Often assumed to be an extinct volcano, Mount Royal is in fact an attempted volcano formed 125 million years ago when the lava in the earth’s core tried to burst through the Canadian Shield. The resulting bubble is neither part of the Laurentian Mountains to the northwest nor the Adirondacks to the south, but one of the Montregian Hills – at 233 metres high, Mount Royal is no mountain, despite daily reference as such by Montrealers.
The draining of the Champlain Sea from the St Lawrence and Ottawa River valleys ten thousand years ago exposed the mountain, left fossils in the grey sediment, and made the area habitable for the continent’s first human arrivals, who had come via the land bridge between what is now Alaska and Russia at least two thousand years earlier. By the time Jacques Cartier came in 1535, there were an estimated 3,000 people living in the fortified settlement of Hochelaga beneath the mountain.
[In] the middle of these fields is situated and stands the village of Hochelaga, near and adjacent to a mountain, the slopes of which are fertile and are cultivated, and from the top of which one can see a long distance. We named this mountain “Mount Royal”. The village is circular and is completely enclosed by a wooden palisade in three tiers like a pyramid. The top one is built crosswise, the middle one perpendicular, and the lowest one strips of wood placed lengthwise. The whole is well joined and lashed after their manner, and is some two lances in height. There is only one gate and entrance to this village, and that can be barred up. Over this gate and in many places about the enclosure are species of galleries with ladders for mounting to them, which galleries are provided with rocks and stones for the defence and protection of the place. There are some fifty houses in this village and each about fifty or more paces in length, and twelve or fifteen in width, and built completely of wood and covered in and bordered up with large pieces of the bark and rind of trees, as broad as a table, which well and cunningly lashed after their manner. And inside these houses are many rooms and chambers, and in the middle is a large space without a floor, where they light their fire and live together in common. Afterwards the men retire to the above-mentioned quarters with their wives and children. And, furthermore, there are lofts in the upper part of their houses, where they store the corn of which they make their bread.
By 1611, when Samuel de Champlain arrived to meet with the Huron, the Algonquin and Montegnais, the palisaded town had gone, possibly abandoned in the wars with the Iroquois which were fought in the lands around the island, possibly due to diseases unknown in America brought by the Europeans. In any case, Champlain had joined the side of the Huron the previous year. In exchange they promised assistance in Champlain’s exploration of their territory around the Great Lakes. These he thought would easily lead him to China. The meeting below Mount Royal was a chance to renew these promises and for the return of young men who had been exchanged after the previous year’s battle, Savignon, who had accompanied Champlain to France, and a French boy, possibly Etienne Brulé, who had lived with the Huron chief, Iroquet. While on the island Champlain started clearing the ground at Place Royale, now Pointe-à-Callière and named Ile Ste Hélène, which had “room for a good strong town” after his new wife, Hélène Boullé, as well as Lac St Louis and the rapids below it (now called Lachine) after a crewman who met his end in the rapids.
Champlain’s efforts to settle the island did not last. That “foolhardy undertaking” fell to Paul de Chomedy de Maisonneuve, representative of the Societé de Mont-Royal based in Rouen, and Jeanne Mance, who bankrolled by Angélique Faure, the widow of Claude de Bullion, established the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. In 1642 they established Ville-Marie, the precursor to the modern city of Montreal and which survives in the name of the borough including downtown and the old city. Life was far from easy: the Iroquois, victorious in their wars with the Huron, were a constant worry, and when the waters of the St Lawrence reached the walls of the fortified settlement at the end of the 1642, de Maisonneuve made a pilgrimage to the top of the mountain, planting a cross on the highest of its three peaks. Now wrought out of metal, the white lights of the cross are testament to Montreal’s contradictions; the symbol of a hedonistic and largely secular city, they turn purple with the death of each pope.
For much of the eighteenth-century, the mountain remained forested with the lands around it parceled out to seigneurs who leased it out to habitant farmers in exchange for rent and one bag of flour in every fourteen. With the nineteenth century and the arrival of largely anglophone industrial wealth, the city crept up the slopes, first in the villas of the McGill and Redpaths above Sherbrooke, then beyond Côte-des-Neiges and Guy into Westmount. In the 1850‘s the cemetery was established and in 1874, part of the mountain was acquired by the city for the construction of the park which was realized by Fredrick Law Olmsted in 1876. With paths for summer walks and winter skiing, summer lakes and winter skating, here was a playground for the city’s elite and their final resting place.
In 1911 a tunnel was constructed under the mountain, whisking the leisure class to Ste-Agathe in the Laurentians. In the late fifties, Mayor Jean Drapeau planned two expressways across it, declaring “In fifty years citizens will be astounded to hear we once had to go round the mountain”. Fifty years later, citizens are only less astounded about the idea when they hear it was Drapeau’s. Nevertheless, one, smaller road, was constructed which Drapeau named voie Camillien Houde, after his predecessor, who had opposed all road construction on the mountain.
Other developments followed: Outremont, on the mountain’s northwest face, was developed in part on lands owned by the Beaubien family, and became home wealthy francophones, farmland on the plateau to the east of the mountain, including avenue de Mont-Royal, was popular with middle class workers as well as new immigrant communities; between the wars, the “Garden Town” of T.M.R. (Town of Mount Royal) was founded. And so the mountain became a reflection of the city’s social order, the wealthy at the summit while the lower classes played on its eastern slope in Fletcher’s Field (since 1992 Jeanne Mance Park). The debate continues today with the mountain’s creeping privatization and the possibility that the closure of the Victoria Hospital, overlooking downtown, will like the everything from the Ritz-Carlton to the warehouses of Griffintown and Old Montreal, result in private condos, in this case very expensive private condos.
Consulted for this post
The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, ed. Ramsay Cook (Toronto: UTP, 1993)
The Voyages of the Sieur de Champlain of Saintonge, Captain in Ordinary for the King in the Navy, trans. W. F. Ganong, in vol. 2 of The Works of Samuel de Champlain, ed. H. P. Biggar (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1922)
Marie-Claire Daveluy, “MANCE, JEANNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 15, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mance_jeanne_1E.html.
Marie-Claire Daveluy, “CHOMEDEY DE MAISONNEUVE, PAUL DE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 15, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/chomedey_de_maisonneuve_paul_de_1E.html.
Paul-André Linteau, L’histroire de Montréal depuis confederation (Montréal: Boréal, 2000)
Fernande Roy, “BEAUBIEN, LOUIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 15, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/beaubien_louis_14E.html.
Mathias Marchal, “Vers une privatisation de mont Royal?” Metro Montréal, June 13, 2013, accessed August 15, 2013, http://journalmetro.com/actualites/montreal/322911/vers-une-privatisation-du-mont-royal/
Other information about the geology and first inhabitants of north America come from Wikipedia.