Underground Art in Wellington Tunnel

Tunnel Art Party – Images by Tristan Brand, used with permission.

Last Friday I huddled under the trees in Ste-Ann’s park, Griffintown, along with a dozen artfully-dressed strangers, nipping at my flask in the rain. Photographer Tristan Brand had lured me out into to drizzle promising some kind of Halloween-themed Tunnel Art Party.

After milling around uncertainly for a few minutes we heard a piercing, dramatic howl and a young woman introduced herself as our “wolf-prince guide.” She hushed her charges and nervously bustled us across Wellington and then down a steep, winding path which abutted in four gaping tunnel mouths, all barred shut. The heavy metal gate that secured one of the tunnels was ajar.

Only once we were undercover did our guide seemed to relax. Why so edgy? “We once set up an art party in an abandoned church in St-Henri, but the cops busted it before everyone got to see the exhibit,” our guide explained.

I fell behind the group and let myself be enveloped in thick blackness. I love the city, but are a few things that I miss experiencing in urban space and moving through darkness is one of them. My senses prickling, I pressed through barely  silhouettes and allowed myself to fall into the clutches of real fear. It wasn’t hard: knowing how well the infrastructure around this town has been holding up lately, it wasn’t hard to imagine an abandoned tunnel collapsing and burying us all alive.

But I pushed on, embracing that trepidation in a true show of Halloween spirit. About a hundred meters into the tunnel we rounded a bend and lost the last glow of the street-light sky. Here, out of sight from the outside world, a long line of candles flickering ahead, leading us into the depth of the tunnel. After another hundred meters or so, we hit a concrete wall. To the left, an archway opened up on another parallel tunnel, then another, then another, each with its own attractions. In the second tunnel, clutches of kids played guitar and beat drums and bizarre art installations showed skeletons in the thrusts of passion, architectural blueprints, shattered mirrors.

Everything was light by tea lights, which clustered around paintings and swung from make-shift chandeliers. Firelight is another thing I don’t get my fix of in Montreal: the warm, timeless flames that soften strangers’ faces. A third tunnel was rigged a sound system that distorted our voices and amplified them through the echoing archway. Deep in the last passage, a pack of fiery wolves seemed to prance along the walls, under the banner “they are coming for your heart.”

Later, I found out that the four tunnels were built in the 1930s as a passage underneath the Lachine canal. They were later closed for security reasons and finally abandoned in 1994. The entrance to the tunnel on the south of the Canal has been buried (which explains the concrete wall that we ran up against not far into the tunnel). The first tunnel we entered was once used by Westbound traffic and had a elevated sidewalk for pedestrians. The middle two tunnels were used by streetcars and the last tunnel was for eastbound traffic.

I’m not much of an art critic, nor, clearly, a hardened urban explorer (I leave that up to my colleague Andrew). But it was great to slip off the beaten track and feel an abandoned space echo with life and creativity, if only for one ephemeral evening.

8 comments

  1. Urban Explorer, guerrilla artist and puveyor of TAZ happenings Kay O. Sweaver here. Think you could put me in touch with the masterminds behind this event? I seek to collaborate. Thanks. ;)

  2. Great post! Thanks for sharing, and for exploring off the beaten track!

  3. why was i not informed! lol. they keep putting new padlocks on the grills.

  4. Here is a photo of an Eastbound Wellington 58 streetcar ascending the grade up from the Wellington Tunnel beneath the Lachine Canal.

    http://i17.photobucket.com/albums/b61/SDR_North/WellingtonTunnelFAngusPhoto.jpg

    To the left above can be seen the lift towers for the double CNR lift bridge, the towers being removed in 1967. A concrete counter weight is visible at the top of the rightmost tower.

    The CPR swing bridge is still extant, a remnant from the days when one could travel by rail from CPR LaSalle/Highland East along the canal adjacent to St Patrick St, cross the CPR swing bridge shown, then onto the National Harbours Board trackage near the bottom of Mc Gill.

    Traverse the waterfront, passing the Customs/NHB building to CPR Hochelaga Yard, then there access the CNR at Moreau Street Wye East thru Tetraultville and Montreal East to Pointe Aux Trembles.

    From P aux T one could travel by rail West once again via Ahuntsic and St. Laurent to the CPR interchange North of St Luc Yard and travel on the CPR thru Ballantyne Jct, around the curve to Cote St Luc Road, Westminster and over the Lachine Canal to LaSalle once again.

    The brick ventilation building for the Wellington Tunnel is visible behind the Tramways’ ‘Slow’ sign.

    Extra rails have been laid to prevent a derailed streetcar from digressing too far from the right of way and hitting the tunnel.

    When we used to walk thru the Tunnel on the sidewalk next to the Westbound lane to right, we could see the interior and front lights of streetcars passing thru their tunnel thru barred openings between the streetcar tunnel and the road tunnel.

    The Motorman would ensure the required lights were illuminated as the car approached either end of the tunnel.

    The cross-openings would equalize air flows as streetcars pushed air ahead of them.

    The streetcars came off Route 58 Wellington April 28, 1957.

  5. You forgot to mention the raft, that was oared by a mysterious man naked under a colourful poncho. He exchanged rides through the flooded tunnel for cigarettes and stories, and when you were far enough from the dirt shore, lit only by the shifting tealights at the front of the raft, a string appeared out of his hand and he pulled everyone back to dry land to explore the rest of the abandoned walkways.

  6. Lovely installation! We need more of these initiatives!

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