Ice Shove, Commissioner Street, Montreal (1884)

by Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere

Photograph of people standing on a massive pile of ice pushed onto the Montreal harbourfront by the St. Lawrence river.
William Notman, Ice Shove, Commissioner Street, Montreal, 1884. Silver salts on glass, gelatin dry plate process, 20 x 25 cm. VIEW-1498, McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec. CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 CA.

The movement of winter ice is so powerful that it can physically change the shape of waterways, destroy entire harbors, block key economic trade routes, and in the most devastating instances, take human life. One of the more spectacular forms of movement is an ice shove, which follows the total ice blockage of a river. Upward pressure from the rising water level behind the blockage forces the ice to suddenly and rapidly jut, or shove, outward. As water levels recede, they leave behind both the piled ice and a hollowed area underneath. But perhaps the greatest power of this natural force is the way it captures the popular imagination with equal parts wonder and fear as it is photographed and circulated in images such as William Notman’s Ice Shove, Commissioner Street, Montreal from 1884.

A harbour frozen over

In Notman’s Ice Shove, large pieces of protruding ice fill the foreground as a massive rupture of the ice shove juts into the sky on the right side of the photograph. Posed atop that ice shove are more than a dozen indistinguishable figures standing triumphantly, as though they had summited a mountain peak. The small size of the figures reveals the enormity of the shove, which appears to reach the scale of the buildings along the left edge of the image. The ice pushes directly against the stone buildings that run the length of the port, emphasizing the harbour front’s close call with total destruction.

Map of the Montreal Harbourfront showing the proximity of the St. Lawrence River to the built city.
Map of Montreal Harbour, 1893. Port Montréal.

Throughout the nineteenth century, from December to May, the port in Montreal, Quebec, along the Saint Lawrence River was blocked by ice and closed to shipping. While the economic heart of the city came to a frozen standstill, the ice gained popularity as a tourist attraction for those who were tempted by its danger and wanted to view its impressive formations. The shoves were a subject of wonder and fascination for the city’s residents, but also for people who were curious about the dramatic stories of damage and peril. Photographs like Notman’s offered viewers the ability to tour the shoves for themselves, just as we see those in the photograph doing, and were reproduced in many formats—books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, albums, keepsakes, and especially postcards—that circulated the images as far as the postal service could take them. Spectacular ice shoves warranted the effort of hauling cumbersome photographic equipment, including a heavy, large-format camera and tripod, as well as glass negatives and photographic chemicals, out into the elements—not just once, but every year that the ice shove occurred in the port.

Notman and internationalism

Scottish-born, Montreal-based photographer William Notman operated a prolific studio business that catered to a range of photographic needs—from portraiture to collectible landscape scenes. The ice shove was a subject that he photographed several times as it occurred in the port throughout the years, a spectacular sight that was sure to be of interest to his clientele. His photographs were brought to the attention of Queen Victoria after Notman photographed her son, the Prince of Wales, in 1860. Soon after, Notman touted himself as “Photographer to the Queen,” which he had inscribed into the stone over his studio doors as a way to bolster his reputation. By 1865 he had set up studio branches throughout Canada and into the United States. As a result, he was among the first Canadian photographers to gain an international reputation.

A photograph of Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux) leader Sitting Bull, and showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody standing side by side, each holding the barrel of the rifle placed between them.
William Notman & Son, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, 1885. Silver salts on glass, gelatin dry plate process, 17 x 12 cm. McCord Museum, Montreal. CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 CA.

Like other commercial photographers in the late nineteenth century, Notman also photographed celebrities and events of public interest—including Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show that made a stop in Montreal in 1885 on its nearly thirty-year tour of North America and Europe. In Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, Notman famously captures Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux) leader and former warrior-turned-performer Sitting Bull along with legendary plainsman and showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

Picturing a precarious port: The circulation of photographs

On October 30, 1869, Notman’s portrait of Prince Arthur appeared on the front page of the inaugural issue of Montreal’s Canadian Illustrated News. The photograph was reproduced as a Leggotype, a halftone printing process that enlarged, reduced, or reversed photographs for print publication in a way that would simulate a continuous gradation of tone. This technological feat cleared the way for highly detailed photographic reproduction to reach a wide-ranging audience through printed newspapers and periodicals.

The September 1896 issue of The Sketch magazine, featuring Notman’s Ice Shove photograph alongside an article describing the winter event.
“The Ice-Bound St. Lawrence,” The Sketch 188, no. 15 (September 2, 1896), 259.

Decades later, Notman’s 1884 photograph of the ice shove was printed in the September 1896 issue of The Sketch, a popular British illustrated magazine, to accompany the story “The Ice-Bound St. Lawrence.” It casts the winter port vividly, with wonder and nostalgia:

Down the center of the river stretches a miniature range of snowy mountains all glittering white, which the spring sunshine gilds with an affluence of colour and splendour. When the light quivers over these fantastic shapes, the brilliant colours of the ide, the pearly purity of the snow, and the greens and blues of the water beneath are so tenderly effervescent as to defy any artist to commit them to canvas.[1]


Notman’s Ice Shove photograph as it appeared in Thomas Keefer’s government report of the event, with the caption reading, “Ice ‘Shove’ Montreal, before construction of the guard pier.”
Notman’s photo of the ice shove in Thomas C. Keefer, Ice Floods and Winter Navigation of the Lower St. Lawrence (Ottawa: J. Hope & Sons, 1898), 20.

In addition to its publication in The Sketch, which described the shove’s spectacular presence and beauty, Notman’s photograph also appeared in a government report (by Thomas C. Keefer) to document the disaster, as well as on postcards (such as the one below) produced by a variety of manufacturers over the next decade.

Notman’s Ice Shove photograph printed on a Montreal postcard.
“Montreal, Ice Shove.” Postcard, Montreal Import Co. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

A similar postcard with a photograph taken by Notman of the ice shove in 1875 not only indicates an enduring interest in the phenomenon of the ice shove, but also a reflection of something quintessential about Montreal’s resilience as a community with its caption: “Hearty Greetings from Montreal.”

Notman’s photograph of the ice shore in 1875 printed on a Montreal postcard.
“Hearty Greetings from Montreal, Ice Shove in Harbor,” 1875. Postcard. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Photographs such as Notman’s offered spectacular views of popular events and scenes while also providing a way for people to imagine the failure or success of a Canadian city’s ability to cope with the forces of nature.



About the author

Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere is an adjunct lecturer at the Ontario College of Art and Design and Queen’s University. From 2019 to 2021 she held a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship and from 2017 to 2018 she was the Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art. In addition to her interdisciplinary and collaborative research in pedagogical practices, she specializes in Canadian art histories with a focus on photographic and institutional histories. She has writing published in Environmental History, Journal of Canadian Studies, Histoire Sociale/Social History, Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies, RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne/Canadian Art Review, and Journal of Canadian Art History.



Further reading

Borthwick, Douglas. History of Montreal, Including the Streets of Montreal. Their Origin and History. Montreal: D. Gallagher, 1897.

Cavaliere, Elizabeth. “Flood Watch: The Construction and Evaluation of Photographic Meaning in Alexander Henderson’s Snow and Flood After the Great Storms of 1869.” In The Photograph and the Collection, edited by Graeme Farnell, 244-67. Edinburgh and Boston: MuseumsEtc, 2013.

Forward, Charles N. “The Development of Canada’s Five Leading National Ports.” Urban History Review 10, no. 3 (February 1982): 26-27.

Gilliand, Jason. “Muddy Shore to Modern Port: Redimensioning the Montréal Waterfront Time-Space.” The Canadian Geographer 48, no. 4 (2004): 463-65.

Harris, David. “Alexander Henderson’s Snow and Flood after Great Storms of 1869.Revue d’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review 16, no. 2 (1989): 155-60, 262-72.

“The Ice-bound St. Lawrence.” The Sketch 188, no. 15 (September 2, 1896).

Jackson, Jeffrey H. “Envisioning Disaster in the 1910 Paris Floods.” Journal of Urban History 37, no. 2 (December 2010): 176-207.

Keefer, Thomas C. “Ice Floods and Winter Navigation of the Lower St. Lawrence.” In From the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Second Series, Volume 4, Section 3, 3-17. Ottawa: J. Hope & Sons; Toronto: The Copp-Clark Co, 1898.

Parsons, Sarah. William Notman: Life and Work. Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2014.

Schwartz, Joan M. “Documenting Disaster: Photography at the Desjardins Canal, 1857.” Archivaria 25 (January 1987): 147-54.

Triggs, Stanley. William Notman: The Stamp of a Studio. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario / Coach House Press, 1895.

  1. “The Ice-bound St. Lawrence,” The Sketch 188, no. 15 (September 2, 1896): 259.


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