Montréal: Mount Royal and Frederick Olmstead

By Judith Enright-Smith

If you have ever visited Montréal or grew up there (as I did), you have in all likelihood, climbed or strolled along the many trails of Mount Royal.

The first European to scale “The Mountain” was Jacques Cartier who, after his climb in 1535, wrote in his diary “… among these fields is situated and seated the said town of Hochelaga, near to and adjoining a mountain. We named this mountain Mount Royal” (translated). A little over a century later, Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve, founder of the city of Montréal, fulfilled a pledge to the Virgin Mary for keeping the city safe from flood waters by erecting a cross at the top of the mountain.

A watercolour of a group of men standing on a hill looking over a forested landscape with water, and on the horizon are islands and low mountains.

Jacques Cartier on Mont Royal, painted by Lawrence R. Batchelor, c. 1933 (MIKAN 2833444)

Work on planning and sculpting today’s Mount Royal Park was started in the 1870s. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the same man responsible for the design of New York City’s Central Park, was hired to do the job. Many of Olmstead’s original plans were quite grandiose; they included the creation of a wide pasture and a lake along with a varied and eclectic selection of vegetation. However during the 1870s, Montréal fell victim to an economic depression and most of Olmstead’s fanciful ideas were abandoned. Still, Olmstead’s vision was maintained—bucolic, winding paths similar to Central Park, and accessible to everyone regardless of social standing.

A black-and-white photograph showing a grove of trees, possibly in the fall.

Grove of Trees, Mount Royal Park, photograph by Philip J. Croft, ca. 1936 (MIKAN 3206464)

Preceded by a parade through the streets of Montréal, Mount Royal Park was officially opened with much fanfare including speeches, cannon fire, and a grand picnic lunch on May 24, 1876. In 1884, a toboggan run close to today’s Beaver Lake or Lac aux Castors was opened and a year after that, a steam-powered funicular was launched that shuttled paying passengers to the mountain’s summit. It closed in 1918.

A black-and-white photograph of a winter scene of people on toboggans and others on snowshoes descending a hill.

Tobogganing “The Spill” ca. 1900–1925, unknown photographer (MIKAN 3335229)

A black-and-white photograph of a funicular going up a densely wooded slope. At the bottom of the hill stands a horse and carriage with a few people standing around looking towards the photographer.

“Incline Railway, Mount Royal Park,” ca. 1885 (MIKAN 3192950)

A black-and-white photograph of a funicular. One tram is going up the hill and the other is going down.

Funicular, ca. 1909 (MIKAN 3336180)

The handsome semi-circular stone balustrade, known as the “Lookout” was constructed in 1906 and today still offers the viewer the most stunning views of the Montréal skyline, the St. Lawrence River and its bridges.

A black-and-white photograph of an elegant path with a stone fence on one side leading to a small building. Horses rest under the trees.

Mount Royal Lookout (before the Chalet was built), photographer unknown, ca. 1906 (MIKAN 3335240)

A colour photograph of a couple standing with binoculars looking over the city on the edge of a lookout.

The Lookout, photographed by Chris Lund, ca. 1950 (MIKAN 4311969)

A black-and-white photograph of a bird’s eye view of a city.

A view of the city ca. 1906–1920, photographer unknown (MIKAN 3335382)

Adjacent to the Lookout is Mount Royal’s Chalet. The Chalet was designed by Montréal architect Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne in the Beaux Arts style and was constructed in 1932 as a make-work venture during the Great Depression.

But perhaps Mount Royal’s most renowned feature is The Cross.

Mount Royal acquired its first illuminated cross in 1924. It was commissioned by the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society and then given to the city of Montréal in 1929. Today’s cross is lit with LED bulbs and usually shines white although a custodian is able to change the colour for special occasions.

A black-and-white photograph showing a large metal cross with the text, “The Mount Royal Cross—100 feet high, daytime view.”

The cross on Mount Royal ca. 1935 (MIKAN 3322797)

Most recently, the group, Les amis de la montagne, has begun collecting signatures in an attempt to make Mount Royal a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to Sylvie Guilbault, the executive director of Les amis de la montagne, “Mount Royal is an iconic symbol of the city [and] … fundamental to the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Montrealers.


Judith Enright-Smith is an archival assistant in the Aboriginal and Social Affairs Section of the Private Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

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