Montreal losing ‘little bit more than history’ with demolition of Expo 67 minirail: historian | CBC Radio


The Current9:24The demolition of the Expo 67 minirail

Montreal is losing “a little bit more than history” with the demolition of the minirail that became a surprise hit at the city’s world’s fair in 1967, says one historian. 

“We’re losing a little part of what made Montreal since the Expo — not the minirail itself, but the symbol of it,” said Roger Laroche, a retired professor and historian of Expo 67.

The minirail — whose open-air carriages distinguish it from a monorail, which has enclosed carriages — is the last part of a three-line network that once whizzed visitors above the fair’s attractions. The yellow and blue lines were demolished in the 1970s and 1980s, while the remaining line stands on the site of the La Ronde amusement park. Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, which operates the park, told Le Journal that the minirail has simply reached the end of its useful life.

WATCH | Taking in the sights on the Expo 67 minirail

The demolition of its last vestiges surprised many in Montreal, including Mayor Valérie Plante, whose office said discussions should have taken place about preserving the train, given its “historical importance.”

Laroche spoke to The Current’s Matt Galloway about what the minirail meant to Montrealers. Here is part of their conversation.

Take us back to 1967. How big of a deal was the minirail, as part of the Expo site? 

Actually it surprised everyone, including the Expo Company itself. It started as a simple transportation system inside the site, since it was so huge. But since day one, the people loved it so much it became a ride. People were waiting almost two hours to get inside this. The minirail experience was the Expo experience in itself. 

Do you remember the first time you took a ride on it? 

Yeah, I was working at Expo in ’67, so I was privileged to ride it before the crowd came in around April 15. And I was overwhelmed not just by the ride, but the fact that that was the only way to really capture the sight, capture the grandeur of the whole thing. It went slow. It went high, and it gave us a unique overview of the site. That was incredible. 

Large crowds flocked to Expo 67 in Montreal. (The Canadian Press)

There’s something about the technology, right? A minirail, a monorail, that people love. 

It was the first time you could ride a completely automated system, the computer took over. And in 1967, computers were still a very, very big deal. 

Second, it was the only way you can get a sort of tranquillity. When you were walking the site there were so many people and there were so many sounds, it became a little bit tiresome. When you got in the minirail, you [could] just relax and enjoy the view. 

And so when you heard that it was being dismantled, what went through your mind? 

Well, two things. First, I knew it was coming.

The system’s almost 60 years old and the company that built the system doesn’t exist anymore. [It stopped] making minirails almost 25 years ago. So there’s no spare parts. Every time it broke down, they had to build the spare part at the site itself. So it was getting very costly. 

WATCH | Expo 67 opens to the public:

Expo 67 opens to the public

Opening day gives way to a sparkling evening at the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal.

And we have you know, you have to take into account that the people who are going to La Ronde are not going for a minirail ride. They’re going for the adrenaline ride. 

So I was waiting for it. But it bugged me the fact that Six Flags did that without even mentioning [it] to the public. We got word of it because of the employees working there that, you know, were a little bit P.O.-ed. So this part was, to me, a problem because it’s sort of destroying whatever the significance of the minirail was.

Tell me more about that. I mean, Six Flags is the giant amusement company that owns the site. They’re the ones who are apparently bringing the demolition to bear. What do you think is being lost in this? 

We are losing … a little bit more than history. We’re losing a little part of what made Montreal since the Expo — not the minirail itself, but the symbol of it. 

How much connection do you think people in Montreal now feel to Expo. You can stand there at the ports and you can look out and see Habitat 67 across the water, and what have you. But do people still feel connected with what happened in 1967? 

Much more than I thought. 

In 2017, we celebrated the 50th anniversary … it was overwhelming. For about eight months, it was a whole party again.

It took everybody by surprise. And the same thing happened with the minirail. When the news came out last week, we had minirail news all day and people reacted on Facebook and social media way more than I thought they would. Even though it doesn’t show all the time, it’s still very much in the heart of Montrealers. 

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