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.