The Champlain Oil Company, founded in December 1932 by the American investor Harry Snyder (1882–1972), was for at least 40 years a major name in gasoline sales in Quebec. The film Gaz bar blues (2003) by Louis Bélanger, casting a nostalgic look on a neighborhood gas station at the end of the 1980s, chose the Champlain banner to symbolize that local business of the recent past. As it happens, the history of Champlain Oil actually demonstrates a skilful balancing act between foreign control and local identity.
In the six months following its incorporation, Champlain purchased eight small gasoline chains in Montreal and surrounding areas at prices which made their founders very happy. Champlain was soon controlled by Imperial Oil (Esso), whose majority shareholder was Standard Oil of New Jersey (the company known as Exxon from 1973). What was effectively a huge American oil company’s manoeuvre to take over a chunk of the Quebec market was made to seem friendly by temporarily maintaining the old familiar banners and keeping on the French-Canadian businessmen who had been running them. One of the purchased companies was A.O.A. (Automobile Owners’ Association), founded by Charles-Émile Trudeau (1887–1935), co-owner of the legendary baseball team the Montreal Royals and of Belmont Park (amusement park), father and grandfather of prime ministers. Also among those bought out by Champlain were the Hotte family – Romuald (1867–1948), his brother Oscar, son Rosario and nephews Henri and Paul. Before becoming a Champlain outlet, the Clark & Saint-Viateur service station had been run by Romuald Hotte.
At the end of the 1930s, once all the old names had been taken down and replaced by Champlain, the company then proceeded to modernize its service stations. Like their competitors, the new Champlain stations were built of the enameled concrete blocks typical of mid-20th-century gas stations. To stand out from the rest, however, Champlain made use of elements evoking traditional French-Canadian domestic architecture: a steep gable or hipped roof clad in sheet metal with batten seams (“tôle à baguettes”) and pierced with dormer windows. Very few of these stations are still standing. Apart from the one on Saint-Viateur Street, we can mention the Champlain station in the municipality of Champlain near Trois-Rivières, listed by the municipality in 2010 as a heritage building; and the Richmond Road Champlain station in the Westboro district of Ottawa, also listed as a heritage building, where a redevelopment project was submitted in 2021.
Before 1939, the Mile End property had contained a set of wooden structures arranged around a courtyard, oriented towards the east side, at the address 5554 Clark Street. It is interesting to note that the lot had not been occupied by a residence. Romuald Hotte purchased it in 1921 from a coal and firewood vendor; the same type of business had been present since 1906.
With the construction of the new service station, the placement of buildings on the lot was completely changed. The new building faces Saint-Viateur Street and is flush with the rear lot lines, leaving a maximum of open space accessible by car from both streets. At this time, the address became 55 Saint-Viateur Street West. This type of layout became standard for small urban service stations.
In 1975, Champlain Oil closed the station after 36 years, removed the gasoline pumps and transferred the property to the real-estate subsidiary of Imperial Oil, Devon Estates. The following year, it was purchased by the man who would own it for 44 years, until November 2020. He leased the property to a series of car repair shops. He also used to park his large pleasure boat out front, contributing its own unusual silhouette to the cityscape formed by the blue roof of the gas station under the dome of St. Michael’s church!
Research: Justin Bur and Yves Desjardins. Thanks to Christine Richard who told us of the Ottawa station.
Written and translated by Justin Bur / rev. 2020-11-24, 2021-01-10