May 24, 1876: Inauguration of Mount Royal Park
A parade and cannon-fire open the park: Mount Royal Park was officially inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance on Victoria Day, May 24, 1876!
Mount Royal Park was officially opened on Queen Victoria’s birthday, Wednesday, May 24, 1876. The opening ceremony on the mountain was preceded by a parade through the streets of Montréal.
The parade left from the post office on St. Jacques Street in old Montréal at 10 a.m. As reported in the Opinion Publique, a newspaper of the period, the procession set off in no particular order and stopped for a while on Bleury Street, where three volunteer regiments, escorted by their musical bands, momentarily blocked traffic.
The procession then turned onto the newly paved St. Catherine Road and made its way to the summit of the mountain along the magnificent thoroughfare.
Citizens came out to the mountain in their thousands to await the arrival of the parade and the inauguration ceremonies, laden with provisions for “a pantagruelic picnic seasoned with a great deal of gaiety,” according to the Opinion Publique.
A few minutes before noon, Dr. Wolfred Nelson, Councillor, and Chair of the Mount Royal Park Commission, invited the Mayor of Montréal, William H. Hingston, to open the day’s proceedings.
But it was Mayor Aldis Bernard who had been the prime mover behind the creation of the park. At City Hall from 1873 to 1875, Aldis Bernard was nicknamed the mayor of parks. It was under his administration that three major park projects were undertaken. Besides Mount Royal Park, Montrealers were given two other public green spaces: Île Sainte-Hélène and Lafontaine Park (Logan farm).
Shortly before Mayor Hingston ended his address, the four cannons of Colonel Stevenson’s battery fired the first salvo of the royal salute, which was responded to by the artillery of Île Sainte-Hélène.
This was not the first time that Colonel Stevenson had fired his cannon from the mountain. In response to those who claimed that the mountain was inaccessible, he climbed Mount Royal with his battery twice, in 1862 and 1863, and fired the cannon from the summit. His gesture did not go unnoticed and Colonel Stevenson thus contributed in his own way to the creation of Mount Royal Park.
The opening ceremony featured other speakers besides Councillor Nelson and Mayor Hingston. One of them was Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Mount Royal Park. This famous landscape architect, the creator of New York’s Central Park, had been mandated by the city of Montréal to plan the park.
Olmsted wished to preserve the natural charm of the mountain. The winding path he laid out, which today bears his name, was designed to allow people to discover the beauty of this natural space. He wanted the park to be accessible to everyone, regardless of social class or physical condition. His wish was to be fulfilled.
When the speeches ended, Colonel Stevenson began the hundred-gun salute marking the occasion. Mount Royal Park’s opening day would be fondly remembered by the thousands of Montrealers who attended the festivities.
Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted drew the design plans for Mount Royal Park in an age where he was considered the most famous landscape architect in North America.
To appreciate Olmsted's work, one must keep in mind the era in which he lived. Olmsted lived from 1822 to 1903 and witnessed the transformation of North America from a rural and agricultural society to an urbanized and industrialized one. In 1800, only 10% of Americans lived in communities of over 1,000, but by 1910, 46% of the population lived in urban centres.
In the 1830s, trains began to run in the United States. By 1840, there were 5,000 kilometres of track. In 1900, people and merchandise could travel on a network of 320,000 kilometres of railroad track.
Social change did not occur without problems. In midlife, Olmsted began attempting to mitigate the upheavals of industrialization and urbanization through his work as a landscape architect. Before that, he had explored the world and worked at several trades in the fast-changing western world. Each of his experiences influenced his approach to landscape and nature.
A descendant of founding pilgrims from New England, Olmsted was born in 1822 in Hartford to a family of merchants. His childhood was influenced by the landscapes of the Connecticut River, which he explored with his family. By the time he was 18, he had attended 13 different schools ranging from neighbourhood schools run by kindly gentlewomen to brutal boarding schools and strict religious institutions. His education was interspersed with salutary hiking trips through the countryside. He worked as a clerk in New York for two years before returning to Hartford at the age of 20. He then spent a year hiking, camping and sailing.
OLMSTED THE TRAVELLER
At 21, Olmsted became a deck hand on a sailing ship to China. This one-year voyage brought him face to face with misery, and awakened a desire to improve the living conditions of sailors. Upon his return, he roamed again for two years and developed two passions: farming and reading great authors of the period such as Emerson and Carlyle.
After becoming an apprentice farmer at 24, he became the owner of two farms in succession, both beside the water. It was there that Olmsted, still single, formulated a rural ideal of the independent farmer with a family, involved in developing and improving his community. Through a mixture of agricultural and spiritual techniques, Olmsted sought to build a model community.
In 1850, another voyage was to influence his life. At 28, he sailed to Europe for a six-month walking tour. His arrival in Liverpool provided a real contrast: on one side of the ship, industrial chimneys, and on the other, the English countryside unfolding beyond the beach. Olmsted fell in love with the English landscape. However, he was horrified by the contrast between the beautiful gardens of the English aristocracy and the wretchedness of ordinary people.
He observed that the living conditions in industrial cities were often worse than those of slaves, who were often treated better than the children toiling in factories. From then on, Olmsted sought to make the beauty of green spaces, until then the reserve of the aristocracy, accessible to all Americans.
OLMSTED THE WRITER
Upon his return, Olmsted began to write. He frequented literary circles and published a book about the American spirit encountering Europe. At 30, he became a reporter for the New York Times and travelled for 14 months in the southeastern United States writing about slavery. One of his conclusions was that slavery accounted for the South's late development. When he returned, Olmsted even became involved with supplying arms to a farming community that wished to remain outside this system.
At 33, Olmsted wanted to carve out a place in what he called the 'literary republic,' made up of those who ruled the world through ideas. He began working for a publishing company as a literary agent in Europe. As he travelled throughout Europe, the landscapes he was seeing began to take on as much importance as books. When the company went bankrupt, Olmsted, discouraged, had to find a new vocation.
OLMSTED AND CENTRAL PARK
At 35, the man of letters began working in a manual field. He became the superintendent of Central Park, the new park being built in New York. There was no precise plan, so a design competition had been held, and was won by Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux. Olmsted directed 4000 men in the largest public works project in the country. Problems with the paymaster led him to quit in 1861, just as the American Civil War was breaking out. Again, he had to look for a new profession.
THE QUEST CONTINUES
He then became superintendent of the Sanitary Commission, forerunner to the Red Cross. At 39, he was running the largest philanthropic enterprise in the United States. In addition to overseeing the organization's operations to support the voluntary troops, Olmsted commanded the boats that brought the wounded to safe zones. With 600,000 deaths, this war remains the costliest, in terms of human life, in American history. Exhausted and embroiled in disagreements with his employers, Olmsted left the Commission two years before the end of the war, to seek a new path.
He went on to become superintendent of a mine in Mariposa, in the California desert. The disreputable mining company brought Olmsted in contact with a frontier mentality straight out of a Western movie, with native people being killed like flies and conflicts often being resolved with knives or guns.
UNDER THE SPELL OF THE LANDSCAPE
Demoralized, Olmsted was captivated by the sequoias and landscapes of Yosemite. Their natural beauty was a balm to the soul after the brutality of the mine. He attempted to protect these sites and was among the first to clearly formulate reasons for preserving natural landscapes for the well-being of the general public through the creation of large national parks. He began writing a book on barbarism and civilization that he was never to finish.
At 43, he decided to return to the East Coast. Industrialized cities were growing fast. Olmsted feared that the barbarism of badly planned urbanization would only increase the disparity between the beautiful neighbourhoods of the rich and the miserable ghettos of the poor. He worked until his death to palliate the upheavals of industrialization and urbanization, enhancing cities with the landscapes that illuminated the works of great authors and landscape painters: the same landscapes and writings that had soothed his soul.
Written by Tom Berryman