Titanic Walking Tour in Montréal

Richard Burnett

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

The story of the RMS Titanic is interwoven with the history of Montréal. On its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, the world’s largest and most famous passenger ship struck an iceberg and sank on the night of April 14-15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 passengers and crew, including many Montrealers.

The Titanic has inspired several movies and countless books, including Titanic: The Canadian Story by acclaimed author and journalist Alan Hustak who also advised Canada Post for their stamps commemorating the centennial of the disaster.

“In terms of wealth and celebrities, only New York exceeded Montréal on the passenger list,” says Hustak, a Titanic lecturer on three Atlantic crossings, including the Titanic Memorial cruise in 2012.

In a walking tour based on Hustak’s book, here are some Titanic-related sites one can visit in Montréal today, including – after Halifax – the greatest number of Titanic-related graves in the world (six of them are in Mount Royal Cemetery, five in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, and one in the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery).

The Allan Building

The Allan Building (333 Rue de la Commune) was home to the Montréal-based Allan Line Steamship Co. whose liner Virginian picked up the Titanic’s first distress signal late Sunday night, April 14. Just before midnight, George Hannah, passenger traffic manager for the Allan Line, called The Montreal Gazette, asked for marine reporter S.P. Stranger, and read the Virginian’s message: “Titanic has struck an iceberg, and sends Marconigram asking for assistance. Virginian go-ing to her rescue.” The Gazette was the first newspaper in the world to learn of the disaster.

Today, the Allan Building is head office of Old Port of Montréal Corporation Inc. (Société du Vieux-Port de Montréal) which manages and develops the Old Port of Montréal and the Montréal Science Centre.

The Gérald Godin Building

Formerly the corporate headquarters of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, the majestic Gérald Godin Building (360 McGill Street) was built between 1899-1902 by railway president and Titanic passenger Charles Hays. The railroad magnate was returning to Canada for the official opening of his new hotel in Ottawa, the Château Laurier, named after Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier whom Hays had convinced of the need for a second transcontinental railroad. Hays and his entourage sailed aboard the Titanic as guests of White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay. Hays drowned, his body recovered by the Minia on April 26 and buried in the Pine Hill Section (Lot 246) of historic Mount Royal Cemetery. His wife Clara and daughter Orian both survived, as did artist Paul Romain Chevré – also travelling with Hays – who sculpted the bust of Laurier that still stands in the lobby of the Château Laurier.

Union Française de Montréal

The bronze statue of Marianne to the left of the main entrance of the Union Française de Montréal building (429 Viger Street East) is also by sculptor Paul Romain Chevré.

Montréal Museum of Fine Arts

The frieze on the exterior of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion (1379 Sherbrooke Street West) of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is by Hungarian-born Jewish stone carver and Titanic second-class passenger Leopold Weisz who drowned in the disaster. Weisz also carved the stone shields representing Canada’s nine provinces which decorate the Dominion Express Building (201 St. Jacques Street West) in Old Montréal.

His wife Mathilde was nearly deported as an indigent until her husband’s body was recovered and his $15,000 of gold sewn inside his coat returned to her. Weisz is buried in Section One of the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery. Mathilde Weisz is buried (Section TR7532) in historic Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery on Mount Royal.

The Molson Bank

The Molson Bank (288 St. Jacques Street West) was owned by Harry Markland Molson who was the richest Canadian aboard the Titanic. Molson’s body was never recovered but you’ll find a memorial stone to Molson (Section F-1) in Mount Royal Cemetery. The Molson Bank printed its own currency and was bought by the Bank of Montréal in 1925. Today, the Molson Bank building is home to law firms and government offices, while the Molsons own the Canadiens de Montréal NHL hockey team.

Théâtre St-James and Café Titanic

The Montréal offices of the White Star Line were located in the grandiose Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce building (265 St. Jacques Street West), from 1909 to 1939. This is where tickets for the Titanic were sold.

Today, the historic building – fronted by a monumental hexastyle Corinthian portico carved from grey Stanstead granite – is home to the Théâtre St-James. The door to the old White Star Line offices is now the office door of nearby Café Titanic (445 St. Pierre Street), a popular lunchtime eatery for more than 30 years.

Christ Church Cathedral

A memorial tablet located inside majestic Christ Church Cathedral (1444 Union Street) in the heart of downtown Montréal, in the Chapel of St. John of Jerusalem, to the left side of the main altar, honours Vivian Ponsonby Payne – 23-year-old private secretary of Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad president Charles Hays – who also drowned in the disaster. Hays was a surrogate father to Payne.

The cathedral is also where Harry Markland Molson worshipped.

Baxter Block

One of the first shopping malls built in North America, the Baxter Block on the Main (3660 – 3712 St. Laurent Boulevard) in the Plateau was owned by Hélène de Lanaudière Chaput-Baxter who was returning to Montréal from France with her son, 24-year-old Quigg Edmond Baxter – a former McGill University student and hockey player with the pre-NHL Stanley Cup-winning Montréal Shamrocks –  and daughter Zette. The Baxter family had the second-most expensive cabin on the Titanic.

In Europe, Quigg had fallen madly in love with 24-year old cabaret singer Berthe Mayné. Says Titanic historian Alan Hustak, “Quigg didn’t tell his mother or sister he was bringing Berthe to Montréal until the ship was sinking. He brought her up from below deck and said, ‘Maman, look after Bertha’ and put her in the lifeboat. Quigg handed his mother a flask of brandy and said, ‘You're going to need this, it’s going to be cold out there.’ Then his mother berated him not for the girlfriend, but for drinking!”

Berthe Mayné didn’t want to get into the lifeboat without Quigg but Molly Brown convinced her to do so. If Quigg’s body was recovered, it was never identified. He is, however, memorialized on his mother’s grave at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery on Mount Royal.

The Baxters lived in a great home (1201 Sherbrooke Street West) in the Golden Square Mile.

Today, the Baxter Block is home to many local businesses, including the classic Gallimard de Montréal bookstore (3700 St. Laurent Boulevard) and legendary rock and roll dive Bar Bifteck (3702 St. Laurent Boulevard).

The Allison family

Businessman Hudson Allison lived in tony Westmount (464 Roslyn Avenue) and was returning from Europe with his wife, Bess, three-year-old daughter Loraine and infant son, Trevor. Bess refused to leave the sinking ship without her son, not knowing their nursemaid had already left with the boy in a lifeboat. By the time she found out, no lifeboats were left and her family perished. The baby boy survived. The Allisons figure prominently in Danielle Steel’s 1991 bestselling novel No Greater Love.

Richard Burnett

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

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