We saw in the previous chapter that the Beaubien family contributed to the creation of a cluster of institutions around Saint-Enfant-Jésus church to allow the development of a village community in a previously almost uninhabited area. Building a railway station less than a kilometre away was the other major part of their development strategy.
The railway which gave rise to this station, the Montreal Northern Colonization Railway, was the work of the second-generation Beaubien, Louis, one of the founding shareholders of the company, incorporated on April 5, 1869. 1 This railway, nicknamed “le petit train du nord”, was the dream of Curé Antoine Labelle. Supported by a group of ultramontane Catholic businessmen and politicians, he sought to open the Laurentians to agricultural colonization. This was seen as preferable to the exodus of French-Canadians to the United States or their proletarization in the city.
Louis Beaubien was not only one of the founding shareholders of the company, he was also, as of 1867, a Conservative member of the Quebec Legislative Assembly. He was connected to a group of businessmen who saw in Father Labelle’s project a chance to compete with the major railway company of the time, the Grand Trunk—then a monopoly—by creating a second network to connect Québec City with Ottawa via the north shore of the Saint-Lawrence. The project was the part of an epic battle that divided Conservative politicians against themselves. Louis Beaubien allied himself with the shipbuilder Hugh Allan. With the help of the Church, they convinced the City of Montreal to provide a subsidy of a million dollars, an enormous amount for the time, in order to complete the project. But this was not sufficient, and the Quebec government was obliged to purchase the railway as it headed toward bankruptcy in 1875.2
Louis Beaubien’s biographer notes that his ultramontane ideology and friendship with Curé Labelle did not prevent him considering the Laurentian agricultural colonization project as utopian.
In August 1874, he wrote him that it is “quite extraordinary” the persistence in “clearing the north, on cutting down the beautiful forests there (which should simply be logged), in order to replace these woods with crops that often freeze before they can be harvested.” The residents of the North may well be valiant, he added, but the fact is that “half the time they suffer from hunger and poverty.”3
If Louis Beaubien so actively favoured the railway, it was not so much due to his belief in colonization of the Pays d’en haut (i.e., the Laurentian highlands) but more because he wanted not only for the railway to cross his family lands, under development, but also to have a train station built there. Selecting the route for a new railway was, at the time, the subject of epic battles among municipalities, villages and interest groups: everyone was convinced that the value of adjacent lands would increase significantly, giving rise to numerous speculative transactions.4
While Curé Labelle and colonization railway shareholders had convinced the City of Montreal to invest a million dollars, this was not only to promote colonization of the Laurentians. On the contrary: the prime selling point raised by its supporters, in the company charter was the need to “provide to the city firewood at reduced prices.”5 The 1869 report from the project’s Chief Engineer specified that it was necessary to determine what location would be “the most propitious for the terminus…for the easy distribution of wood for hearing and construction, and other goods coming from the interior. 6 And one location—Mile End—already seemed to be winning:
The Montreal terminus for the projected railway was provisionally set at Mile End, a locality which featured specific advantages for storing large quantities of firewood, due to the comparatively inexpensive land market and the easy access via several streets to both the centre and outlying districts of the city. (…)
Mile End station, being located at a midpoint of the length of the city, will also be very convenient to distribute firewood in Montreal as well as for ordinary shipping. This location connects with the city on several parallel streets, on which trading products can easily be transported along the city’s minor axis.7
To better understand the controversy that broke out over the following years, remember that, for Montrealers in 1869, Mile End referred to the crossroads established more than 50 years previously at the intersection of Mont-Royal Avenue and Saint-Laurent Boulevard. Although the church was located further to the north, it was in a very sparsely inhabited area. This meant that Louis Beaubien was promising to locate the train station on the edge of Saint-Jean-Baptiste village with the rail line touching Mont-Royal Avenue. This seemed self-evident, since that is where most stores, residences and hotels were located. In addition, speculators were already at work: as was previously mentioned, the huge subdivision project of the Comte farm into 1300 lots in and around the village had been launched in 1872. Establishment of a train station could only encourage such development.
The railway route and location of the station were one of the issues in the June 1875 provincial election campaign. Louis Beaubien’s Liberal opponent, Laurent-Olivier David,8 accused him of having used deception and “letting himself be guided by self-interest when he put the depot in the middle of his land instead of on Mount Royal Avenue.” 9 According to his opponents, Louis Beaubien had obtained subsidies from the villages of Saint-Jean-Baptiste and Côte Saint-Louis by promising that in exchange, the railway would run to Mont-Royal Avenue and the station would be in the village of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Louis Beaubien acknowledged the facts and said he was still committed to the Mont-Royal Avenue location and a station at Saint-Jean-Baptiste. If the station was built on his land, instead, “on the site of his barn”, it was because his was a minority position on the Company Board of Directors!10
The whole matter resurfaced two years later, when a new controversy broke out over the railway route, this time from Mile End station to the eastern neighbourhoods of the city of Montreal. Municipal politicians wanted a terminus station in the francophone east end, to rival Grand Trunk’s Bonaventure Station. For this purpose, they had bought land where the old British army barracks had been located, surplus as of 1870, the location of the future Dalhousie Station. Concerned about the explosion in costs, the government wanted the railway to terminate at the intersection of Papineau Avenue and St. Catherine St. East. Louis Beaubien, who was a Conservative Minister, accused the aldermen of speculation. They retaliated by recalling his own manoeuvres to have the railway run on his land. In a letter to La Minerve, Beaubien was adamant:
As for the old charge, repeated by Mr. Laberge in a moment of spite, regarding the route in the vicinity of St. Jean-Baptiste village, I had a hundred opportunities to refute it during the last election, and proved that the route finally adopted by the company, which was where the line was built before being turned over to the Government, and which placed the station at a great distance from the Village of St. Jean-Baptiste, this route was adopted despite everything I did to oppose it. This was at the heart of the last electoral battle. (…) The line passing near Mont-Royal Avenue was always what I favoured because it best served the interests of the majority of the inhabitants of the area. 11
The Alderman, A. Laberge, who was a member of the Board of Directors of the colonization railway, replied the next day. If Louis Beaubien pretended to be in favour of a route along Mont-Royal Avenue, it was only to fool the citizens of Saint-Jean-Baptiste:
I understand, Mr. Editor, that the plan laid out by the Honourable Mr. Beaubien to deceive the interested parties was a plan which was bound to succeed. This Honourable gentleman knew well enough that it was the only way to appease their interests by promising them an impossible branch line, calculating in advance that the junction in question would be abandoned and that the depot would remain fixed in the middle of his property. Such was the goal of his ambition. (…)
The directors of the former company met again, declared that this spur would be impractical, giving the reason that the company charter made no mention of it. They decided to follow the route, locating the depot in the middle of the land held by the Honourable Mr. Beaubien, with that honourable gentleman, voting in favour of this decision. His goal had been achieved, he tricked the other interested parties, and the depot finally was located near his barn, in the centre of his property. 12
From the time the line opened, in the fall of the previous year, 1876, the train made a stop in Mile End. 13 The station became an additional feature of the visual corridor along Saint-Dominique Street, down to the church steeple and the Institut des Sourds-Muets.14 While in 1877 Louis Beaubien continued to claim to be in favour of the route along Mont-Royal, this did not stop his family from having prepared a subdivision plan for the lands between the train station and the church a year earlier. The names for many of the streets given then are still in use today:
On March 26, 1876, Doctor Pierre Beaubien submitted to the land registry office a subdivision plan for lots in Côte Saint-Louis village, with many of the streets named after members of his family: Lauretta, Alma, Casgrain, de Gaspé, Beaubien and Maguire. Maguire honoured his stepson, who was living in Louisiana at the time. Dr. Hannibal Dellagenga Maguire, was born of his wife Marie-Justine Casgrain’s first marriage, with Dr. Charles Butler Maguire.15
These efforts to increase the value of the Beaubien lands reached another stage on March 9, 1878, when the Mile End portion of Côte Saint-Louis was separated and incorporated under the name of the Village of Saint-Louis du Mile End. Was this the result of conflicts between the “Pieds-Noirs” and the “Nombrils-Jaunes”, between the “Reds” of the Coteau and the “Blues” of Mile End? One thing is certain, Côte Saint-Louis strenuously opposed creation of the new village. At its January 7, 1878 session, its municipal council unanimously adopted the following motion.
That this council looks with regret to the efforts some ratepayers in the western portion of the municipality have done, which led to their separating to form a distinct municipality in the area in which they live….It is unanimously resolved on the motion of Mr. F.R.S. Brazeau Sr., seconded by Mr. F. Brazeau Jr. that in the opinion of Council the splitting off of any part of this municipality is not justified by any valid reason and will be harmful to the interest of each ratepayer. 16
The Council also decided to hire an attorney to prepare arguments against this separation and to send a delegation to the Legislative Assembly in Québec City. But all this was in vain. A close ally of Louis Beaubien and Monseigneur Bourget, ultramontain member Louis-Olivier Taillon tabled the separation bill in the provincial legislature, and it was adopted by the end of February. The initial bill had proposed that the new municipality be named Village de l’Enfant-Jésus (Village of the Infant Jesus). The journals of the time mentioned that the project was subject to bitter debate and while it was adopted, the name was rejected.17 Relations between Côte Saint-Louis and the new village remained tense during the following months and the subjects of argument multiplied: the sharing of the debt, real estate and municipal employees.18
However, this meant that Louis Beaubien now had a free hand to development the family’s Mile End properties. The Beaubien family were to continue to use their influence to guide development in the district throughout the following decades. The train station allowed them to launch a series of commercial and industrial ventures: a mill, brewery, streetcar lines, real estate development. We will cover some of this in the following chapters.
In each generation, the Beaubien family developed its real estate on two axes. In Mile End they always acted as absentee landlords, never residing in the district. In contrast, in Outremont, the “Saint Catherine lands” – which Pierre Beaubien also acquired in 1842 – were to be the foundation of an entirely different type of real estate development. Initially a commercial farm and country house, the property became Louis Beaubien’s primary residence in 1866. In 1875, he played a unique role in the creation of the village of Outremont.19 His son, Joseph Beaubien (1865-1949), was one of the main architects of its transformation: as mayor of Outremont for 40 years, it was under his leadership that the village lost its rural character to become one of Montreal’s most affluent suburbs. Joseph Beaubien imposed zoning that created a division of housing typologies – including the types of residential buildings permitted by sector – and commercial uses much stricter than in the town of Saint-Louis.20
The alliance between the Beaubien family and the Clercs de Saint-Viateur also held in Outremont: in 1886, the Order purchased several properties there to establish a farm school.21 These properties, in addition to the Beaubiens’ farm, were to be the site of a major subdivision project in the 1920s.22
In our next article, we will review the role of two cousins, Joseph-Octave and Leonidas Villeneuve, in the urbanization of present day Plateau Mont-Royal.