Shared Knowledge and Know-How: Evolution of Urban Water in 19th Century in Montreal

Urban Water in Europe and North America: Origins and Developments
By Dany Fougères

Despite its moderate size at the beginning of the 19th century, Montreal was chosen by engineers to experiment with a water supply system, authorized by the British Crown in 1798. But the difficulties of the time with sealed pipes, with the quality of the river water, with the insufficient amount of spring water on the mont Royal, and with the absence of proper solid waste disposal, kept the system out of reach of the population. In the middle of the century, the city took over the Montreal Waterworks, and after obtaining from the Crown the authorization to charge the costs of the network through local taxes, it managed to universalize the service.On the technical side, the history of Montreal is both specific to the site, and comparable to all large cities of the time. While New York and Boston chose to bring water from increasingly distant sources, building large reservoirs and aqueducts, Philadelphia and Montreal chose instead to draw on local surface water. Influences came first from England (in particular with the early introduction of steam engines), but also from American engineers, until the city hired in 1892 George Janin, a French engineer from the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées.Janin was aware of the long distance aqueducts adopted in Paris, but opted to treat the water from the Saint-Laurent and, despite not being able to convince the city to build the famous ovoid sewers which can be walked through, managed to implement the networking of waste water and its treatment by sewage farms in a time when treatment plants were rare.Alike European and North American cities, Montreal was therefore involved in this diversity of institutions set up to respond to situations (local, regional or national) specific to water. By observing Montreal’s case and those of East Coast cities, it emerged that there is no single solution to the issue of water, although the approach taken by each city is in many ways shared by others.

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