In the late 19th century, industrialization, labour movements, and a shift toward urban living meant a lot more free time for the people of St. Catharines. The result was new sports, a cycling craze, picnicking, and popular music. And at the centre of all this leisure was a ground-breaking innovation in urban planning: the public park. In this episode of History from Here, host Sean Dineley visits Montebello Park, St. Catharines’ oldest public park. History from Here is a video series presented by the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.
Opening in 1888, Montebello Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted who also designed New York’s Central Park, the United States Capitol Grounds, and many other well-known outdoor spaces. Setting himself apart from his peers, Olmsted took a holistic approach to park design that emphasized curating the space as one rather than segmenting into themed gardens.
This park was built on land that was owned by various members of the Merritt family. In 1859, William Hamilton Merritt Jr. gained possession of the site and named it Monte Bello, meaning beautiful mountain. William unexpectedly died at the age of 37 the following year from complications of an epileptic seizure. His death sparked a 27-year period of limbo for Montebello. Even before it was made a public park, the property became known as Montebello Gardens and hosted events and social gatherings. Public celebrations happened here in 1867 following Canada’s Confederation and, in 1874, a grand Victoria Day Gala was held at Monte Bello, featuring brass bands, fireworks, balloon shows, and carnival games. Despite this, a public consultation initially voted overwhelmingly against a city proposal to purchase the land for a park and an 1876 city map indicates that most of the property had already been divided into lots for residential development. The park idea stuck around, however, and the city purchase was made final in 1887.
The Montebello Park pavilion dates to the opening year. This pavilion was built on the foundations of an unfinished estate that was to be built for William and his family. Building materials slated for the canceled project were apparently used by his brother Thomas for an addition to Rodman Hall, which still stands today on St. Paul Crescent. William Hamilton Merritt Jr. never got to see his dream home built, but his view for the site lives on in the name Montebello and the positioning of the pavilion.
The other architectural gem here is a 1904 bandstand that was modeled after a matching pair at the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo – an event most notorious for the assassination of US President McKinley. For the Montebello version, designer Edwin C. Nicholson cut a model of the complicated curved roof out of his wife’s pie plates as a reference for the builders. This bandstand is actually the second one on the site. When the park opened in 1888 a smaller bandstand was transferred here from the City Hall grounds. The popularity of Sunday concerts by the Lincoln and Welland Regiment Band quickly outgrew this structure’s design and the city decided a more substantial facility was needed.
Frederick Olmsted’s original design for Montebello Park included a baseball diamond and tennis courts, but there is little evidence these were ever built. The plans also did not explicitly call for a rose garden, which the park is perhaps best known for today. The rose garden was added in 1919 by donation from W.B. Burgoyne, the founder of the St. Catharines Standard Newspaper. A 1920 article in that paper boasted that within ten years, “at least one half of the present park will become a shrine to the Goddess Flora”.
Montebello has been a centre of public leisure and recreation for more than 150 years. In its early days, Montebello was a popular excursion destination. Visitors from Toronto would come by steamboat up the Second Welland Canal as far as Wellandvale and walk the rest of the way. The pavilion was known for its Saturday night dances until the 1940s when the structure was deemed unsound – the building has been renovated a few times since then. On August 15, 1945 celebrations were held at Montebello to mark the end of World War II. Other notable events that have utilized the park have included pet shows, parades, and coronation celebrations. More recently the park has hosted Pride in the Park as well as rock concerts, including the 2022 Born & Raised festival featuring hometown heroes Alexisonfire.
The event Montebello Park is most associated with is the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival. This annual city-wide celebration of the region’s most magically versatile fruit has used Montebello as its festival hub nearly every year since 1952. The 10-day festival has some years welcomed up to half a million visitors to St. Catharines, many of whom have paid visits to Montebello Park to enjoy artisan markets, wine tasting, grape stomping contests, and a wide variety of performances.
From peaceful picnics to brass bands, from roses to grapes, and from the Orange Parade to Dallas Green, Montebello Park has been the place where St. Catharines comes to life. And life at Montebello is flourishing.