Culture  The former glory of grain

Investigating a relic of Montreal’s industrial past

On the western edge of the Old Port, just south of the intersection of McGill and de la Commune, lies a colossal relic of Montreal’s industrial past. Slumbering on the Pointe-du-Moulin jetty, Silo no. 5 is an abandoned titan of the Canadian grain industry, a monument to the city’s former glories, and an open question to developers, urban planners, and the municipal government.

Silo no. 5 is composed of three separate grain elevators, constructed between 1903 and 1957. The most impressive of these, Silo B1, dominates the local landscape with its sheer size and decaying splendor. It is an imposing array of 44 cylindrical grain silos, each one 40 metres tall, with a total length of 182 metres. The scale of an abandoned site so close to downtown is surprising: in length, the three facilities of Silo no. 5 are equivalent to the distance between Peel and Bleury.

The silo was built when Montreal was the main port of exit for wheat grown on the prairies and hauled eastward by freight rail. The site’s heyday was in the period after World War II, when Canada was referred to as the “breadbasket of the world”. At that time, Canada was tasked with feeding much of Europe, whose agricultural economy was left in shambles following the second world war. In 1956 and 1957, the final expansion to Silo no. 5 was undertaken with the construction of the enormous Silo B1 complex, built to handle the inflated demand for Canadian wheat.

Montreal’s layout and architecture are telling documents of the global economy’s history, and Silo no. 5 is no exception. During the latter part of the 20th century, the rebuilding of European agriculture and the explosive growth in Asia’s demand for Canadian grain reduced the importance of Silo no. 5. In addition, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway made it possible for large ships to use the ports of the Great Lakes and bypass Montreal entirely. This economic change precipitated shifts in Montreal’s landscape, such as the replacement of the working Old Port with the current park and heritage zone. It also reduced to withered husks some once-essential industrial buildings. If the Lachine Canal is Montreal’s “Cradle of Industry”, as Parks Canada suggests, then the Pointe-du-Moulin might accurately be called its tomb.

The Canada Lands Company (CLC) is an “arms-length, self-financing crown corporation” that repurposes disused land to the benefit of the Canadian taxpayer. It has been in control of the Pointe-du-Moulin since November of last year. Our guided tour with the director of real estate for the CLC in Quebec, Aldo Sylvestre, took us inside two of the three buildings on-site. The interiors of both structures – a steel silo from the 1900s and the concrete Silo B1 – are eerily silent apart from the occasional flutter of the pigeons that have thoroughly colonized them. Within the oldest building, the decaying sorting machines, conveyor belts, and transport ducts mingle in a latticework above a set of hopper car unloading bays. The sophistication of the apparatus continues to impress the few engineers who behold it.  The oversized windows of the upper levels were intended to shatter in the event of a grain-dust explosion, dissipating the energy of the blast and sparing the structure and equipment.

Since Montreal’s economic expansion in the 2000’s, following the economic disaster of the 1995 referendum, abandoned buildings all over the city have been demolished and the sites redeveloped, mostly into condos or lofts. Property developer Devimco’s massive and controversial “District Griffin” condominium project in Griffintown is one example among many. These projects tend to be concentrated in the city’s former industrial areas – along the Lachine canal, in Griffintown, and in the southwest borough.

Thus, the eventual destruction and “condo-ization” of Silo no. 5 would seem inevitable. However, there are several reasons why the buildings may be here to stay. First, Silo no. 5 is protected by a Federal heritage program that lists it as a “recognized building,” a second-level heritage designation that protects the building from destruction while excusing the federal government of any fiscal responsibility concerning its future. Silo no. 5 is also protected by inclusion in provincial and municipal heritage designations concerning the Old Port of Montreal. Another source of hope for preservation is the bisection of the site by a busy and essential freight rail line, which complicates plans for redevelopment. Finally, when viewing the site, the melancholic beauty of the post-industrial and the nostalgia for a more tangible economy, are palpable. For all of these reasons, it seems that Silo no. 5 is likely here to stay.

The presence of such a large, abandoned structure on valuable land, as well as the difficulties of demolishing it, necessitate a creative plan for the future of these buildings.  It is unlikely, in this economic climate, that heavy industry will ever re-occupy the site. And no matter what is done with the land, any use will have to leave the rail link in the middle of the area untouched. Part of the CLC’s response to this challenge was to organize a visioning exercise involving fifty concerned Montrealers from a wide range of backgrounds. This team of urban planners, local residents, architects, and business and cultural leaders emphasized the need for “multifunctional development” and suggested that tourists are increasingly interested in “authentic, memorable experiences.” Considering Montreal’s history of failure concerning huge, single-use development projects (witness the Olympic complex or the Radio-Canada tower), the team’s suggestion of multifunctionality  seems appropriate.

At the end of our tour, our guide treated us to the most impressive view of Montreal that any of us has ever seen. We’re all familiar with the view of Montreal from Mount Royal, which looks towards the river through the downtown skyline. Most of us have probably seen the opposite view, equally postcard-worthy, from Avenue Pierre-Dupuy, which passes by Habitat 67 and looks onto the Old Port and Downtown. The view from Silo no. 5 easily eclipses both of these, as it provides a 360-degree panorama of downtown and the mountain, Griffintown and the Old Port, Île Ste-Hélène and the South Shore. On a clear day, Sylvestre noted, visitors to the roof of the Silo can even see the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.

Sylvestre mentioned that Phase One of the redevelopment of Pointe-du-Moulin is tentatively scheduled for completion by 2017 (the 150th anniversary of Canada, and the 375th anniversary of Montreal’s founding). He suggested the possibility of an observatory on the top of Silo B1. With an unparalleled view of the city, such a project seems at once viable, relatively inexpensive, and respectful of our city’s heritage.