Roadwork unearths remnants of 1800s Montreal Zoo run by ‘Canadian Barnum’

A man walks past a pink hippopotamus at the site of the former Jardin Guilbault in Montreal on October 7. The site once housed a zoo, created by Joseph-Edouard Guilbault in the 1800s.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Long before Plateau-Mont-Royal became one of Montreal’s hippest neighborhoods, the area was home to a 19th-century botanical garden and zoo where Montrealers marveled at the sight of hippos, numbers acrobatic circus and a live whale in an aquarium.

This piece of history has resurfaced in recent weeks thanks to an archaeological dig which unearthed what is thought to be part of a fountain marking the entrance to the ancient site.

Jonathan Choronzey, an archaeologist with the firm Ethnoscop, said the fountain was discovered during roadworks on Avenue des Pins.

“I don’t know if there is a comparable tourist attraction today,” Choronzey said in a phone interview. “It was as many English as French, rich and poor who could go there to admire the exotic animals and the shows.”

Historical records suggest that the base of the fountain was part of one of the city’s first botanical gardens, founded by Joseph-Édouard Guilbault in the 19th century.

Choronzey said Guilbault was originally a horticulturist who moved his garden several times before landing near what is now Avenue des Pins, around 1860. At the time, the area was still largely rural, which gave it plenty of room to expand to include a menagerie of exotic animals and space to host traveling circuses.

Justin Ber, a board member of the historical society of the Plateau-Mont-Royal district, said Guilbault began by selling exotic plants to the wealthy, but quickly branched out into other forms of entertainment.

An 1862 poster announced the arrival of the Hippozoonomadon circus, featuring the “largest elephants in the world”, a hippopotamus, as well as horse riding and comedy shows.

The Montreal Herald, meanwhile, provided a glowing account of a tightrope walker named Farini, whose high-flying antics were so audacious that “quite a few who watched him in silence seemed impressed by his temerity,” writes the reporter. in 1864.

Newspaper accounts from the time suggest that entrepreneur Guilbault even hired someone to capture a white whale – probably a beluga – which he planned to transport to the zoo site in a tank by train.

“The monster is, we are told, as big as anyone has ever attempted to transfer it from one place to another,” read a May 1863 Montreal Herald article. The 19-foot animal was “ greater than that exhibited by Barnum, and by which he made such immense profit,” the article continues, in reference to PT Barnum, founder of the American traveling show Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The garden on the outskirts of the city included green spaces in the summer, an indoor ice rink in the winter, and traveling circuses. Other historical sources refer to a circus school, as well as picnics, balls, and theater performances.

“Remember, we’re long before the invention of cinema, before the invention of radio, so people for entertainment need things that happen in real life,” Ber said.

Bernard Vallée, a historic tour guide who studied the gardens, described Guilbault as a “Canadian Barnum” who understood people’s need to escape their difficult lives.

“There was a visionary side to this entrepreneur who saw that the citizens of a growing city need recreation, need nature and, as neighborhoods develop and a certain urban misery exists, they need escape,” he said.

Choronzey said that so far the fountain is the only feature that has come up during the excavation that can be definitively linked to the Guilbault Gardens.

Other than a nearby public plaza named after the founder, which features sculptures of swooping pink hippos, there are few traces of what was once one of the city’s first major amusement parks.

However, Choronzey said the excavations also unearthed artifacts typical of Victorian life, including crockery, house foundations and old latrines. He said there is still much to discover beneath the streets of Montreal, including traces of ancient Aboriginal habitation, the French regime or Victorian life – depending on the region.

“There are still quite a few surprises hidden under our feet,” he said.

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