Discovering Canadian History One Station at a Time
Something of a daisy-chain here: the station is named after the street, the street after the river, and the river after a third century deacon of Rome martyred in the reign of Emperor Valerian for the impudence of declaring the riches of the church to be the poor. We’ll begin with the river.
Jacques Cartier left Saint Malo in France for his second voyage across the Atlantic on 19 May 1535. On 10 August, the feast day of St Laurent, he entered a small bay. In the following days, he realized that the little bay was part of a larger gulf with a river flowing into it. The name stuck to these and the bay was renamed Ste Geneviève. With the help of Donnacona, the Iroquois chief, and his sons, Domagaya and Taignonagny, who had returned to France with Cartier in 1534, Cartier traveled as Hochelaga, present day Montreal, where the rapids prevented further travel by ship. Now called the Lachine Rapids, they were previously named the St Louis Rapids by Samuel de Champlain in 1611, after an crewman who drowned in them after a hunting expedition. It would not be until 1825 and the construction of the Lachine Canal that the St Lawrence would be navigable to the Great Lakes, and then only in the summer. Year-round passage did not come until 1959 with the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway.
While Cartier was the first European recorded to have traveled up the St Lawrence, the lands to either side were long inhabited by the Iroquois, Algonquin, Montagnais and Mi’kmaq. They had been shooting the rapids long before Champlain or his ill-fated crewman. Cartier himself was aided by Chief Donnacona, the Iroquois chief, and his sons, Domagaya and Taignoagny, who had returned to France with Cartier on his first trip in 1534. These nomadic and semi-nomadic nations had established settlements at all the major points were Europeans later built their cities, at Hochelaga on the island of Montreal, at Québec, itself an Algonquin word meaning “where the river narrows”, at Tadoussac, meaning bosom in Montagnais, probably after shape of two hills, while there was a significant Algonquin fort near Trois Rivières, which fell to the English- and Dutch-armed Iroquois in what was something of a proxy war with the French.
Almost since 1632 and Jeanne Mance’s founding of Ville Marie, the town which would become Montreal, there has been has been a street called St Laurent. At first there was the Porte St Laurent, a narrow gateway in the settlement’s fortifications at what was then the end of rue St Lambert. By 1792, this street had widened and was recognized by the British as the city’s east-west division. It became known as St Laurent du Main and it is as the “Main” that St Laurent is most celebrated and is immortalized in the works of Mordecai Richler.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the road, then urban below Sherbrooke and cutting through farmland above it, became an eleven kilometre stretch of factories, shops, and home to immigrants from eastern Europe, Italy, Portugal, Greece and China who joined predominantly French-speaking workers. Despite growing affluence and a movement to other parts of the city, this history of immigration is evident from the former Washaw’s supermarket below Duluth to the bagel factories of St Viateur and Fairmont, from the Café Italia in La Petite Patrie to the celebrations of Portugal’s soccer victories. Below Sherbrooke the story is a sadder affair. Home to Montreal’s Chinatown – tiny in comparison to those of Vancouver and Toronto – it was also the centre of Montreal’s famous red light district and the slums which saw the of Machine Gun Molly, the bank robber and mother of two. Ever earmaked for redevelopment, change in the area has proceeded at a pace whose geological aspect is matched by its sudden brutality.
Immigration, civic dereliction and cheap rents created a buffer zone along St Laurent which by the later part of the twentieth century had became Montreal’s cultural as well as geographical meridian: English to the west, French to the east. Since the the late nineties, life has become more fluid as students and artists struggle to keep up with the rising rents of rapid gentrification. Long the site of street food and holes-in-the-wall, St Laurent now cuts through the highest density of restaurants in Canada. Something which might create a problem for St Lawrence; apparently patron saint of Canadian and librarians, he also has in his care students, comedians, and chefs.
Updated to correct some details about St Laurence who was a deacon, not a bishop. Thanks to Nick for catching the error.