We always tend to think of Mount Royal as a single peak but, actually, it’s a hill that is part of the Monteregian chain, with three summits: Mount Royal proper, which is the highest peak at around 230 metres, and then the Westmount and Outremont summits… We call it a mountain but, as you can see, these are basically hills born during the last ice age.
Mount Royal is a very elevated spot in relation to Montreal, whose topography is rather flat. It’s a place from where you can see far into the distance… namely to the St. Lawrence River, as well as all of the surrounding area. So, it’s a place that has always been very busy and popular throughout its history.
There were actually several periods before its use as a park, as Mount Royal was already a place that Indigenous peoples visited on a regular basis. Indigenous peoples from the region were Mount Royal’s first occupants… not necessarily in a sedentary way but making their way across the mountain for all sorts of reasons.
First off, Mount Royal is rich in natural resources. People would come here to extract stone used to make tools and hunting weapons. Its fertile soil allowed for the cultivation of the “three sisters” of the Indigenous diet. And Indigenous peoples also used the mountain as their burial grounds. In fact, archaeological research has identified some of these graves… the mountain therefore represents a sacred place to Indigenous peoples.
The first village that later gave rise to the city of Montreal — Hochelaga — was settled on the southern slope of the mountain, with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians developing it for several hundred years, until the time they dispersed.
So, when the Europeans arrived, essentially when Jacques Cartier, on his second voyage to New France, disembarked in Montreal, he met these Iroquoians from Hochelaga and this is where their first contact officially took place.
The Iroquoians guided Jacques Cartier across the mountain, taking him to the summit. He saw the extraordinary view from up here, where we’re standing. And that’s when he basically decided to baptize Mount Royal as a “royal mountain” — in tribute to his king who had sent him to develop the land in New France.
From the moment people began to develop Montreal — the city was founded in 1642 — there were several cycles of settlement, development, and use of Mount Royal. There’s one event, which is rather symbolic and important, that needs to be mentioned and it involves Maisonneuve — Montreal’s founder — who, to thank God for sparing the city from floods, which were very frequent at the time, came to plant a cross here in 1643. This was really a milestone in the history of Montreal.
The more urbanization spread, the more the city became dense and active, the more people coveted Mount Royal as a refuge from a hectic city, and this is what gave rise to the first great villas of the Montreal elites. That was all well and good… everyone wanted a piece of Mount Royal and people settled in. But there were also those who wanted to protect it because they felt that urbanization would mean that, at some point, there wouldn’t be anything left.
In the early 1870s, the city began to expropriate these big landowners. Certain properties were repurchased at a great expense and the city officially became the owner of Mount Royal. Then, in 1874, it hired the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who had designed and planned Central Park in New York. He proposed a development plan specifically to protect the natural aspects… to highlight them at the very least… and to make the mountain an oasis of peace and of communion with nature, and even with God.
So, people wanted access to the mountain, but they wanted to protect it as well. Until the 1880s, to really take advantage of the mountain and the park, people needed to be equipped with horses — horse-drawn carriages. You couldn’t get here on foot, as it was too far. Consequently, there was a lot of discussion about building some kind of equipment that would provide access to the mountain and, above all, the summit — where we are right now.
And, in 1885, we built the famous funicular railway, which can often be seen in photos showing Mount Royal’s past… a funicular that remained in operation until 1918 and that was closed down when it became worse for wear. This gave rise to a new discussion about facilitating access to Mount Royal, which was seen as being too exclusive, accessible only to the elites.
In the 1920s, the streetcar lines were built — one in the west and one in the east, meeting at the summit, and encouraging the social classes — the less fortunate, if you will — to visit Mount Royal in greater numbers. But of course, all of this raised great debate… because building tramways is no small feat and, in a certain way, it involves entering into this sacred place, this natural site, that we were aiming to protect at the same time.
A little bit before the mid-19th century, McGill University — founded in 1821 — got the ball rolling with the construction of its first buildings on the southern slope of the mountain.
It was not to be outdone, because, as I mentioned, as the city was becoming urbanized and denser, there were other institutions that felt the need to break out of Montreal as it got too crowded… This was notably the case with the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, which belonged to the Hospitallers of St. Joseph, who settled at the base of the mountain, on the east side, and established Hôtel Dieu in the 1850s.
And then, gradually, many other institutions did the same. One need only think of the Royal Victoria Hospital at the end of the 19th century, the Montreal General Hospital, and Sainte-Justine Hospital later on in the 20th century. And of course, there were educational institutions at the same time. For example, the Sulpicians come to mind, establishing their large seminary, and the Collège de Montréal, starting in the 1860s.
So, there were both educational and healthcare institutions… to which we can add cemeteries, which had a fundamental role to play — especially the Protestant cemetery — because they developed the land into park-like spaces. One could say that there was already a tradition of visiting the mountain as a park, even well before the creation of Mount Royal.
The last institution I cannot fail to mention, which also migrated to the mountain, is the Université de Montréal. The university, located on Saint-Denis Street, wanted to further its development to keep up with demand. It too settled on a summit of Mount Royal starting in the late 1920s.
What all of this shows us, and what is also very interesting about all the institutions I spoke of, is that we can see cultural and identity dynamics coming into play. Francophones, who were becoming the majority in Montreal’s population, wanted to be part of the mountain, wanted to really mark it with their presence and their identity.
In 1924, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, which represented French Canadians, got permission to install the famous Mount Royal cross, which we have seen light up every night since then. This cross was installed to commemorate Maisonneuve’s cross of 1643, which saved the city from the floods.
So, this pretext of commemoration was used to install a cross that has since then symbolized the Francophone and Catholic presence in Montreal, which is really a very significant hallmark for this community.
In the 20th century, we decided to build infrastructures, meeting places for the population, which were not necessarily in keeping with Olmsted’s concept, but which would make the site more popular.
The 1930s financial crisis was one of those times when we put unemployed people to work, redeveloping the lookout — where we are right now — and building the well-known Mount Royal Chalet.
We also decided to create a marsh, hiring up to 160 men to dig out — using shovels — what we today call Beaver Lake. The pond that was created became another place where one can watch small birds and ducks… and that in winter is used as a skating rink, which has become very popular.
The 1950s were a period of great modernization and renewal in Montreal. We once again decided to transform our access to the mountain, but this time it was done with a view to cleaning up the city, modernizing it, and making things more accessible.
Because Mount Royal was also a place where people went to engage in illicit practices, to meet up, to drink alcohol, and so on. We decided to radically clean up the mountain by felling trees, cutting down shrubs, with the idea that if everything can be seen, people will no longer have anywhere to hide.
This made Mount Royal an object of ridicule to many observers, who, in the late 1950s, sadly referred to it as Bald Mountain, because it had been stripped of its attractive aspects.
But in the 1950s, again with a view towards modernization, we literally opened up the mountain to automobile traffic. That was when Camillien-Houde Way was built, along with the Camillien-Houde lookout. That was also when the Beaver Lake chalet was built, giving Montrealers a place to stop and get tea or coffee… and in winter, to put on their skates before going skating.
The mountain remains both a sacred spot, perhaps in a less religious way… and a refuge too. A place that Montrealers love and adore, that is frequented by tourists, and that continues to be very lively.
On Sundays, Mount Royal gets extremely busy… Since the late 1970s, on the east side, at the foot of the statue of George-Étienne-Cartier, a well-known and very impressive monument, the renowned Sunday tam-tams have seen Montrealers spontaneously come together to improvise on percussion instruments, becoming an increasingly popular activity.
So, basically, what this tells us is that while Mount Royal is a park that is regulated like all other parks, it doesn’t mean that spontaneous activities can’t pop up here and there. What finally makes Mount Royal what it is, are precisely all of these various groups of people that come to stroll, toboggan, skate, hike, picnic, and beat their drums on it.
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