A little history


Water has always played a key role at McGill. In 1798, James McGill named his 46-acre country estate Burnside after the “burn” — the Scottish word for stream or brook — that ran across his farmland.

IMAGE: "Burnside", residence of the Late James McGill, Montreal, QC, 1842, engraving by John H. McNaughton, 1842, copied ca.1950 Wm. Notman & Son. ©McCord Museum
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Looking at this 1830 map of Montreal, we can see James McGill's estate in the far left corner. Note the burn running through his property. This was one of many streams that used to run throughout the island of Montreal, and which have either dried out or been channelled into underground pipes and now form part of Montreal’s sewer system.

IMAGE: CLICK TO ENLARGE. Wikipedia.org. Public domain. Ville de Montréal. Gestion de documents et archives, BM7,C70,1884


Although we don’t know much about the Burnside Brook during James McGill’s time, Margaret Gillet's We Walked Very Warily: A History of Women at McGill describes it as running in the shade of  “thorn, young birch and alder”.

In Seaport And City, Stephen Leacock adds:

“Through [the McGill Farm] flowed the pleasant little "burn" that gave it its name, a stream that had meandered down a couple of miles from the northwest (we call it northeast) where now LaFontaine Park is. It was met just before it reached the McGill farm by another little brook that had gathered up the streams off the mountainside. The united rivulet moved in a pleasant curve round the bottom end of the McGill farm. A surviving relic of its course is the sunken tennis court at the foot of the McGill grounds that marks its bed.”

The tennis court Leacock mentions used to be located near where Burnside Hall is found today. Burnside Hall — built in 1970 and housing the Computing Center, Mathematics, Geography, and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences — is named after James McGill’s original estate.


A health hazard?

One famous story surrounding the burn is that of George Mercer Dawson, the son of the fifth president of McGill, Sir John William Dawson. In the 1800’s, McGill’s estate extended down to what is now René-Lévesque Blvd., and the burn crossed the land just north of there. In 1859, when George Mercer Dawson was 10 years old, he went rafting on the burn with friends, and fell into the water. He subsequently developed a form of tuberculosis of the spine called Pott’s disease, which stunted his growth and deformed his back. Dawson’s family believed that his illness developed as a result of this rafting accident.

IMAGE: Wikipedia.org. Public domain. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number PA-026689 and under the MIKAN ID number 3215711.

Water, water everywhere

Today, groundwater still runs under the McGill campus and there is minor water infiltration in many of the greystone buildings. For example, construction crews hit water when they were digging the new James Square outside the James Administration building and when they were installing a new elevator in the Currie Gym.

IMAGE: James Square. Jacky Farrell, Redpath Museum
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