History of Mount Royal

Find out why this small mountain at the heart of Montréal occupies such a big place in the city’s history, heritage and identity.

Circa 3000 B.C.

Shaped by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago, the mountain is, in fact, a cluster of three hills.

Its imposing presence in the centre of the island, views of the river and majestic forests made it a choice location for indigenous peoples travelling through the region thousands of years ago. The mountain was also a rich source of hornfels, sharp-edged rocks used instead of flint to make tools and weapons for hunting.

Over time, indigenous populations would have used the mountain’s wood to build villages and its fertile land to grow their main agricultural crops—corn, squash and beans—known as the Three Sisters.

Like many other mountains, Mount Royal was undoubtedly a place of great importance in the cultural and sacred landscape of the people.

1535 : Jacques Cartier Deems the Mountain Royal

On his second journey to the New World, Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River where he was welcomed by the indigenous villagers of Hochelaga who lead him up a nearby mountain covered with magnificent woods and offering impressive views.

In awe of the luxuriant landscape, or perhaps in honour of his king, Jacques Cartier named this mountain “Mont Royal”.

1643 : A Cross on the Mountain

On December 24, 1642, a torrential downpour threatened the colony of Ville-Marie. Fearing the rising waters of the St. Lawrence River, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, prayed to the Blessed Virgin, promising her a cross on the mountain if she spared them from a flood.

His prayers were answered and, in the early days of January, Maisonneuve carried a wooden cross on his shoulders to Mount Royal.

1821 : Mount Royal, Home to Higher Education

Montréal was expanding at a rapid rate, and its flourishing population began to settle down in the surrounding countryside.

The mountain’s fresh air, fertile soil and bucolic landscape attracted rich businessmen such as James McGill. Having himself attended the University of Glasgow, this Scottish trader deplored the lack of teaching institutions in Montréal and, upon his death, bequeathed his domain on the mountain so that it would become a school.

In 1821, McGill University was established on the mountain, becoming one of Canada’s first academic institutions.

Education began to thrive on Mount Royal as Collège de Montréal moved to Sherbrooke West in 1870 and Collège Notre-Dame to Côte-des-Neiges in 1881. The Université de Montréal inaugurated its new campus on the mountain in 1943.

1852 : Mount Royal on Heaven’s Doorstep

In this thriving city now the metropolis of the country, the pressing issue of what to do with the departed could no longer be ignored.

For reasons of hygiene and lack of space, it was decided to bury the dead away from the urban centre, in large cemeteries on the mountain. As of 1852, the Mount Royal Cemetery welcomed Anglophone Protestant souls in a magnificent garden-inspired landscape.

Established in 1854, the Catholic cemetery Notre-Dame-des-Neiges evokes a classical spirit and taste for nature in a French style inspired by the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris. Today, it is the largest cemetery in Canada.

The Jewish population also headed to Mount Royal to bury its dead. In 1854, the Shearith Israel cemetery (cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue) was established and, in 1863, the Shaar Hashomayim cemetery.

The mountain’s new vocation as a memorial site subsequently allowed large sections of it to avoid the threat of urbanization.


Prehistoric Cemetery

History reveals that indigenous peoples also buried their dead on the mountain in prehistoric times. The discovery of several burial sites at various locations on Mount Royal is proof of the mountain’s importance and sacred value to indigenous peoples living on the island of Montréal thousands of years ago.

1861 : Mount Royal, Better Health Care

The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the population of Montréal faced pollution, lack of hygiene and epidemics.

The hygienist movement of the time advocated a return to nature as a means to counter the spread of diseases and insalubrity. The sick would be treated outside the city, far from the noise and filth, in hospitals featuring parks and trails where patients could enjoy fresh air. Mount Royal became a land of rest and healing.

In 1861, Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal left its location in Old Montréal to become the first hospital on the mountain. Shortly after, Royal Victoria Hospital (1893) and Shriners Hospital for Children (1925) also settled on Mount Royal to take advantage of the therapeutic value of nature.

1876 : Inauguration of Mount Royal Park

Montréal had become an important industrial and commercial town with wealthy families, working-class neighbourhoods and a commercial port. In the midst of all this, the mountain. Always majestic, but already fragile.

Many felt that the mountain should be preserved and offered to Montrealers as a place of nature, beauty and well-being in the form of a great park. In 1859, positions in favour of the creation of a park on Mount Royal became crystal-clear when a land owner cut down the trees on his vast Peel Street lot next to the mountain to sell as firewood.

A decision fully supported by the community was then made: there would be a park on the mountain.

As of 1872, the City of Montréal undertook the necessary land purchases for the future park. In 1874, renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to design the new park.

On May 24, 1876, the official inauguration of Mount Royal Park drew a large crowd. Despite the lack of landscaping and notable departure from Olmsted’s initial design, one thing was clear—the park was set to become a very popular site.

1904 : Mount Royal and Its Sacred Mission

One of Montréal’s most emblematic sites, Saint Joseph's Oratory has shaped Mount Royal’s architectural and heritage landscape since the early 20th century.

Initially, it was a small chapel on the mountain built in honour of Saint Joseph by Brother André in 1904. As more and more faithful flocked to this place of prayer made famous by the devoted brother with healing powers, the chapel evolved over the decades to include a crypt, basilica and votive chapel and become, in 1967, the Oratory, as it is today.

Long before the Oratory was built, Mount Royal inspired religious orders. In 1657, as new lords of Montréal, the Sulpicians created a mission in a large estate on the mountain’s southern slope to convert Iroquois, Huron and Algonquin populations. In the 18th century, this estate would become the priests’ beloved country residence.

Over the years, several other congregations settled on its slopes, such as the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary and the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

1924 : A Cross Lights Up the City

It is to the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste that we owe the cross rising today on Mount Royal. In 1874, the organization expressed the wish to create a cross on the mountain in memory of the one erected by De Maisonneuve in the 17th century. It was only several years later, in 1924, that it succeeded thanks to a major Quebec-wide public fundraising campaign.

Designed by a Sulpician priest (Pierre Dupaigne), the illuminated cross rises to a height of 30 m from the summit of Mount Royal.

2005 : New Protection Status for Mount Royal

In 2005, under the Cultural Property Act, the Government of Quebec adopted the decree creating the Mont Royal Historic and Natural District, a first in the province of Quebec. By this dual status, the Government of Quebec undertook to protect and promote the harmonious development of this unique collection of assets for its cultural, natural and landscape heritage value.

Today, the territory is recognized as a heritage site by the Government of Quebec. A large part of the mountain thus enjoys protective measures guiding the development and embellishment of its spaces and buildings.

Created in 2005, a working table called Table de concertation du Mont-Royal (TCMR) brings together key stakeholders concerned with the future of the mountain, including Les amis de la montagne and representatives of several institutional, community, governmental and municipal operations.

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