This is usually the time of year when many parts of Canada are menaced by spring floods. Under normal conditions the floods are kept under control, but occasionally there will be a combination of unusual weather and then the high spring waters run wild.
There have been desperate conditions in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia (1948) and the Red River, Manitoba (1950). Both situations were saved by thousands of citizens turning out to make restraining walls with sandbags. Even so, the Red River flood extended over 700 square miles and caused $27 million damage.
Until 1901, when a stone wall was built along the river banks, Montreal had often been damaged by spring floods. One of the first floods destroyed a cemetery established by Maisonneuve who founded Montreal in 1642.
The worst Montreal flood happened on the evening of Sunday, April 14, 1861. Almost without warning, the St. Lawrence River rose so suddenly that the water poured into the lower part of the city, stranding many people who were attending evening services on the churches. St. Stephen’s Church on Dalhousie Street, and the Methodist Church on Ottawa Street were surrounded by water in a few minutes. The people had to stand on the pews as it poured in at the doors. Even then, with the water 6 feet deep, they could only keep their heads above it. Some people had to stay there all night in the freezing cold and darkness because the lights were extinguished. Others were rescued by small boats which were rowed into the churches!
By morning, there was an icy blizzard and one-quarter of Montreal was under water. Small boats served as taxis from St. James Street to Beaver Hall Hill, at a fare of five cents per passenger. The Grand Trunk Railway was unable to run as its lines were flooded as far as Lachine. Victoria Bridge, an important link in the Grand Trunk which spanned the St. Lawrence River, was also temporarily closed. Then considered one of the engineering wonders of the world, it had just been opened the previous year by Edward, Prince of Wales, representing his mother, Queen Victoria.
I just found a really nice blog, and it covers this event with a photo and a newspaper article: Coolopolis!
I had heard of this event many years ago, but I just can’t remember where I’ve seen or read it. And I can’t say that there are many resources on the ‘net about it. That said, I’ve accessed an online reproduction of Montréal fin-de-siècle : histoire de la métropole du Canada au dix-neuvième siècle, published: 1899, Montreal Gazette Print Co., identifier: 27398, Collection: History of French Canada. I’ve accessed the following on April 13, 2013 at Canadiana.ca:
“L’année 1861 s’annonça par une grande inondation. Le soir du 14 avril, un dimanche, l’eau monta de 24 pieds au-dessus du niveau ordinaire et si rapidement, que grand nombre de personnes furent surprises dans les églises d’où elles ne purent sortir qu’avec peine. Le froid et la neige vinrent encore augmenter les souffrances causées par cette subite des eaux.”