A haggard mayor and everyday heroes: Tales from Montreal's 1886 flood

In the 19th century the banks of the St. Lawrence overflowed so frequently that many Montrealers kept rafts by their property. No flood, though, rivaled what happened in 1886.

The flood affected some 20,000 families, led to construction of more permanent defences

A view of Griffintown during the 1886 flood. An estimated 20,000 families were affected. (George Charles Arless/McCord Museum )

The flooding that submerged large swaths of Montreal's West Island stunned long-time residents of the city. While the province has seen its share of damaging floods in recent years, Montreal has largely been spared. 

But that wasn't always the case. In the 19th century the banks of the St. Lawrence overflowed so frequently that many Montrealers kept rafts on their property.

What is now Old Montreal saw flooding in 1861, 1865 and 1869. Then again in 1884 and 1885. These, however, paled in comparison with the great flood of 1886.

That April, the St. Lawrence was filled with unusually large ice floes. They became lodged near the location of Jacques Cartier bridge (not yet built), and jammed the river's current. The banks of the St. Lawrence quickly overflowed.

In the span of just of few hours on Saturday, April 17, much of Griffintown was underwater. By that evening, the water was six-feet deep on Notre-Dame and Saint-Jacques streets.

Saint-Paul Street, near the city's old Custom House. (George Charles Arless/McCord Museum )

Five cents for a ferry ride

The city descended into darkness as the water extinguished street lamps, and widespread hunger was feared as merchants saw their produce ruined.   

A correspondent for the Montreal Daily Witness spotted Mayor Honoré Beaugrand Sunday afternoon at police headquarters: "He looked ill and haggard, and seemed wearied out with anxiety."

Over the following days, the city's streets — now waterways — were busy with boat traffic as people scrambled to preserve their belongings.

At Victoria Square, teamsters were offering rides on their wagons with a cry of "Five cents and your photograph taken on the other side."

That, however, was a steal. The Gazette reported that some were charging as much as $10 for a half-hour boat rental. Even the Chicago Tribune carried at item about the "exorbitant rates ... being charged [in Montreal] for carrying people from their homes to businesses."

Montreal's Place Jacques-Cartier, looking towards the river. (George Charles Arless/McCord Museum )

Jos Vincent, hero of the 1886 flood

But there were also acts of solidarity, not unlike those witnessed this year. The weekly newspaper Le Peuple reported a dramatic rescue on Eleanore Street, where ropes were used to lower a 50-year-old paraplegic two storeys down to safety.

"The dismal scene that Montreal has witnessed since Saturday has given rise to beautiful examples of devotion," Le Peuple told its readers.

They singled out the work of local boatman Jos Vincent, who put his fleet of 40 small boats at the disposal of flood victims.

A flooded Bonaventure Station in 1886. The Grand Trunk Railway company rebuilt the station after the flood. (George Charles Arless/McCord Museum )

Amid the flooding a fire broke out in three densely populated buildings on Leduc Street. Some thirty people took refuge on outlying sheds, half-clothed and holding their earthly possessions in their hands.

"When Jos Vincent brought them help with his boats, the crowd applauded the arrival of the brave boatman, and the flood victims saluted their liberator," said Le Peuple's correspondent. 

Vincent's actions that week earned the gratitude of Montreal's beleaguered mayor. "Whatever you do, Joe, you do it well," Beaugrand was reported telling the boatman.

Permanent defences 

The floodwater began to recede when the ice floes finally dislodged themselves a few days later. But the disaster impressed on the city's leaders the need for better defences against flooding. 

In May, the federal government launched a royal commission to "enquire into the causes of the floods at Montreal, and to suggest necessary remedies to prevent their recurrence."

The commission concluded that the city needed a permanent flood control scheme to protect the valuable port area and the adjoining commercial district, i.e. the Old Port and Old Montreal.

Wrangling between business interests — who were more interested in modernizing the port than erecting flood defences — and local politicians delayed construction for a number of years.

It wasn't until 1899, under the wheeling and dealing of Mayor Raymond Préfontaine, that a 1,561-metres long flood-wall was completed. That wall is now part of Cité du Havre.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at

With files from Radio-Canada