The history of Mont St. Hilaire is fascinating. The fate of the mountain has been caught up in the lives of the men and women who have lived in this region. This exceptional ecosystem has been preserved more or less intact throughout the period of European settlement partly by chance, but most decisively through the intervention and vision of Brigadier Hamilton Gault. It is Brigadier Gault who gave McGill University the mountain that was "his most proud possession." With his gift came the responsibility of the University to continue his stewardship to protect this special place for the enjoyment and education of future generations.
This region originally was home to native Americans, who settled in the St. Lawrence Valley at least 8,000 years ago. When Jacques Cartier arrived in 1534, he found two tribes in the region: the Algonquins and the Iroquois. The Iroquois were primarily south of the St. Lawrence River, the Algonquins more to the north. The St. Lawrence Valley was a boundary between these two tribes, which frequently were at war. The Algonquins gave the name "Wigwomadensis" to what we now call Mont St. Hilaire because its shape resembled that of their dwellings. There is, however, no evidence that the mountain was ever a village site nor have any artifacts associated with Aboriginal hunting been found on the mountain.
Samuel de Champlain first explored the region in 1603 and 1609, sailing past Mont St. Hilaire as he journeyed up the Richelieu River en route to Lake Champlain. The European settlement of the region, however, only really began in 1694 when Jean Baptiste Hertel de Rouville was granted a seigneury that included the mountain. This royal grant recognized Hertel's role in the Carignan-Salière Regiment, which had taken control of the region from the Iroquois.
The development of the region proceeded slowly through the 18th century. Forests were cleared and the first farm near Mont St. Hilaire established only in 1731. By 1745, a small village had begun to grow up along the stream emptying out of Lac Hertel, but in 1746 there were only 30 inhabitants in the entire seigneury. In 1751, clearing began on the lower flanks of the mountain; by 1768, a road along the flank of the mountain was established with orchards developing along it on the south-facing slopes. This initial phase of European colonization of the region ended with the establishment of parish churches at Saint-Jean-Baptiste (1796) and Saint-Hilaire (1798).
The early establishment and later development of the village near the present entrance to the Reserve was owing to the ready source of water power in the stream draining Lac Hertel. As early as 1750, a mill existed at the site, and was followed by eight others as well as a distillery, two forges, three tanneries and a foundry. In this period a dam was constructed at Lac Hertel to improve the supply of water power. In 1850, about 1,500 people in 260 families lived and worked in the village and along the flanks of the mountain. The best remnant of this village is the Maison Guérin, part of a seigneurial mill first constructed in 1775 and reconstructed in 1848 after being destroyed by fire in 1840.
In 1841, a large cross was erected on the Pain de sucre summit of Mont St. Hilaire. It was 30 metres tall and 9 metres wide, and people could climb up inside it! A winding trail led to the summit with the stations of the cross (a sequence of votary statues commemorating events on Jesus Christ's walk to his crucifixion) along the route. Five years later the cross was thrown down in a storm. A small stone chapel replaced the cross on the summit but was destroyed by fire in 1876.
In 1844 the seigneury, including the mountain, became the property of the Campbell family. Thomas Campbell rebuilt the dam at Lac Hertel, established a sawmill, and constructed the first school in the region. In 1851 he built the Café Campbell on the west shore of Lac Hertel and advertised railroad excursions from Montreal to this mountain retreat. The café was destroyed by fire in 1861.
In 1874 the Iroquois Hotel was built near the present Manager's Residence. It prospered until its destruction by fire in 1895.
Development in the area of the present entrance ended with the 19th century. Montreal residents and tourists came less often to the mountain, preferring instead to visit the Eastern Townships region at the northernmost extension of the Appalachian Mountains. In addition, water power was supplanted by fossil fuels as a source of industrial energy. Local people drifted away from the old village and took up residence in the nearby town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire along the Richelieu River. At the start of the 20th century the mountain returned to a sense of solitude it had not had for some time.
In 1913, the Campbell family sold 890 hectares of its mountain property to a wealthy young man, Andrew Hamilton Gault. By 1920, the 522 inhabitants of the town of Mont-Saint-Hilaire had electricity, a luxury not enjoyed by the 802 rural members of the parish. The population of the vicinity grew steadily, with about 5,000 people drawing water from Lac Hertel in 1941 when an aqueduct from the lake was constructed.
Gault enjoyed many wonderful days on his mountain property as development continued in the region through the early part of the 20th century. He loved the wild nature of the mountain and became committed to preserving its special character. Others were not so respectful. Prospectors searched for uranium and diamonds, posing a threat of expropriation, and others exploited mineral deposits on the flanks of the mountain. Gault remained vigilant and firm in his commitments to protect the mountain during this period, agreeing only to provide water from Lac Hertel to the city of Beloeil beginning in 1940.
In 1957, Gault began construction of a manor house on the shore of Lac Hertel to which he planned to retire, but he died before its completion. He had left his property to McGill University in the hope that this well-established institution of higher learning could continue his efforts to protect the mountain for future generations.
Our thanks to the Société d'histoire de Beloeil - Mont-Saint-Hilaire for the use of photographs from their archives.