MOUNT ROYAL’S VALIANT STAND AGAINST PROGRESS
The hogback in the heart of our greatest metropolis is a year-round kaleidoscope of sylvan beauty— a retreat for poets and lovers— but it splits Montreal up the middle and stifles traffic like a gigantic roadblock
Acre for acre, miracle for miracle and curse for curse, the most exalted and profaned hump on the North American landscape is the rock in the middle of Montreal.
The rock is called Mount Royal, and the bluewhite light of the great steel cross that caps its eastern shoulder is all Montreal will ever have for a halo. A pilgrim coming up the St. Lawrence by night can see the cross on the southwestern horizon when his ship is forty miles down river. Not four miles from the foot of the cross the pilgrim's journey ends on the opposite flank of Mount Royal at St. Joseph's Oratory, a shrine rivaled only by Lourdes for the mystery of its miracles and the millions of its devotees.
When the pious traveler reaches the shrine and bows before the glass-cased heart of Brother
André, the monk who worked his miraculous cures on Mount Royal's slope, he is inside a ring of streets where blasphemy is loud, sincere, and almost constant. Most of it is uttered by the captives of Canada’s tightest traffic strait jacket, and they owe their incipient ulcers to Mount Royal. The Mountain cuts off thirty city streets and channels traffic into what town planners call the few “supersaturated arteries” that skirt its foot.
Between the blasphemous crowd and the solitary cross the Mountain doesn't rise much more than a hundred yards. The peak is 769 feet above sea level, but the grid of city streets reaches more than halfway up the southern slope. In fact, Montreal's three main uptowm east-west streets— Dorchester. St. Catherine and Sherbrooke — follow beaches worn out of the mountain rock by
an ancient sea as it receded in stages. Few Montrealers know or care that Mount Royal was once covered by seawater, but almost all of them are convinced that the Mountain is an extinct volcano. This notion is romantic eyewash according to the geologist who wrote the official Quebec Department of Mines report on the area. Dr. Thomas Clark of McGill University. He says the Mountain shows no signs of ever having been a volcano; it’s just another scarp of igneous rock and eroding soil.
Politically the Mountain causes as much confusion as it does geologically. Mount Royal is responsible for Montreal’s name, its shape, and much of its fragmentary municipal organization. The word Montreal is a contraction of the French name Mont Royal, and the downtown and midtown sectors of the City of Montreal are barricaded between the Mountain’s south bluff and the St. Lawrence River. This is one reason for the one-horse width of many downtown streets and the shoulder-to-shoulder architecture, as well as the feeling of downtown “focus” Montrealers point to with pride in comparison with the sprawl
developing in many other North American cities.
But only Mount Royal’s southern slope and northwest quadrant are in the City of Montreal; two of Greater Montreal’s splinter-cities also own important parcels of mountainside. Mount Royal is folded into three ridges, and the two secondary peaks have names of their own, although they’re both extensions of the main mountain. The ridge in the northeast quadrant of Mount Royal lies within the boundaries of a municipality named after it, the City of Outremont. The third ridge, a long hogback called Westmount. is appropriately in the City of Westmount. Civic nomenclature is further complicated by a fourth namesake, the Town of Mount Royal, which hasn’t got a hill to its name and is more than a mile south of the Mountain at its nearest point.
As far as the municipalities that do own a piece of Mount Royal are concerned, most of the Mountain is just real estate that happens to be vertical. A twoor three-block ellipse around the peak of Westmount has been set aside as a wooded sanctuary for wild flowers and wild birds, known as Summit Park. Otherwise the Westmount ridge is simply a residential district where the assessment values go up with the altitude. Between The Boulevard, an avenue halfway up the slope, and the top of the ridge, view-proud old Montreal families like the Timmins, McConnell and Redpath clans have at one time or another built probably the highest-priced pocket of houses in Canada. “In twenty minutes I could show you fifty houses worth between a hundred thousand dollars and a quarter of a million — or maybe more,” says Westmount Realties sales manager C. J. Smith. The most spectacular exhibit is what Smith and all Westmounters take vicarious pride in calling “the only five-story bungalow in the country,” a house that offers the low silhouette of a ranchbungalow from the street but drops five glasswalled stories over a rock cliff in the rear. Its admirers add that it’s the only bungalow equipped with an automatic elevator.
Like Westmount, Outre-
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“To generations of Montrealers its park has offered a superb escape from a cramped city”
mont is a residential suburb, but a flat one that extends south on the plain behind the Mountain. Only a few of its streets mount into the rarefied air and price bracket of the hillside. The rest of Outremont’s corner of Mount Royal is given over to Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal’s principal Protestant burial ground. The Cimetière de Notre Dame des Neiges, the city’s chief Catholic cemetery. is immediately to its west (on mountainside that lies in the City of Montreal). Together the two sloping graveyards, which have both estimated they’ll go on receiving most of the city's dead of their respective faiths for a century to come, make the south slope of Mount Royal the greatest burial ground in Canada.
The southern boundary of the Catholic cemetery marks the northern limit of the campus of the University of Montreal, the largest French-language university outside Paris and Canada’s third-largest centre of higher learning after the Universities of Toronto and McGill. Since McGill, which in addition to its size enjoys a lofty reputation for advanced research and scholarship, stands directly across Mount Royal on the southern slope, the Mountain is easily Canada's greatest intellectual centre.
West of the University of Montreal the northern slope of Mount Royal is spectacularly sanctified ground. This is the site of the soaring neo-classic concrete basilica that crowns St. Joseph’s Oratory, the greatest shrine of Catholic pilgrimage in the Western Hemisphere. When Brother André, the miracle-working monk who founded the shrine to Canada's patron saint in 1904. died in 1937 at ninety-two, a million pilgrims filed pas. .. "'fier in six days. Their fervent followers nave made the Oratory a goahead business where exaltation is served with the refinements of modern merchandisingparking lots, escalators, automatic vending machines and self-service lunch counters. A few steps away from the votive chapel Wn* * ""dér ten thousand constantly burning lamps and vigil ligb*>a devotee can gaze on “an authentic relic of St. Jov(>oh" (a particle of his clothing), the same pilgrim can record the event in a coin-operated photo boot h.
Across Mount Royal on the eastern slope religion is even more completely adapted to the machine age. Since early last fall Montreal's mobile chaplain, the Rev. Paul Aquin, has held nightly services here for his parishioners, the city’s fifteen thousand taxi drivers. His chapel is two modern aluminum house-trailers, tandem-hitched. Behind the glassed-in organ-equipped church-service unit the second trailer ministers to less spiritual comforts with a snack bar, a television set, and a hi-fi circuit, for drivers weary of the road.
Between Le Bon Dieu en Taxi on the east and the Oratoire de St. Joseph on the west the flank of Mount Royal is stud,-.! with eight hospitals, among them v oldest, l'Hôtel Dieu, and most , u outhe Royal Victoria. These monu-
. »"to healing, along wath the Mount-fin's institutions of learning and piety. Mount Royal an august eminence , iched in any area of its size in Canada. But the Montrealer-in-the-street loves Mount Royal best where it is least touched, and looks to the wooded moun-
tain park on the summit to reconcile him to the hill's aggravations as a road-block.
Mount Royal Park is the crowning 480 acres of the City of Montreal’s piece of the Mountain. To Claude Robillard, the lean and elegant director of
Montreal City parks, it's “just one more" of the “roughly 335" parks under his jurisdiction. But to generations of Montrealers it's been a superb escape hatch from a cramped city, and legions of park connoisseurs, professional and amateur,
native and foreign, have described it as the finest natural big-city park in the world.
The park justifies these superlatives largely by recasting its attractions with the seasons; unlike most Canadian parks,
it’s as lively a day-out in midwinter as in high summer. When the season's first heavy snowfall has greased the hill it has all the racy challenge of an Alp to a youngster wobbling on his first pair of skis at the top of the two-ridos-for-anickel ski tow. This lift is “the greatest midtown metropolitan ski tow on earth, bar none,” and on a crisp weekend thirty thousand Montrealers ride it back up the easy slope. “Mount Royal may not have the most exciting skiing in the world, but it’s the safest,” observes one of the eightman police ski patrol, a hint of tame sport that doesn’t hold good for the crowded high - speed toboggan trails. When the two Mountain rinks are crosshatched by bright-toqued skaters, and posses of kids in cowboy jeans are ranging the packed trails on two-dollar-anhour hire horses, Mount Royal is a carnival of color and boisterous action.
In the spring color creeps from the cracks in the rock. Long after he reached the Pacific overland from Canada explorer Alexander Mackenzie lived on the west shoulder of Mount Royal, and the descendants of the wild flowers he grew as a hobby are among the early blossoms that blaze on the mountainface. White trilliums, bloodroot, hepatica, yellow dogtooth violets and small white and purple violets, Solomon’s seal, clintonia, twisted stalk and at least a dozen other species absorb legions of self-taught amateur naturalists. Specialists in fauna pad the mountain paths in search of any of the dozen varieties of animals that have been spotted on the slopes, from foxes and raccoons to star-nosed moles, brown bats and deer-mice, as well as a swarm of squirrels which, a newspaper reporter once estimated by a survey of nut sales, consume a billion peanuts a year. Bird watchers, meanwhile, can count as many as seventy-five wild pheasants as well as every variety of songbird that nests in eastern Canada.
By midsummer the Mountain’s thirty thousand trees are often outnumbered by Montrealers escaping from the sweltering island below. In the fall, worn men retreat from the city to maple groves like flaming cathedrals, although no one since has retreated as completely as John Prescott. who was born on Mount Royal in 1875 and rarely left it for the next sixtyseven years. Prescott’s father, a park gardener, died when his son was eleven, and young John went to work as a greenhouse boy. When he retired as foreman of horticulture in 1942, after a lifetime in the heart of Canada’s greatest metropolis, he was still a mountain man who had never worn out a pair of shoes walking on pavement. While the city had taken in almost a million new people, Prescott’s mountain had changed little: the only passing he mourned was the brave days of aristocratic horsemanship. “There used to be some beautiful fourin-hands passing this spot," he was fond of telling visitors to the Ranger’s House, a seventeenth-century park landmark. “It was particularly grand in wintertime, with fine sleighs, bells jingling, and fine fur robes covering everybody."
Sleigh bells still ring out on Mount Royal in winter, but not from the vanished equipages of the local gentry. At the first snowfall Montreal’s famous fiacres, those horse-drawn cabs that were once as much a part of the city scene as the Mountain itself, are stabled. The horses, dressed against the frost in bright snug ear muffs, are hitched to sleighs and their drivers run the packed trails for sight-seers, families, lovers, and parties of young bloods on singing sprees. For as little as two dollars you can be borne under a bearskin past the milling skaters at Beaver Lake, below the skiers on the
slope where once the Mount Royal Snowshoe and Toboggan Club’s wooden ski jump and toboggan chute stood, and on up to the Lookout, a paved promen ade that commands a matchless panorama of the city, the St. Lawrence, and the Green Mountains of Vermont beyond.
This winter, though, the outlook is gall for the sleigh drivers, who are only reminded by the sweep of the city streets below that the harried traffic police have finally barred their carrosses and sleighs from the downtown streets. With only the Mountain to win a livelihood on, the drivers have a foreboding of doom. They’ve banded into the Association des Cochers to campaign against the street ban, but so far they’ve fallen as hard together as they did divided. “They’re trying to make us disappear,” snorts association vice-president Sam Gertner, rattling his buggy whip. “They'll do all right,” answers Captain Poulin, the bluff boss of the Mountain police station. “I told them: if you do right, we won't bother you. If you do wrong, you’re out.’ ” The parks department is on the fence, as it often is in the storms of opinion that endlessly batter the Mountain. “The fiacre drivers should be encouraged—they’re picturesque—but they have to be controlled,” says parks director Claude Robillard, and there the battle rests.
Stevenson's “hopeless” park
This fracas is only the freshest skirmish in the continuing contention over the Mountain that began long before the French explorer Jacques Cartier saw it early in the sixteenth century, to judge by Hochelaga. the curious Iroquois fortress he discovered on the slope. “There is in the town but one gate, which fastens with bars . . . and galleries with ladders to mount them, which are furnished with stones for the town's defense.” Hochelaga, Cartier further noted, was “near to and adjoining a Mountain, which is cultivated round about it and highly fertile. from the summit of which one sees a very great distance.” Cartier raked his eye over the horizon and named the hill Mont Royal.
In 1826 the burghers of Montreal threw up a wooden fortress of their own on the Mountain against a rumored attack by American troops. But they didn’t hear a shot until high noon on Nov. 10. 1862. when they were assailed by the blast of cannon and stared up apprehensively to see puffs of gunsmoke drifting across the face of Mount Royal. The salvo had been fired by a detail led by Alderman A. A. Stevenson, who doubled as commander of the local artillery detachment. Stung by his fellow aldermen, who were “amazed and amused” by his proposal for a park on Mount Royal because the Mountain was “hopelessly inaccessible,” Stevenson had hauled his cannon to the summit and fired away.
His coup was dramatic enough to make the city council start debating the Mountain park proposal seriously. By 1872 the city had bought the tipper 380 acres of Mount Royal, which later purchases from sixteen private owners have raised to 480 acres, and had retained the landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park to lay out a “natural” park.
When Frederick Law Olmsted first saw Mount Royal he was the acknowledged master of his art on this continent, and he believed that the Mountain park might be his noblest design. Eight fretful years later he wrote (and published at his own expense in New York) a book titled Mount Royal. “The matter (of
drawing up a plan) gave me a great deal of labor and was a source of constant anxiety for three years.” he lamented. The Park’s political administrators, he said, were chipping and hacking at his design so footlessly that the result would be a “burlesque.”
It was probably inertia that saved the broad features of Olmsted's design; before the turn of the century the main roads and gradients had been built as he mapped them, and for the next fifty years new projects were usually debated so long they died. A few fixtures came and went: a funicular railway, a scenic streetcar line, a ski jump and toboggan chute. None of them is still standing, but the passing of the toboggan chute at least may have been foreshadowed by a Chinese official's comment. John Prescott, the gardener who lived his life out on the Mountain, told of overhearing an exchange between the Chinese, who was being given the visiting dignitaries' tour of Montreal, and a civic councilman who urged him to climb aboard a toboggan at the head of the chute.
“What’s the use?" shrugged the fatalistic Easterner. “F-t-t. Then walk a mile back up.”
He might have made a similar assessment of golf, but the Royal Montreal Golf Club abandoned its course on the Mountain flank in 1897 only because it was growing too fast. When eight local sportsmen applied for the Montreal club's charter in 1873 it was the first golf club on this continent. "The solid gutta-percha balls we used then wouldn't carry more than 150 yards,” recalls Cecil McDougald, who played on the Mountain course as a schoolboy. "And in those days your caddie didn’t carry your clubs. He went ahead to spot your ball, and marked it with a pin flying a red flag.”
Farther up the Mountain more conservative sportsmen were pacing the carriage drives behind matched teams or training some of the finest show horses in Lower Canada. In the vanished horsering of the Seventeenth Hussars the giant stallion Confidence was being schooled in the form that lifted him over a 7-foot, 7'/2-inch bar and made him champion high-jumper of the world. When the Thirties made glamour bad taste, the city council agreed on a couple of make-work jobs for the Mountain. A meadow was dug out by hand to create an artificial lake fed by an artesian well. The diggers turned up fossilized seashells and the skeleton of a beaver dam “hundreds of feet" long, and the pond was named Beaver Lake. At the Lookout, the bluff that commands the sweeping view made famous by half a century of picture postcards, men from the relief rolls built an Alpine hall called the Chalet. It was tabled as a three-hundredthousand-dollar project and was brought in at a million and a quarter, proving that the depression wasn't proof against ballooning government contracts.
Across the summit from the Chalet a four-thousand-tree Mountain reforestation program took as its first target an infamous strip of matted undergrowth known for decades as “the jungle." The tangled brush was the lair of homeless and sometimes vicious men. In the 1940s a ten-year-old was carried into the thicket, used perversely, and killed; couples were sometimes menaced. When the jungle was rooted out and spaced saplings planted, one of the few reservations in Montreal’s affection for the Mountain disappeared.
But by and large the most active force at work on the Mountain was erosion, and by the mid-Fifties now-prosperous Montrealers were in the right temper to subsidize a Mount Royal renaissance.
The City of Montreal parks department called in a second New York firm of landscape architects to take up where Frederick Olmsted had dropped the job in despair eighty years earlier. This time the U. S. firm, Clarke and Rapuano, is under the hand of a professional administrator instead of a political committee. But his dispassionate attack hasn’t saved Claude Robillard. the director of Montreal’s parks, from the same hot outrage that has scorched everybody else who’s proposed tampering with Mount Royal.
“Harsh words and bitter controversy,”
as the Montreal Star commented, caused "endless postponement” of the first big job on Robillard’s redevelopment schedule, a million-dollar four-lane parkway that straddles the Mountain from east to west. The three-mile road was finally opened last July, and a few weeks later the never-say-die Montreal Council of Social Agencies realistically “accepted" the road it had fought but resolved to seek a ban on "any further change or encroachment" on the Mountain.
The council's belligerent vigilance was typical of the ninety-year-old school of
thought that holds the Mountain needs no improvement, merely preservation, to fill its place in the city’s life perfectly. Robillard answers his critics in tones of patient reason: “All I’m interested in is providing access to open parkland for more people, and providing them with what they need when they get there.” This means, according to the master plan now adopted for the Mountain, building a second strip of parkway to link with the first and form a belt around the Mountain; building a five-to-tenthousand-seat amphitheatre; a “good”
restaurant to reinforce the hundredthousand-dollar hot-dog stand already built at Beaver Lake; a nature centre; a geological museum; a 350-foot tower to handle all future Montreal television broadcasting antennas; more toboggan trails and “maybe a bobsled run,” a clutch of new service buildings, picnic facilities and other minor improvements.
Among other things, this master plan is a long lease on life for the great Mount Royal debate. “We’ve seen a plan for ‘improving’ Mount Royal that would shock the people of Montreal,” the president of the Parks & Playgrounds Association assured his fellow-citizens a year ago. But outrage is anybody’s game: “I’ve seen plans for a car tunnel that made my hair stand straight up,” parks director Robillard admits ruefully. In their turn Letendre, Monti & Associates, the consulting engineers who designed the tunnel at the order of the city, see in the complex four-direction, ninety-sixmillion-dollar tube network “the only permanent solution" to the traffic blockade thrown up by Mount Royal.
City council is sold; the tunnel study claims the tube will move cars under the entire length of the Mountain in six minutes, a reduction in driving time that
“seems fantastic" even to the engineers who worked it out. But finding financing for a hole this big is at least as tricky a problem as digging it, and meanwhile Montreal’s apoplectic motorists grind into the congested Mountain streets. Above them red-cheeked kids slide squealing down the slopes on discs of polished aluminum. It won’t be until spring, when the wild flowers blossom, that the only other people who stay out of the great Mount Royal debate will be back.
Then the lovers will steal onto the Mountain paths again. Their rhapsodic return is promised every winter night in the upstairs room of a café on one of the streets that climb the Mountain’s foot. When the five troupers in the Café André’s “intimate review” begin belting out a number called Up On The Mountain. the audience exchanges knowing nudges. They nod agreement as four choruses describe an after-dark revel that sounds like a night out for the Caliph of Baghdad. And they cheer when the troupe hits the last triumphant promise of an amorous spring to come:
Up on the Mountain
On a Sa-tur-day n-i-i-i-ght! ★