“Calèche” industry was long intertwined with defunct harness track, start of the Premarin industry, horse slaughter, and a notorious glue factory
MONTREAL, Quebec––The last vehicle-pulling horses in Montreal, Quebec, are to be off the streets before sunset on December 31, 2019––an hour which, as this article is posted, has already come and gone.
“Far from giving up,” Sara Champaign of the Montreal newspaper La Presse reported on December 27, 2019, “coachmen are preparing to defy the rules prohibiting horse-drawn carriages in Old Montreal. Instead of selling rides for around $30 per half hour, they intend to offer free horse-drawn carriage tours,” asking passengers for donations.”
Whether that tactic has any chance of success remains to be seen. A simple amendment to the Montreal bylaw forbidding offering horse-drawn carriage rides for money could close the loophole that may permit giving rides nominally for free.
Meanwhile, at the stroke of midnight, initiating 2020, the carriage horse industry ended in Montreal, at least in theory. The end came 354 years after 14 horses shipped from France to New France disembarked in 1655 to begin drawing wagons, ploughs, sleds, sleighs, and especially calèches, a term which in Quebec, at least, originally meant a speedy lightweight two-wheeled cart with a convertible cover that could seat two passengers and a driver behind a single horse.
Ben Franklin bet on the calèche
Growing with Montreal, the calèche industry had already been established for generations by 1734, when the first road suitable for wheeled vehicles was built to Quebec City, the New France capital, 200 miles farther east along the north side of the St. Lawrence River.
Believing that calèche travel could accomplish quicker, more efficient mail delivery than the traditional boat service, Benjamin Franklin established twice-weekly calèche postal service runs between Montreal and Quebec City in 1753.
Franklin was, at the time, the newly appointed Philadelphia-based postmaster serving the whole of British-held North America. He held the job until after an attempt to negotiate an amicable independence of the original 13 U.S. colonies from Britain failed in 1774, leading to the American Revolution.
From calèche to landau, still called a “calèche”
For more than 250 years the calèche was to Montreal as taxi cabs became to most cities after the advent of automobiles. By the mid-19th century, however, the two-wheeled calèche had begun to be replaced by the four-wheeled landau, seating four passengers in facing seats, drawn by either one or two horses, first produced in Landau, Germany, and also called a “calash” or a “Victoria carriage.”
Montreal use of the term “calèche” expanded to include landaus, despite the efforts of some Quebec linguistic purists––continuing into the 21st century––to maintain a distinction.
The last authentic calèche in Montreal passenger service vanished long enough ago that scarcely anyone remembers that the original controversy involving them had to do with the question of whether retired racing thoroughbreds, inclined toward spooking in traffic, were appropriately used to pull the two-wheeled vehicles up the mountain for which Montreal is named.
This morphed into controversy about the use of heavier and much less skittish standardbreds retired from harness racing to pull the four-wheeled landaus, often slowing or even blocking motor vehicle traffic.
Traffic issue became animal rights issue
The notion that the use of horses of any sort to pull carriages might be cruel or at least exploitative developed slowly, over more than half a century, before galvanizing into the political action that appears to have finally ended the carriage trade altogether.
By that time the last of the standardbred horses were off the streets, replaced by a variety of Belgian, Percheron, and cross-bred heavy draft horses.
Most of the other abusive and exploitative industries associated with the calèche trade were also history, or at least on their way out. But the calèche trade had already become inextricably associated with horse abuse and exploitation, regardless of the actual care and condition of the horses who were still standing at curbside in the Old Montreal port district.
Blue Bonnets Raceway
The Canadian Society for the Protection of Animals, founded in Montreal in 1869, the first such organization in Canada, was barely three years old when the Blue Bonnets Raceway opened in 1872 on the Joseph Decary farm in Lachine, south of the city proper.
Some retired race horses were probably sold for calèche use then, but little if anything appears to have been said in objection to the practice.
Retired racing thoroughbreds, then as now, were usually sold either to slaughter or for riding, depending on physical soundness and temperament, but the demand for riding horses was then much higher, while selling “spent” horses to slaughter was no more controversial than scrapping a used car is today.
Butcher’s horse won a bet
The Canadian SPCA and the original Blue Bonnets Raceway apparently never came into conflict, even when on August 21, 1880 a local butcher’s horse trotted 50 miles in four hours, fifty minutes, to win a bet that he could not cover the 50 miles in five hours.
However, in 1886 the Ontario & Quebec Railway, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway, cut the track in half.
Used thereafter almost exclusively for harness racing, the Blue Bonnet Raceway in July 1880 was scene of a victory by driver Charley Taylor, age 82, and Factory Boy, 13, who clipped through the second half mile in 1:06, credited at the time as a Canadian record.
Nearly 20 years later, in 1905, John F. Ryan founded the Jockey Club of Montreal to return thoroughbred and steeplechase, or “jumps” racing, to the city.
The Jockey Club on June 4, 1907 opened a new Blue Bonnets Raceway on Decarie Boulevard, north of the original location, originally able to accommodate all popular forms of horse racing.
As the horse racing industry grew during the first two-thirds of the 20th century, while use of horses for other types of work declined, more and more injured and otherwise “retired” horses were hauled by train or truck from the Blue Bonnets Raceway to slaughter in La Colle, 40 miles south.
The name of the town means literally “The Glue.” Located at the northern end of Lake Champlain, La Colle for nearly 100 years was the site of a glue factory that also disposed of “retired” race horses from tracks in St. Albans, Vermont, and Saratoga, New York, as well as broken down former plough and cart horses from around Quebec.
A few dozen “retired” Blue Bonnet Raceway standardbreds per year, spared from slaughter, were sold to calèche owners and dropped off in Griffintown, the waterfront district of east Montreal that became the stable district.
Not that many horses were ever stabled there in recent decades. The total number of horses used in the calèche trade has probably not exceeded 100 at any time since the 1967 Montreal International & Universal Exposition, and as of 2018 was down to just 56, handled by about 50 drivers.
A more frequent destination of “retired” Blue Bonnet Raceway standardbred mares––after they were impregnated––was use as a source of pregnant mares urine.
This began in 1932, when Ayerst Pharmaceutical of Montreal began to develop the hormone replacement drug Premarin, approved for use by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration ten years later, in 1942.
The major market for estrogen supplements during the next three decades was in connection with making birth control drugs. Ayerst Pharmaceutical became Wyeth-Ayerst, operating a urine refinery in Montreal and a packaging plant in Rouses Point, Vermont.
Surplus foals produced by keeping tens of thousands of mares almost continuously pregnant soon made slaughterhouses at Trois Rivieres, Quebec, the center of the North American horsemeat export industry, mostly serving customers in continental Europe.
Industry moved west
As the pregnant mares urine industry grew, however, the demand for mares outstripped the Blue Bonnet Raceway supply. Breeding mares specifically to produce urine production shifted the industry west to Ontario.
By the 1970s humane concerns rising in Ontario about the treatment of the mares and their foals drove the pregnant mares urine industry west again, to center in Alberta.
Wyeth closed the Rouses Point packaging plant in October 2005, three months after the International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified hormonal menopause therapy from “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to just “carcinogenic to humans.”
Pfizer bought Wyeth in 2009. Premarin-family drugs have since dropped from sales of more than $2 billion a year to under $1 billion a year, with annual sales declines.
Blue Bonnets Raceway went bust
The Premarin industry, surviving the Montreal calèche industry, has also long survived the Blue Bonnets Raceway.
Blue Bonnets Raceway attendance and profits were already in a long, slow decline by 1975, when it last hosted the Quebec Derby, an annual event begun in 1961. Le Société d’habitation et de développement de Montréal, a corporation backed by the Quebec government, bought the failing track in 1995 and renamed it the Hippodrome de Montréal, operated under the name Attractions Hippiques.
By 2008, however, Attractions Hippiques was bankrupt. The Quebec government opted against throwing more good money after bad in a losing bet, closing the track and associated casino facilities in October 2009.
Mayor: “My patience has limits”
The historic relationships among the Blue Bonnets Raceway, the Premarin industry, horse slaughter, and the calèche trade had already ended even before the 1989 formation of an increasingly politically influential organization called Action Anti-Calèche, whose goal was abolition of the caleche industry in any form.
A series of well-publicized collapses of caleche horses on the Montreal streets in 2015 and and an April 2016 calèche/car collision in Griffintown brought the beginning of the end.
Declared then-Montreal mayor Denis Coderre after the Griffintown accident, “All the options,” including banning calèche, “are on the table. My patience has limits,” Coderre said, “but at the same time, we are enhancing regulations right now.”
Coderre unilaterally declared a moratorium on calèche use, later judicially overturned on an appeal brought by Lucky Luc stable owner Luc Desparois, owner of 15 horses and employer of 15 drivers.
What pit bulls had to do with it
Meanwhile, on June 8, 2016, a neighbor’s pit bull killed Christiane Vadnais, 55, at her Pointe-aux-Trembles home. The seven-year-old pit bull had reportedly attacked two people on previous occasions. Coderre in August 2016 introduced a city-wide pit bull ban, adopted in September 2016, but judicially suspended in October 2016, reinstated by the Quebec Court of Appeals on December 1, 2016, and then repealed a year later after Coderre was defeated by present Montreal mayor Valerie Plante in November 2017.
The pit bull issue at once had nothing to do with the calèche issue, and everything to do with it. Coderre, by hinting at a crackdown or even ban on the calèche industry, had hoped to enjoy the political support of Action Anti-Calèche and the allied Montreal SPCA.
But the founder of Action Anti-Calèche and chief executive of the Montreal SPCA were and are also outspoken pit bull advocates. As they organized militant opposition to the pit bull ban, including demonstrations featuring protesters from the U.S., Coderre reversed his opposition to the caleche trade.
Proposed $500,000 city investment & dress code
Instead, Coderre proposed spending $500,000, reported Catherine Solyom of the Montreal Gazette, “to set up waiting stations for the calèches, designed to improve the horses’ well-being, as well as keep the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal clean. The rest of the $500,000 in subsidies for the industry would go toward microchips for the horses, training and uniforms for calèche drivers to make them more professional, said Marc-André Gosselin, a spokesperson for Coderre.”
Said Coderre himself, “I never said I was against the calèches. I was against the way several horses were treated. We will give ourselves a policy for horses. The $500,000 is a margin of manoeuvre to do (that), but our first priority is to respect the horses and ensure they are properly treated.”
The Coderre proposal included new rules to restrict calèche horses from working more than nine hours in a day, a limit few ever reached in the first place; prevent them from working at temperatures over 28 degrees Celsius or 84 degrees Fahrenheit, rarely reached in Montreal even in mid-summer; and require twice-yearly veterinary inspections.
“There will be new rules for drivers, who will have to follow a dress code and complete a course focusing on customer service and tourism. They will also have to report any accidents or incidents involving the horses,” wrote Solyom.
Reporting accidents had already been required by law for more than 100 years.
The Coderre regulatory proposals died with his administration.
Accidents in Quebec City helped to kill the calèche trade in Montreal
Two dramatic May 2017 calèche accidents in Quebec City, both prominently covered on television, helped to undermine support for the calèche industry in Montreal.
“A driver lost control of a horse, which charged down a hill, overturning the carriage,” recalled Montreal Gazette reporter Charlie Fidelman. “Then, another a horse fell to the ground near the Château Frontenac hotel,” Quebec’s best-known landmark since 1893, “and wasn’t able to get back on her feet until seen by a veterinarian.”
Added Agence France Presse, “The death of a horse in 2018 while pulling a carriage was the last straw for animal rights groups and prompted mayor Valerie Plante to speak out against the carriage industry, saying it was no longer welcome in Montreal.
Only one driver accepts retirement
“In April 2019,” Agence France Presse continued, “to prevent out-of-work horses from ending up at slaughterhouses, the city said it would pay the Montreal SPCA $1,000 (worth $760 in U.S. dollars) for each horse offered a refuge or adoptive family.”
But only one driver, Denis Murray, 65, joined the program, according to Alison Northcott of CBC News. His horse, Sissi, was “adopted by two veterinarians in the Eastern Townships,” the formerly English-speaking region just north of Vermont and New Hampshire, Northcott said.
Luc Desparois “plans to take his horses to other nearby communities or maybe even to Ottawa,” reported Agence France Presse.
Other calèche owners and drivers are still uncertain what they will do. Appeals to the courts have already failed.
Wrote Canadian Press correspondent Morgan Lowrie, “It’s the end of the line for King, Maximus, Marilyn, Maya, and the rest of the gentle draft horses who live in an aging stable in Griffintown. On December 31, 2019 they wheeled their carriages out for the last time past construction sites and new condo towers that have popped up like mushrooms, making their way to the cobblestoned streets of Old Montreal.”