“Under your feet, a wonderful system”: The transformation of Montreal’s urban energy landscape, 1890-1950

By Clarence Hatton-Proulx

Most studies consider invisibility to be an invariable component of infrastructure. Going against this trend, this article offers a historical study, covering more than 60 years, of the fluctuating physical presence of energy in Montreal, Canada’s then largest city. To situate the case study, it uses insurance plans to document the evolution of the energy landscape in both residential and industrial contexts, noting the gradual disappearance of wood and coal replaced by petroleum, gas and hydroelectricity—energy sources distributed through networks. It then analyzes the controversy over overhead poles and wires that threatened people’s bodies as well as economic order at the turn of the 20th century. The article focuses on the roles played by different actors, in particular that of the fire insurance industry, to grasp the winding trajectory that led to the burial of electrical networks by the municipality. These empirical results problematise the concept of infrastructural invisibility, showing that invisibility is always historically, geographically, and socially situated. Invisibility should be understood as a principle towards which system planners tend rather than as an ever-present feature of infrastructure. The possibility of reaching this principle depends upon suitable social and economic conditions, like those that manifested themselves in Montreal in the early 20th century as documented here.

  • energy transition
  • urban history
  • materiality
  • infrastructure
  • networks
  • underground
  • Montreal
  • wood
  • coal
  • petroleum
  • gas
  • electricity
  • fire insurance
Go to the article on Cairn-int.info