Almost as old as the city itself, Boulevard Saint Laurent has a history as original and unique as Montreal. But the story of the throughway often called "The Main" is somewhat overshadowed by its nightlife popularity; people think of Saint Laurent as a place to go out, and that's it.
So in celebration of a historic boulevard that has played a major role in Montreal for years, and no doubt will continue to, here are 10 things you never knew about Boulevard Saint Laurent.
Saint Laurent's Official Length
Measuring 11.25km, Boulevard Saint Laurent cuts through five Montreal boroughs (Ville-Marie, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension, and Ahuntsic-Cartierville) from de la Commune to Somerville. However, it's worth noting that the National Historic Site section of Saint Laurent street is only 6km, from the Saint Lawrence to Jean-Talon.
The Original Name Of Saint Laurent
When Montreal was little more than a small walled-in colony way back in 1672, what would become Saint Laurent was originally named "Saint-Lambert Street" and it didn't leave the city's walls. It wasn't until Montreal grew (about a hundred years later) that the road was extended and provided the only route outside of the fortified settlement, connecting it to the Saint Laurent faubourg. The road was then known as "Saint Laurent Road."
When Saint Laurent Became The "Division" Of Montreal
Culturally, Saint Laurent has served as a divider in Montreal. The street began to function as such in 1792, when the British recognized Saint Laurent Road as the dividing line between Montreal's eastern and western halves. The eastern ends would be where the French settled, with Anglophones first heading north to the Mile End, then westwards. It was also at this time that Saint Laurent began being known as "The Main."
When Saint Laurent Became A Boulevard
Known as Saint Laurent Road for many years (or just "The Main" as it was referred to by Anglophone Montrealers), Saint Laurent didn't achieve "boulevard" status until 1905. At the same time, Saint Laurent Boulevard became the official dividing line for Montreal, at least logistically, with "east" and "west" marked on streets that would pass through the street.
Saint Laurent Is A National Historic Site Of Canada
The boulevard received this national honour in 1996, with Parks Canada noting how the throughway "functioned as a gateway for immigrants to Canada." And it did for years, with Saint Laurent acting as the landing pad for immigrants of every sort from the late 19th century to the early 20th.
Famous Artists Who Were Inspired By Saint Laurent
As a cultural and entertainment hub, Saint Laurent has served as something of an artistic breeding ground, with many of Quebec and Canada's most notable artists either living in, or being influenced by the boulevard. Doris Giller, Juliette Béliveau, La Bolduc, La Poune, Gratien Gélinas, Betty Goodwin, Marie Chouinard, Édouard Lock, Normand Rajeotte, Leonard Cohen, Michel Tremblay, Mordecai Richler, and Claude Chamberlan are a small selection of examples, not to mention the scores of artists that head to Saint Laurent street for MuralFest.
Horses Couldn't Pull The Streetcar Up Saint Laurent
When horse-drawn streetcars/tramways were introduced in Montreal in the 1860s, the city had a unique problem with the Saint Laurent route: the horses couldn't go up the incline. A simple solution was found, however, as an extra set of horses were attached to the tramway, and by 1892 the problem dissolved entirely when electric trams hit the streets.
Chinatown Used To Be A Jewish Neighbourhood
One of Saint Laurent's most iconic neighborhoods, namely Chinatown, wasn't always a hub for the Chinese community in Montreal. Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants hailing from Eastern Europe originally settled in the area now known as Chinatown from 1890 to 1920. Between 1910-15, more than half of all families living n the area were Jewish, but that trend started to change in the 30s. As Jewish families moved north towards the Mile End and Outremont, Chinese immigrants moved in, eventually creating what we now know as Chinatown today.
Saint Laurent Street Used To Be Way More Family-Friendly
As already mentioned, Saint Laurent served as a new home for many incoming immigrants in Montreal, and the boulevard reflected that physically, with many small immigrant-owned stores and shops lining the street, at least The Main stretch. One store owner described The Main as a mini United Nations for its multicultural makeup. But in the late 80s things changed, with redevelopment projects literally paving the way for even more trendy nightclubs and restaurants. This caused an increase in rent prices, and many of the mom-and-pop shops that once dominated The Main were priced out.
Saint Laurent Street Housed The First Cabaret In Montreal
When the US was simultaneously going through prohibition (so no alcohol for anyone) and a cabaret-craze, the Hill Brothers, two prominent Montreal nightlife entrepreneurs, decided to capitalize on both trends by opening Cabaret Frolics. Located on the second floor of 1417 Saint-Laurent (which used to be a fur warehouse), Cabaret Frolics was the first of its kind in Montreal, with cabaret legend Texas Guinan performing for its opening night in 1930. Throngs of tourists and Montrealers alike flooded the establishment, which would then close by 1933.