Now in 20 cities including our newest app for
Paris, France. Download today!

Montreal, Canada


History of Montreal, Canada


Old Montreal (French: Vieux-Montréal’) is the oldest area in the city of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, with a few remains dating back to New France . Located in the borough of Ville-Marie.

Following recent amendments, the district has been expanded slightly to include the rue des Soeurs Grises in the west, Saint Antoine St. in the north and Saint Hubert Street in the east. It also includes the Old Port of Montreal. Most of Old Montreal was declared a historic district in 1964 by the Ministère des Affaires culturelles du Québec .

In 1605 Samuel de Champlain set up a fur-trading post at Place Royale (Old Montreal), at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence River and the long-vanished Petite Rivière St-Pierre, adjacent to present-day Place D’Youville and the Pointe-à-Callière Museum. However, the local Iroquois successfully defended their land and the French abandoned their post.

The original site of Montreal in 1642, then known as Ville-Marie , is precisely known. The founder, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve , built a fort in 1643 called Société Notre-Dame de Montréal for the conversion of the Indians in New France. The company was created by the Sulpician Jean-Jacques Olier and by Jérôme Le Royer (Sieur de La Dauversière) in 1642. The Société acquired sovereignty over the island of Montreal and brought the first settlers to house, feed, educate and care for the Amerindians .

After the bankruptcy of the Société Notre-Dame , the Sulpicians (who arrived in 1657) became in 1663 the Seigneurs of Montreal as Louis XIV took personal control over the colony. The new system gave them the island of Montreal, with the obligation to live there and ensure its development by cultivating the land. In 1665 the king sent 1,200 men, the Régiment de Carignan-Salières.

In the early 18th century, the name of Montreal (which originally referred to the mountain “Mont-Royal “) gradually replaced that of Ville-Marie. It had become a typical French colony, in which the initial dream to combine the settlers and Native Americans had vanished. The arrival in 1657 of Marguerite Bourgeoys (who founded the Congregation Notre-Dame), and the arrival of the Jesuits and Recollets in 1692, helped to ensure the Catholic character of the settlement.

The original fortifications of Montreal, erected in 1717 by Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, formed the boundaries of Montreal at the time. De Léry had the fortifications constructed in order to secure the settlement from a British invasion and to allow future expansion inside the walls. Though the walls may have provided security from invasion, they led to a different problem; a large concentration of wooden houses (with fireplaces) led to many devastating fires. In 1721, Montreal received a royal order from France to ban wood construction; buildings were to be constructed using stone, but the ban was never fully respected.

Canada (New France) became a British colony in 1763 after the French and Indian War . British rule would radically change the face of Old Montreal. Until the late 18th century the impact was not visible, as construction methods inherited from the French Regime continued. However, distrust of the British authorities of the Catholic clergy cause the departure of several from Old Montreal.

In April 1768, 88 houses between rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste and Hotel Vaudreuil were burned, including the Congregation Notre-Dame convent. In following years, the city was to be rebuilt even more densely.

On 6 June 1803 a massive fire destroyed the prison, the church and the dependencies of Jesuits, a dozen houses and the Château Vaudreuil . 

The city’s oldest monument, Nelson’s Column, was erected in 1809 on the land given to the city. This space became the new market square, called Marché Neuf (New Market) before assuming its present name of Place Jacques-Cartier in 1845.

In 1849, a riot caused a fire with political consequences when, protesting against a law, a Tory crowd burned down the Parliament building in the old Marché Saint-Anne on Place d’Youville. Ironically, the site of the Parliament fire housed Montreal’s first fire station in 1903; the building still exists as the Centre d’histoire de Montréal.

Colonial authorities decided upon the first radical transformation of the area in 1804, with the destruction of the fortifications surrounding the heart of Montreal. Completed in 1815, this enlarged the perimeter of Old Montreal and improved access to suburban communities. Confinement in a fortified and very dense area prone to fires caused the gradual departure of the richer merchants to what would become known as the Golden Square Mile , where they built spacious estates.

The 19th century witnessed the emergence of a bourgeoisie of mostly Scottish merchants. The growing activity of the port changed the urban landscape. Old Montreal became less residential.

The character of the Victorian style of the late-19th-century buildings was a significant change from the stone masonry used during French era, and affected the appearance of Old Montreal.

During the early 20th century the momentum of the district continued to grow. Port activities, the financial sector, justice and the municipal government helped maintain activity until the Great Depression began in 1929. The relocation of port facilities further east deprived Old Montreal of many companies related to the maritime trade, leaving many abandoned warehouses and commercial buildings. The downtown-area relocation several blocks north and the nearly-complete absence of residents (there were only a few hundred in 1950) had the effect of emptying the district at the close of business. At that time, the lack of nightlife gave the district a reputation for danger at night.

In addition to the return of a residential base, the area is again attractive to the hotel industry. While in the 19th century all major hotels were in Old Montreal, by 1980 there were none. In 2009 there were about 20, mostly in restored older buildings. A steady stream of tourists and the presence of new residents encourage nightlife and entertainment.

Next time you’re walking around Montreal, Canada, take a tour with the Historic Walking Tour app!