“Beautiful jumping buffalo!” Remains of Montreal’s Giant Zoo Park Excavated Pipa News

“Beautiful jumping buffalo!” Remains of Montreal’s Giant Zoo Park Excavated

Elephants, hippos and belugas – oh my! Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal was once home to a gigantic zoological park – the first in the city.

Now pieces of the city’s history are being unearthed while des Pins Avenue is being excavated for infrastructure repairs.

Botanist Joseph-Édouard Guilbault’s Jardin Guilbault was one of the city’s most popular attractions in the 1860s.

From expansive gardens and greenhouses, an indoor ice rink and show venue to a zoo with more than 150 animal species – including a beluga in a special aquarium – Guilbault provided the best entertainment in town. There was even a circus academy.

A 150-year-old poster advertises the Jardin Guilbault’s attractions, such as traveling circuses. (Bibliothèque and Archives Nationales du Québec)

Posters from the 1860s advertise visiting circuses with elephants, hippos and a “mysterious albino family” for just 25 cents.

“Check out the multitude of attractions,” reads one poster.

Wallace’s troop of acting bears, from California. Deer-trained sacred bull from Hindostan. Magnificent leaping buffalo! From the prairies of the Far West, Professor Langworthy’s corps of performing dogs and monkeys…all under one gigantic pavilion, for a single entrance fee.”

The garden on des Pins Avenue was Guilbault’s fifth and last. He opened his first garden in the 1830s and his fourth of it remained open for 10 years.

Guilbault wanted to provide the public with a place to escape the oppressive working conditions in factories of the time, said Bernard Vallée, a guide with Montréal Explorations, which offers historic visits to the city.

The rates were affordable, making the garden popular with Montrealers and tourists.

Bernard Vallée (a man with shaggy brown hair, a white beard and round glasses) poses on a sidewalk wearing a yellow button-up shirt and black puffer jacket.
Bernard Vallée is a guide at Montréal Explorations who aims to educate people about the city’s popular culture. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

Vallée says it was the precursor to the botanical garden and paved the way for future amusement parks with its variety of entertainment in one location.

“Everyone knew Jardin Guilbault,” Vallée said. “We see all the elements of a pioneer here.”

A curved stone wall, believed to be part of a water fountain at the entrance to the garden, was unearthed during the excavation near St-Laurent Boulevard. The road was first built in the late 1800s, said Alex Norris, a Plateau-Mont-Royal councilor.

“Not many people know that this was once Montreal’s biggest tourist attraction, a zoo right below [des Pins Avenue],” he said.

“The primary goal is to better understand and exploit these opportunities to collect archaeological fragments that will allow us to better understand the city’s past.”

street art of light abstract pink hippos next to a mural in Mont-Royal Plateau Mont-Royal.
Today, street art of pink hippos commemorates where Jardin Guilbault once was. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

Despite the garden’s popularity, Guilbault had to sell all his possessions and close his garden in 1869, seven years after it opened. Guilbault went bankrupt in 1872 and focused on horticulture.

“It’s the story of many entrepreneurs,” says Vallée. “Yeah, at the end of the story it’s bankruptcy, sales and closures, but… If you look around you, certain activities do n’t last that long… I wouldn’t say his projects failed.”

Although Jardin Guilbault is long gone and buried, there are still remnants of its impact, Norris said. Walking down St-Laurent Boulevard today, you can see pink hippo street art on rue Guilbault as a tribute to the place where Montrealers used for their escapism 150 years ago.


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