupture that would be very difficult to contain.

This is the expert opinion on the matter.

The question is, where do we go from here, and what can we do to ensure we’re not in this situation again in the future?

The problem is that our municipal administration all too often seems to wait until the last minute to even attempt solving a problem, and further never seems to propose long-term, forward-thinking solutions to long-standing environment concerns. If sewage collectors are old and there’s concern they will break, we may need to do more than just emergency repairs whenever a problem develops. Perhaps we need to build new collectors. If our sewage treatment plant is incapable of fully treating sewage after a heavy rainstorm, or if it lacks the capacity to handle an increased volume from time to time, shouldn’t we consider enlarging the existing treatment facility, or building a new one altogether? And if our existing treatment facilities aren’t sophisticated enough to break down the chemicals found in human waste – the pharmaceutical residue we know is wreaking havoc on fish reproduction – then isn’t it time to invest in new technologies and new systems to better treat our waste?

And do we really have to wait for the province or federal government to intervene? Shouldn’t we be able to judge the local situation by ourselves? Shouldn’t we have strong local leadership on issues of importance to the local population?

Montreal may have North America’s largest wastewater treatment plant (third largest in the world, apparently), but it has only ever offered a basic level of treatment, whereas other cities with smaller treatment plants can do a better job of truly purifying wastewater. Having a large capacity system is certainly a step in the right direction, now we need to invest in upgrades and improvements. It isn’t an appealing topic of conversation and politically-speaking is basically valueless – no one remembers the mayor who poured public money into improving the sewerage system, it seems.

But Denis Coderre should take note: whereas not everyone in our city will benefit from a professional baseball team (or even be able to afford the tickets), everyone – literally everyone in Montreal shits at least once a day, and it’s toxic human shit that’s both closed all of our beaches and made fishing strictly ‘catch and release’.

A city on an island should provide access to a clean shore and waterways for the benefit of all citizens.