‘Wonderful leaping buffaloes!’ Remains of Montreal’s giant zoological park unearthed

Elephants, hippos and belugas — oh my! Once upon a time, Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal was home to a giant zoological park—the first in the city.

Now, pieces of the city’s history are being unearthed as des Pins Avenue is 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 walk-through gardens and greenhouses, an indoor skating rink and a show venue to a zoo displaying more than 150 animal species — including a beluga in a custom aquarium — Guilbault provided the best entertainment in the city. There was even a circus academy.

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

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

“Observe the multitude of attractions,” one poster reads.

“Wallace’s troupe of acting bears, from California. Deer’s educated sacred bull from Hindostan. Wonderful leaping buffaloes! From the prairies of the Far West, Professor Langworthy’s Corps of performing dogs and monkeys … all under one gigantic pavilion, for one single price of admission .”

The garden on des Pins Avenue was Guilbault’s fifth and last. He opened his first garden in the 1830s, and his fourth one stayed 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 tour guide with Montréal Explorations, which provides historical visits of the city.

Fares were affordable, making the garden popular for 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 a black puffer jacket.
Bernard Vallée is a tour guide with Montréal Explorations who hopes to educate people about the city’s popular culture. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

Vallée says it was the botanical garden’s predecessor and paved the way for future amusement parks with its variety of entertainment in one venue.

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

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

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

“The primary objective is to better understand and take advantage of these opportunities to gather archaeological fragments that can allow us to better understand the city’s past.”

street art of slightly abstract pink hippos next to a mural in Montreal's 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 assets and close his garden in 1869, seven years after it opened. Guilbault went bankrupt in 1872 and turned to horticulture.

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

Though Jardin Guilbault is long gone and buried, remnants of its impact remain, said Norris. Walking down St-Laurent Boulevard today, street art of pink hippos can be seen on rue Guilbault as an homage to the venue Montrealers used for escapism 150 years ago.

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