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Go Tell it on Mount Royal

By Michael Rappaport

A place to play. A place of pride. A final resting place. Mount Royal serves all three purposes for Montrealers: park, landmark and cemetery.

Snug in the heart of the island of Montreal, Mount Royal is a hill-top haven from the hustle-and-bustle of the metropolis. Graced by two cemeteries the mountain is hallowed burial ground. Crowned by an illuminated-cross, Mount Royal is a star attraction in the skyline of the city.

Mount Royal's significance for Montrealers -- social, symbolic and spiritual -- is not reflected by its lowly stature. At its peak, Mount Royal is a mere 233 meters above sea level, slightly more than one-third the height of Toronto's CN Tower.

Sprawled over 1000 acres the mountain is divided between the park and two cemeteries, the Catholic Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and the nondenominational Mount Royal cemetery. Crisscrossed by 30 trails that lead to three summits, visitors can hike, bike, jog, ski or snowshoe on the mountain in accordance with the seasons.

The French explorer, Jacques Cartier was the first European to scale the mountain in 1535, which he christened, "le Mont Royal." Italian mapmakers translated it to "Monte Real." In 1763, Monte Real morphed into "Montreal," giving the colony at the foot of the mountain its name.

Discussions to establish a public park on Mount Royal began in the late 1850's over concerns that landowners were gradually taking over the mountain. Critics claimed that the mountain was not accessible and thus not a suitable location for a park. To counter nay sayers, Major Alexander Stevenson, had his troupe drag a cannon up to the summit in 1863 and fire off several rounds to prove that the mountain was accessible. He repeated this feat again in 1863 to drive home his point.

The movement to make a park on Mount Royal gained momentum in the late 1860's after Mr. Lamonthe chopped down all the trees on his mountain-side property to sell as firewood. The clear-cutting left a swath of barren land on the hillside that sparked a public outcry. Finally, in 1869 the City of Montreal committed to creating a park on Mount Royal. The City expropriated land on the park for a cost of $1-million, an enormous sum at the time.

Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the father of landscape architecture, who designed New York's Central Park and Yosemite National Park, was chosen in 1874 to transform Mount Royal into a public park. Olmsted's plan was to preserve the scenic and natural beauty of the mountain by taking a minimalist approach. He identified eight separate natural landscapes on the mountain and connected them by paths that gently wind around the mountain and wooden staircases that lead up. The park officially opened on Queen Victoria's birthday, May 24, 1876.

Olmsted's vision for the park as a natural sanctuary has been tampered with for better and worse over the past century-and-a-quarter.

Perched on the park's south escarpment is the Camillien-Houde Lookout in the shape of a semi-circle with a stone balustrade, built in 1906. The lookout offers a magnificent panoramic view of downtown Montreal. For a close-up view of Montreal landmarks, visitors can insert a quarter in binoculars fixed on posts that resemble parking meters.

On the hill-top above the lookout, an impressive stone-and-wood chalet with a red-tile roof was built in 1932. Planned as a gala reception hall above the city -- with chandeliers dangling from a beamed ceiling and murals on the walls depicting scenes from Quebec's history -- the chalet today serves as a shelter for visitors.

The Sir George-Étienne Cartier monument erected in 1919 in Jeanne-Mance Park at the base of the mountain is truly a marvel to behold. Crowned by an angel on top of a 40 foot pedestal, surrounded by historical and mythological figures and guarded by four lions, the monument is a focal point and gathering place in the park.

At the highest-peak of Mount Royal is a 100-foot cross, constructed from steel girders and illuminated by 158 spotlight bulbs. The Society St. Jean Baptiste erected it in 1924 to replace the wooden cross planted in 1624 by Pal de Chomedey, the founder of Ville Marie, as thanks to God for sparing the colony from the rising floodwaters of the St. Lawrence. In 1990 the incandescent bulbs were replaced with a fiber-optic system that can be changed to purple with the flick of a switch to signal the death of the Pope.

Visitors can climb to the base of the cross following a path that loops around it. Please don't flick the switch though! If you do, you might be apprehended by one of fourteen officers on horseback that patrol the mountain during the summer and fall.

Beaver Lake, built in 1938 is one of the mountain's most popular attractions. During the summer, visitors can rent peddle-boats at the nearby pavilion and picnickers and sun tanners spread themselves out on the adjacent hillside. In the winter the lake turns into a skating rink and children toboggan down the nearby slope.

Montreal lore has it that the mountain is an extinct volcano and Beaver Lake nears its summit is its crater. In actuality, the mountain was formed by super-compressed sedimentary rock forced up by magma from the Earth's core about 125 million years ago. Beaver Lake was a swamp that was excavated and lined with concrete to create a five-foot deep kidney-shaped artificial pond.

Some features added to the mountain would surely have made Olmsted turn over in his grave. Even during his life-time there were additions to the park that he disapproved of, such as the railway funicular built in 1885 that offered rides to the summit. It was in operation until 1918 when it was closed after it was deemed unsafe.

A 350-foot antennae built by Radio Canada in 1952 was the first of two communications towers to be erected on Mount Royal.

Blasted through the mountain, the Camillien-Houde Drive opened to traffic in 1952. Visitors can drive or hop the No. 11 bus and reach the top of the mountain in a matter of minutes -- a far cry from the leisurely strolls to the summit that Olmsted envisioned.

Perhaps the worst damage done to the mountain occurred in 1954, in the aftermath of an overzealous public morality campaign. Arguing that bushes on the mountain provided cover for lovers and winos, Mayor Jean Drapeau had them uprooted. Soil-erosion caused by clear-cutting was so extensive that Mount Royal was nicknamed the "bald mountain." In 1960 to rejuvenate the hillsides over 60,000 trees were planted.

Today, over 108,000, ash, birch, maple, oak and pine trees cover the mountain, providing homes for squirrels, chipmunks and raccoons as well as 31 species of birds.

There have been no shortage of outlandish ideas for Mount Royal. Plans to build a casino, amphitheatre, planetarium, aquarium, zoo, opera house and even a replica of the Eiffel Tower have all been proposed for the mountain.

The proposal to build a 655-foot communications tower with a tourist observation deck and revolving restaurant in 1986, proved to be the final straw for many Montrealers. Public furor over the plan led to the formation of les Amis de la Montagne, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving and maintaining the mountain.

Les Amis de la Montagne is headquartered in Smith House, which was built in 1858 and has served as the park superintendent's residence, a police station and an art gallery. Today it houses an exhibition hall and a gift shop.

A permanent exhibition in Smith House on the history of Mount Royal features a quotation from the historian W.D. Light Hall that perfectly encapsulates the feelings that Montrealers have for their mountain: "Mount Royal is an ideal crown for a city. Not too lofty to be ascended, nor to low as to be insignificant."