Come Up With the Mountain
From Montreal's mountain top, Canada's great humorist casts sparkling new light on the scene of our dramatic past
COME ON UP to the top of the mountain. For no tour of Montreal, no book on the city is complete without such a visit. And this lovely afternoon of the closing month of May shows the mountain at its very best, unsullied as yet in its billows of luxuriant green.
The mountain, it is true, seems to have dropped out of this volume* since its earliest chapters. It always does in the pages of Canadian history. Jacques Cartier goes to the top of it; Maisonneuve erects a cross upon its summit, and then, apparently no one goes up to it for three hundred years. It does not appear in history again until in 1920 when a pious and energetic provincial secretary re-erects Maisonneuve’s mountain cross. There, with its vast frame of steel at the loftiest corner of Mount Royal, it stands visible in daylight from the city below and with its myriad lights visible at night over river and country for fifty miles. The Cross of Christ, in this case frequently spoken of as Athanase David’s Cross, still guards the city.
The writer of this book—by which I mean myself, for I wrote it—can well act as guide, having walked the mountain now for forty-two years. But let us on such a pleasant excursion dismiss the formal dignity as between writer and reader and talk as between ourselves.
You note at once how relatively insignificant the mountain appears at a first view from the city. This is like the disappointment so generally felt, at first sight, at the small size of Niagara Falls. But just as Niagara gains in majesty from day to day, so
•"Montreal: Seaport and City” by Stephen Leacock:
Doubleday Doran & Co., McClelland and Stewart Ltd.
does the mountain gain a loftier attitude. This is partly an effect of the weather and the atmosphere. At times, as on a clear winter day, it shrinks till it seems little more than a rim of frost above the city sky line. But at times of gathering thunder it rises high like a shield of rock towering to protect its city.
But the diminution of the mountain arises also from the fact that the city has climbed halfway up it. What Cartier and Champlain saw from the riverbank was vastly different from what is seen now. The St. Lawrence River at Montreal in midsummer has an altitude of thirty feet above the level of the sea. The harbor wharves lie twenty feet above that. The Windsor Station is one hundred and ten feet above sea level. As you go uptown you come to the tunnel that plunges under the mountain just beside the great Roman Catholic Cathedral. The tunnel must be on a level almost the same as Windsor Station, and McGill University when the tunnel dives under it is eighty feet above the tunnel, and the city reservoir is, at a guess, almost one hundred feet above McGill; and eighty feet, say eighty feet, above the reservoir level
again, there runs Pine Avenue belted round the waist of the mountain. These altitudes, except the sea level itself, may not be absolutely correct, but they are good enough for your trip up the mountain. They only mean that you are nearly halfway up, over 350 feet of its total 763, before the mountain gets a chance to begin. Indeed, private land, built on or ready to be built on, climbs so high and so eagerly all around the slopes of Mount Royal that it is too late to save it now as what it should have been. It would have been so easy at the start. It is everywhere. Ask anybody from Philadelphia what might have been done with Philadelphia, or ask anybody from San Francisco why they did to it whatever it is that they have done to it, and the answer is always the same. As to New York it was ruined before it began, and London has never recovered from the Saxons. But if there is ever again a new city, let it learn to beat down private property as you beat down house dogs from the breakfast table.
No Easy Way Up
SO LET us go up. You ask how do we go? Well, that’s just the trouble; there isn’t any real way to go. In fact, the great majority of the 1,092,422 of Greater Montreal have never been to the top of the mountain. There are no statistics on this question, and I admit that if you took one of the popular polls that now obviate and obliterate popular thought, you would find that ninety-nine per cent of the Montreal people have been up on top of the mountain. But that is because the kind of people who go up to the top of a mountain are the
kind of people who send an answer to a popular poll; and the kind of people who live beside a mountain and never go up it are the kind of people who never answer popular polls. But if you take the common experience of those who walk Mount Royal you will find it always comparatively empty. Often, even at nine in the morning, on a fine day, you may walk around a half-mile circuit on its open summit and see not a living soul; you may walk easily a quarter of a mile, and perhaps half a mile, down the winding road and still look in vain for that same soul. It is true that for three hours on a fine Sunday morning the mountain becomes a promenade, but this is a special crowd like the flock of young skiers that tears its frozen snows on a winter day, telemarking among the trees.
As we say, there is no easy way up. Years ago there was an inclined railway, but it was so wheezy and uncertain, its beams trembled so much at its own temerity, that they disinclined it. While it was there it started from the streetcar level in an attractive open car, all fresh air and wickerwork, up a slope as pleasant as that of sin itself; it ran to the most precipitous face of the mountain, then shifted into a caged-in car, all set on a slant so as to come straight on a track that was crooked, and then, with a clanking of cables and a wheezing of machinery, up it went above the treetops, its passengers turning green at the ascent. Women didn’t mind it so much, since women always trust machinery as they do men; but men who distrust machinery as they distrust women were glad to get out of it. So it was disjointed and never rebuilt.
Nor can you ride up in your motorcar, since motorcars are excluded from the mountain. Excluded also is the streetcar company. It is true that the streetcars have found a cunning way round, by the back of the mountain where the slope is gentler, a route as strategic as Napoleon’s plan of invading Europe by going to Egypt. It winds its hidden way behind a screen of trees and conceals itself cleverly under the hillside of a cemetery, and so crosses the entire mountain, reaching quite an altitude, then runs down a concealed ditch and out again, without anyone suspecting it. All cities have these engineering triumphs.
No, we have to drive with a horse. Since it is too far to walk all the way up and around the top and down again, we must take one of those special Montreal mountain cabs for which the route is reserved. These open cabs, carriages, if you will, or caleches, if you like, or victorias if you must, are the last survivors of a past age like the sailing whaling ship and the sedan chair. The horse ended in Montreal as elsewhere in a cloud of gasoline. Time was when it was not so. The city of forty years ago lent itself to the glory of the private carriage. Along the firm winter snow of its wide upper streets swept the open supersleighs that bore the superrich, buried deep under astrakhan fur, in front of them two flunkies in tall bearskins and fur capes, one to drive and one not to drive. Between the beautiful horses that seemed to dance before the equipage rang tall silver bells on a prong like a Russian troika. In summer beneath the leaves a lesser glory displayed an even greater luxury, silk hats for bearskins and livery replacing fur.
Of Hack men, Dejected And Otherwise
ALL THAT is gone. The mournful hackXJL man sits his box, waiting for us to embark. We see as soon as ever he begins the ascent that he is one of two kinds, of only two. He may sit sunk in dejection, his head bowed like Rodin’s “Thinker” while his tattered horse hauls us its gradual, laborious way ; or he may commence at once, gesticulating with his whip, that flow of information that in some hackmen is not to be quenched, not even by alcohol.
But it is better to pay little heed to his murmurings. His mountain is not yours.
You will get no history out of him. Don’t ask him about Cartier and Maisonneuve.
Especially not about Cartier; for if you do he’ll wave his whip sideways and tell you that right over there you can see the top of Cartier’s monument, the tall stone pillar with a bronze angel on top. He says it is just close to where they used to build the Ice Palace. Having said this and started a thrill of historic interest, he will then spoil it all by adding that his father always voted for Cartier. After which you have to sleep that off among the leaves as best you can.
You see, he lives here. He is only interested in what happened yesterday. He will show you where they held that horse show last year and where the Mayor of Montreal shook hands with the Mayor of Westmount; if you let him he will drive a little out of the way to show you where one of the city aldermen lives. Even as it is, he begins as soon as you reach the first slopes of the mountain road to point down to the houses below and say where people live. There is the house where Sir Edward so and so lives, and there is the one that used to be Sir Henry so and so’s. Sir Henry, it appears, was a very fine man, very fond of driving up the mountain with him, our hackman, just as we are doing. Sir Henry was a generous man; it seems he always paid a dollar extra over the regular fare. He used to say, “Take that for thehorse”; yes sir, always that extra dollar for the horse. The last time they drove it was a day like this one. What’s this—the thirtieth of May. Well, that’s odd, because the last time the hackman drove Sir Henry up here it was on a thirtieth of May. That’s queer, isn’t it? Sir Henry, it seems, is a great loss. We need men like that . . .
So it is well, perhaps, not to talk with the driver. Let us think of his figure as there in front of us, like the mathematicians call a constant in a function. If you pay no attention he will cancel out . . .
A Mountain That Blew Its Top
WE WIND up a road that has been cut as a spiral of gradual ascent, never too steep for the horse to walk, just too steep for the horse to run. All the mountain has a thin cover of trees through which one sees more and more of the widening prospect below—the city, the river, and the country beyond. Then as we turn the last wind of the winding road we lose sight of the city, and there we are on the open “top” of the mountain—not
the highest point but what is evidently the top. It is a great hollow space, mostly open grass dotted with the bushes, sunk like a shallow bowl with banks of trees rising all round it. Sometimes we can see no farther than these trees, but here and there we can see, through gaps in them, ever so far away, a glimpse to the north of a “vast and beautiful country”—the woods of Vaudreuil— reaching to the Laurentian Mountains.
Sunk in the bottom of the bowl is a beautiful artificial pond, almost a little lake, with fiagstoned banks and beds of flowers all in a row—a bit of art against nature. This, we are told, was long ago a beaver pond.
The mountain top suggests, you say, the crater of a volcano. Why, that’s exactly what it is, not exactly what the geologist would call a crater, but the stump of a volcano that has blown its top off, crater and all. This that is left is what geology calls the “plutonic core,” once just a shapeless bulk of bare rock. Time’s hand has long since covered it to make it nature’s garden.
That was long, long ago, long even to a geologist. Dr. Frank Adams, the distinguished professor emeritus of McGill, the leading authority on the subject, reckons it from thirty to forty million years. Yet even that was not the geological beginning of Montreal. Deep down under the mountain itself is the bed of old Laurentian rock; overlying that is what is called familiarly (by geologists) the Ordovician, a bed of rocks mostly limestone in which are found marine fossils from the ancient sea and through which the mountain broke upward. The volcanic action shot a great shaft of steam and ashes and uptorn rock toward the sky. As the column fell it tore away the core of the volcano itself, leaving only this core. Later came the glacial age, burying all under ice, to leave behind the “moraine,” boulder clay. Over this came the present upper surface of postglacial deposit, clay and sand.
This means, then, that there was a time when these pleasant hollows, this wide sunken cup that marks the empowered summit of Mount Royal, showed the place where the volcano long ages ago blew off its top. Time must have been when the glow of the angry fires lit up the sky and, reflected on the waters of the inland sea that then lay at the foot of the mountain, must have carried far across to the north to be reflected from the fireless stones that are the Laurentian Hills.
A Shrine And a Look-out
BUT that’s enough geology. As we drive along the high side of the bowl the city is hidden still but one sees, off in the other direction, and rising clear above the trees, the great dome of the basilica of the Shrine of St. Joseph, so vast that it seems to dwarf even nature itself. Indeed the nature lover, if unaware of its meaning and sacred character, might well think it a blot on the landscape. Yet this shrine has acquired within the last forty years a reputation almost eqUal to that of the famous Ste. Anne de Beaupre beside Quebec. Here was built at the close of the nineties by the Corporation of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, whose college stands near by, a chapel to contain a statue of St. Joseph. Here began the ministrations of Brother Andre, presently called the Miracle Man of Mount Royal. The wonderful cures effected and the spiritual relief afforded to thousands of the sick and the lame led to the building, behind the shrine, of the great basilica. It stands on the rising slope at the foot of the Little Mountain. It can accommodate five thousand people. It rises two hundred feet high. Up the one hundred stone steps that lead to its doors the supplicants climb on their knees, in the two great public supplications for divine intercession held every year on May 10 and on Labor Day.
But our winding through the trees of the Continued on page 21
Come Up the Mountain
Continued from page 20—Starts on page 19
mountain top has now brought us from the bowl back again to the face overlooking the city and we are now on the point of the mountain called Observation Point, or commonly the Look Out. It is by no means the highest point on the mountain but it commands the widest prospect. A natural projecting ledge of the rocky mountainside falls away sharply, so that a wide-open view, a panorama, is afforded, both far to the rignt and far to the left, over the trees and the city and up and down the river and across the river. This ledge has been converted to a wide, semicircular pavement, some two hundred feet across, with a cement balustrade over which, on such a lovely day as this, little groups of people lean, looking at the view.
Suppose we let the cabman go; we don’t need him—we can walk down. What about giving him . . .You remember what he said about Sir Henry? Good, I will.
As we look out over the balustrade it is the sense of distance that first strikes us, just as it did Jacques Cartier; miles and miles of it, clear away to a dim, flat horizon with mountains on it here and there, each little block of them dimmer than the last. We are looking right out over the city, over the trees just below us —we can almost touch the tops—and beyond it over the St. Lawrence coming down from our right, as far away as we can see, passing below us in the foreground, and then moving on to the left to be lost again where the shoulder of the mountain blocks our sight.
BUT FOR the moment the distance holds us. Those nearest mountains—they are over twenty miles away—are beside the Richelieu. The tallest one, reaching to a high point from which there must be a wonderful view all round the compass at once, is Beloeil—or “good eye”—which is the French for what they call Bellevue in the States. It overlooks the Richelieu. Our little guidebook tells all about Fort Sorel and Fort Chambly and the Indian Wars and the Patriots of 1837, but we don’t need that. Our cabman, if we had kept him, would have told us about the horse show at Sorel last fall and say we ought to come back for it this fall, but he’s off, trundling down the winding slopes at a pleasant jog trot, half asleep under the leaves, as happy as the horse. So we can pick the mountains out for ourselves —Rougemont, and that one like a sugar cone must be Johnson. How far away is it? Let me look it up—a hundred and twenty-four miles! Just imagine that ! A hundred and twentyfour miles!—oh, wait, I beg your pardon—twenty-four miles! Imagine that instead!
Farther still to the southeast is the dim outline of the Green Mountains in Vermont, seventy-eight miles away, and almost straight south, the top end of the Adirondacks, sixty miles away. Looking at them, our
eye catches the river again, far away to the right; the Lachine Rapids— we can just see them or just not see them —are half hidden by islands. To see them you must take a flying carpet and fly to them from the mountain, and make it not the end of May but the end of March, with the river breaking ojien and all one wild roar of rushing water and breaking ice that you hear half a mile away. Stand at the turn of the old Lachine Road, lonely still, and you can hear the sound come from across the river and from down the stream, the “hiss” of the smashed ice rushing past your feet and the undertone, the “roar,” from a mile away . . . “My hair stood on end,” said Champlain at the terror of it.
But come back; get on the carpet and come up, turn it back to the thirtieth of May. And let us look down at the nearer view, the city itself, the towering stone buildings of the Sun Life and the Royal Bank— that beats any rapids, doesn’t it?— and the great grain elevators. There’s so much on the river front that we can’t see the ships, not the ones in dock. The harbor lies framed between great bridges, the Jacques Cartier downstream and the Victoria up. The shipping we do not see. But look off to the left, away off; you wouldn’t realize that that’s an Atlantic liner coming up, but it is.
Then we look nearer—all the business city seems a tumble of houses and all the huddle of the slums smothered over and looking all right at a distance, as poverty always does. As we follow the city up the slope of the town, trees break out in it, and then more trees; that enchanted wood with stone tops sticking out of it is McGill University; the small object moving slowly along a road in front of it is a professor hurrying to his lecture. Beside the university lies the residential district of the rich that were; beautiful indeed, as seen from here, for the trees cover all traces of the demolitions, and the placards of houses for sale are too far away to read.
Even above this the houses among the trees climb higher and higher still, unwilling to let go, unwilling to admit the mountain too steep, till they reach the last, their highest throne, in the beautiful little Redpath Crescent whose slated houses and lovely gardens we can see just below. Just below? Why, it looks as if we could almost touch them . . It can’t be more than, what, two hundred feet? Look! You can see the people, almost hear them, look at the bright dresses. Why, of course, it must be a wedding party! How charming! Good luck to them, whoever they are, starting life together, high, high up .. .
As we reach this point in our speculations we hear beside us, coming up from among a little group of visitors looking over the balustrade, the voice of a statistician (they are not forbidden on the mountain) or, what is worse, the voice of a statistical
tourist who only lives to give information, explaining:
The Island of Montreal is thirty miles long and betiveen seven and ten miles wide. The city occupies almost one quarter of it. Montreal itself has a population of a million and Greater Montreal a million and a half. Montreal has 127 parks, playgrounds, and gardens. It has 2f7 churches. It has 907 miles of streets. It has 19 hospitals, 2,600 manufacturing plants and 773 miles of sewers . . .
Come away! It’s time to go. And don’t admire the man’s erudition. He got it all out of the blue pages of the Montreal Telephone Book except the population: he makes that up himself. But in any case we want to move on so as to get to the top of the mountain in the literal sense, for the high shoulder where the great cross stands is far higher up than the Observation Point.
E REACH it by the winding road, or, if we like, straight through among the sparse trees of the summit of the mountain. We wish now that we had kept the cabman—it’s quite a walk. But it has been worth it, for now we can see all the lovely country beyond the mountain—the islands of Montreal and Jesus and the Laurentian Slope. Let me show you the Sault au Recollet rapids, away off this way, and now, if you want to see the St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary, look right out toward—You don’t? No, perhaps not. Seems terrible, doesn’t it?—those great high walls with guards on top, walls so high that the people in the yards can never see the beauty around them; they can hear the river and not see it . . .
Look farther then. Away off there is St. Eustache, where they killed the rebels—you can’t see it, but it’s there. And away at the end, most beautiful of all, is the Lake of the Two Mountains, lovely as its own name. The island ends there and where it ends is Ste. Anne’s, the village of the “evening chime.” Close by Ste.
Anne’s—you can’t see them but you can see where they are—are some of the most beautiful country estates and lakeshore houses in all America. They look out over the lake toward the sunset. Some are historic too. They represent, and here and there part of their buildings actually were standing then, the old French “fiefs” granted and occupied as a sort of first line of defense from Indian raiders coming down the two rivers.
Such is Boisbriant, just beside the little village of Senneville. It was a “fief” granted to Sidrac du Gue (1672) then passed into the hands of the famous Charles le Moyne de Longueuil, then to Jacques le Ber and later to Le Ber de Senneville. A round stone tower was built as a fort and windmill (1686). It underwent fierce attacks by the Iroquois in 1687 and 1691 in the first of which, at any rate, several people were massacred. A real Fort Senneville was built in 1692, its ruins still existing. After that a manor house was built, which itself was enlarged into a fort. It had a long history extending to an attack made by Benedict Arnold in 1776.
All about the present manor house and the beautiful lawn and gardens which surround it are the characteristic memorials of two and a half centuries of history, which lend distinction to these surviving remnants of New France.
When Jacques Cartier looked around this vast circuit he saw a country that seemed empty—north and south and east and west—just as nature made it. All the fifteen hundred miles south to Florida, empty; all the fifteen hundred miles north to Ungava, empty. The visitor of today looks south over the same fifteen hundred miles that is now the greatest area of industrial civilization in the world. He looks north, but beyond the Montreal islands and a little strip of ski-side of the hills all is empty, still empty, largely unknown.
Yet on the north side the available energy of water power and the latent mineral wealth (apart from coal) are incomparably greater than that to the south. •
Come, it is time to get down from the mountain. There are things to do.