Monday, November 17, 2008

Memories of Montreal

An article in The Gazette (often called The Montreal Gazette) this weekend paid tribute to Jedediah Hubbell Dorwin, who died 125 years ago last Tuesday, ‘for the remarkable diary he kept’. Although the newspaper provides one or two extracts, unfortunately they are not dated; nor does the newspaper tell its readers where to find out more about the diary - which is a shame.

Dorwin was born in Vermont in 1792, one of five children, and settled in Montreal in 1816. The following year, he married Isabella Williamson, and they had one son (and also adopted a daughter). He worked as a trader, importing and sometimes smuggling foodstuffs. By the early 1820s, he also trading fish, and even bought his own whaler. After many years shipping commodities such as wheat, sugar and meat, he also went into the lumber business for a while. He had many other business interests, including investing and promoting rail and river transport links in the Rawdon area, around 60km north of Montreal. In his 70s, he was still very active, inventing and manufacturing barometers.

More details of Dorwin’s life are given in a useful chronology provided by Glenn F Cartwright, a professor at McGill University. According to Cartwright, Dorwin began writing a journal in 1811, and kept it up until his death in 1883, on 11 November (125 years ago last week). [NB: See Dictionary of Canadian Biography  - added 2018.]

In 1881, two years before his death, according to The Gazette columnist John Kalbfleisch, The Montreal Star published a long article based on Dorwin’s recollection of the Montreal he had first seen some 65 years earlier. He wrote about how part of the city ‘was quite imposing’ and how ‘the large number of buildings, their roofs covered with tin, glittering in the sun’ was something very new to him. (Unfortunately, none of the extracts from Dorwin’s diary provided by The Gazette are dated.)

After being ferried in a dugout canoe and landing in mud, though, Dorwin realised the city was dingier than the glittering rooftops had suggested. He described how most houses had heavy iron doors and shutters, and that ‘there was little or no attempt at ornamental architecture’. He wrote: ‘The signs over the doors, where there were any, were symbolical for few of the habitants could read, and the silvered flagon or the burnished boot would be much better understood and remembered than the most flaring and most carefully gilded print.’

Dorwin noted how only a few streets were paved and ‘there were no rows of trees as now . . . for over the whole continent, from the time of the earliest settlers almost to the present, trees were a species of vegetation to be exterminated, not reared.’ And he wrote: ‘The rural system of government in so large a town was not productive of much order or regularity . . . and the roughs of the place did pretty much as they liked. But on the other hand the taxes were light.’

In 1816, when Dorwin arrived, there was a ‘citadel of sorts’ on a small hill (the only remaining part of the old city wall) ‘where cannon were fired at sunrise and at noon, and a sentry paced constantly’. Three years later, Dorwin was one of the contractors engaged to level the hill and use the earth to fill in a pond at its foot. He wrote in his diary: ‘On the side of the hill next the pond were found several coffins, some of them well preserved . . . The coroner was notified, but instead of holding a long judicial and scientific investigation, he ordered them to be tumbled into the pond with the rest of the earth. . .’

Kalbfleisch concludes his article on Dorwin by noting that The Montreal Star article was more than 11,000 words long, ‘15 times as long as this column, and the diary entries on which it’s based are longer still’. It’s an invaluable record of what Montreal looked like, he says, of who its leading citizens were, of how the people were educated and much more. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us how to read more.

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