The rural West Island: Montreal’s lost patrimony


Exactly two decades ago I left the West Island to come and live in the United Kingdom.  Like many expatriates, in recent years I have started looking back on the place where I grew up with a certain degree of nostalgia. However, I am also an historian by vocation, and one of the projects I am currently working on is a study of the social and architectural history of the Square Mile of Montreal from 1840 to the present day.  In the course of my research I discovered that many of the individuals who built houses in the Square Mile also owned property in the West Island.  This realisation turned my nostalgic musings into a serious pursuit, and I am now also researching the period between 1870 to 1940, when dozens of wealthy Montrealers acquired summer residences along the shores of Rivière-des-Prairies, Lac des Deux-Montagnes, and Lac Saint-Louis. Their country estates varied considerably in size, but all of them provided a comfortable rustic setting for pursuits such as hunting, polo, gardening and farming.  The majority of these individuals were of Scottish, English and Irish extraction.  In settling in the West Island they came into direct contact with a rural population whose origins stretched back without interruption to the earliest days of French settlement on the island of Montreal.

My family moved to Dollard-des-Ormeaux in 1968 and I lived there for over twenty years.  From an early age I was fascinated by old buildings, and quite a few survived into the 1970s in the vicinity of where I grew up.  I especially remember the large wooden barn and small, one-storey stone building which stood at the corner of Sources Boulevard and Churchill Road.  Both disappeared during the 1980s, but the nineteenth century stone farmhouse almost directly opposite, later Dollard’s first town hall, still survives. Further up Sources, which in those early days was bordered on both sides with ditches where orange lilies and bull-rushes used to grow, there were more venerable farmhouses.  One, which occupied a small plot of land just north of the Rideau Gardens Cemetery, burnt down more than twenty years ago.  Speaking of Rideau Gardens, it is pleasing to reflect that both it and the neighbouring Kehal Israel Cemetery occupy, and thereby preserve for posterity, original strips of farmland granted to colonists by the priests of the Sulpician Order, who became seigneurs of Montreal in 1663.

Further north on Sources Boulevard, an imposing stone-built dwelling survives as a Greek restaurant.  Almost directly across the street, a pair of three-storey redbrick houses with ground-floor verandas and round attic windows stood a small distance from one another until the 1980s.  On the northwestern corner of Sources and Anselme-Lavigne there was an unusual interwar house faced with blocks of stone.  All of these structures have long since disappeared. I often wonder if anyone else remembers them.  Gouin Boulevard also fascinated me, and my father frequently gave in to requests for an evening drive to inspect the old buildings which dotted both sides of the road from Saraguay to Senneville.  Bourlon House, the imposing early twentieth century stone mansion of the Meighen family, was a particular favourite. Although it was no longer a private house, it still stood in splendid isolation on its river-front grounds near to where the CN train line crossed Gouin.  The mansion still survives, but almost every inch of its former grounds have been covered with residential buildings.

For the first few years after we moved into our new duplex on Spring Garden Road, the view across the street was of fields which had only recently ceased to be cultivated.  Even the tree-lined seigneurial property boundaries were still in place.  By the mid-1970s the fields had been replaced with houses.  Further down Spring Garden Road, near where it joined Brunswick Boulevard, there were expansive fields dotted with small trees and bushes.  I have a vivid memory of walking there one day with my grandparents when I was aged about four, and crossing a brook bridged with roughly hewn logs.  Little did I suspect that about fifteen years later my family would move into a new house built on almost exactly the same spot!  In the distance, above the thick line of trees we knew as “the woods,” Mount Royal and Saint Joseph’s Oratory were clearly visible.

The woods (now the Bois-de-Liesse Nature Park) were a favourite destination for family walks, above all in spring when the undulating ground was carpeted with trilliums.  If we felt adventurous we would cross the Bertrand Creek and continue walking in the direction of the future Highway 13.  The woods there were part of the Pitfield estate, which extended from Gouin Boulevard south to the road then known as Chemin de Petit Bois-Franc (now the western end of Henri-Bourassa).  A family friend kept her horse in Mrs Pitfield’s stables and we bought the pink and white peonies we planted in our garden at the farm shop on her estate.  The stables and shop are long gone, but Mrs Pitfield’s 1950s house and a large part of her estate have been incorporated into the Nature Park. It is sad to think that the future of the older stone-built Pitfield mansion set in riverfront grounds facing Gouin, which has been the property of a religious order for several decades, is now uncertain.

The historical boundaries of the rural West Island include all of present-day Pierrefonds, Senneville, Sainte Anne-de-Bellevue, Baie d’Urfé, Beaconsfield, Pointe-Claire, Dorval and Lachine, as well as Dollard-des-Ormeaux and Kirkland, the Saraguay district of Montreal and the part of Saint-Laurent west of Boulevard Toupin.  Although Île-Bizard and Île-Perrot do not strictly speaking fall within its limits, a number of smaller islands do. To appreciate the full extent of the rural patrimony that has been lost within these boundaries over the past fifty years, one simply has to glance at a chronological selection of maps, starting with the oldest surviving terrier or property register of the island of Montreal, compiled by the Sulpicians in 1702.  Following the lakeshore from Lachine to Senneville, we see that an almost continuous series of waterfront properties had already been granted to colonists. Three large rectangular blocks of land grants separated by common lands, upon which Boulevard Côte-Vertu and Chemin de la Cote-de-Liesse were later built, had also been granted in the centre of the island.  The remainder of the West Island was wild open country.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the villages of Sainte-Geneviève, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Pointe-Claire, Dorval, Lachine, and Saint-Laurent were all well-established, and most of land in their hinterland had been granted to colonists. As indicated on André Jobin’s map of the island dating to 1834, by that time almost all of the principal roadways of the West Island were in place, many of which are still in use today as major traffic arteries.  The most complete picture of the rural West Island by far is preserved in the remarkably detailed maps published by Henry W. Hopkins in 1879.  Each and every seigneurial land grant between Senneville and Saint-Laurent is painstakingly indicated, even those reduced to sliver-like thinness through inheritance and sale. The names of individual landowners are also recorded, providing historians with an invaluable register of West Island farming dynasties such as Robillard, Brunet, Meloche, Legault and Jasmin, to list but a few.

Hopkins’ maps reveal that by 1879, the Grand Trunk Railway had already sliced through the farms on the southern side of the island from Lachine to Saint Anne-de-Bellevue.  Indeed, construction of the railway began in 1853, the very same year in which the seigneurial system was abolished.  By 1855 it was complete, and by the end of the nineteenth century the Canadian Pacific Railway had installed a parallel track only a few yards away.  The arrival of the railway heralded a revolution in land use in the West Island.  In 1865, the Montreal lawyer and future prime minister John Abbott purchased a large estate at Senneville. There he built an imposing stone mansion called Boisbriant, after the nearby seigneurial fief of that name which dated back to the end of the seventeenth century.  Abbott appears to be the first wealthy Montrealer to acquire agricultural property in the West Island with the express intention of using it as a country residence during the summer.  The trend he established was slow to catch on, however, and fifteen years were to pass before another inhabitant of the Square Mile followed suit.

In 1880, Grace Brydges, wife of the Montreal stockbroker George Campbell MacDougall, purchased a plot of land on the shore of Rivière-des-Prairies (the Back River) near Cartierville.  Soon afterwards the MacDougalls, who were the grandparents of the Mrs Pitfield mentioned above, built a substantial frame house on their property, signalling the decisive establishment of the exclusive summer colony later known as Saraguay.  Within a decade, dozens of wealthy Montreal families had adopted the fashion of summering on the West Island lakeshore, with Saraguay, Dorval and Senneville being the most popular resorts.  Easy access provided by the railway also opened up places like Pointe-Claire, Beaurepaire and Baie d’Urfe to summer residents.  Perhaps the grandest estate of all was Huntlywood, which belonged to the Montreal industrialist Sir George Drummond.  It occupied 300 acres of former farmland to the west of St. Charles Boulevard in Beaconsfield.  After Sir George’s death in 1910 the property was acquired by Sir Hugh Montagu Allan, the Montreal shipowner, who used it as a dairy farm.  Renamed Allancroft, the estate survived intact until the 1930s, when the main house was destroyed by fire.  Soon afterwards Sir Hugh began disposing of the land.  By the middle of the 1950s almost all of it had been built over with suburban housing.

The spread of mass transit to the West Island was a decisive factor in the destruction of its rural character.  In 1913 the Canadian National Railway began ruthlessly cutting through the estates and farms of Saraguay and Pierrefonds to make way for its Deux-Montagnes line.  In the interwar period, Cartierville Airport was established near the private polo grounds maintained by the inhabitants of Saraguay.  At around the same time, construction began on Autoroute 20, just to the north of the former Grand Trunk and CPR tracks, with the intention of relieving the heavy traffic on the lakeshore road leading from Lachine to Sainte Anne-de-Bellevue. Finally, in the early 1940s Dorval Airport came into being, its runways radiating into the farmland of several adjacent parishes.

Suburbia had first made its appearance in the West Island as early as 1905, when the Canadian Nursery Company drew up plans for what is now known as the Bowling Green area of Pointe-Claire.  However, maps published by the government of Canada during the 1930s show that similar speculative housing developments were mainly limited to a few streets in Beaconsfield, Pointe-Claire and Dorval.  In the parish of Sainte Geneviève, an American speculator bought 408 acres of farmland in 1914, but construction of the first homes in what was to become Roxboro did not begin until many years later.  The gradual transformation of the grander summer houses of the West Island lakeshore into year-round homes also became common after World War II, when wealthy Montrealers could no longer afford to maintain multiple residences.  From the 1950s onwards, many country estates were sold off and subdivided, although the original houses often remained intact on greatly reduced grounds.  During the 1960s a wide ribbon of the rural West Island was sacrificed to make way for Highway 40 and the industrial parks which sprang up on its flanks.  Rampant suburbanisation followed soon afterwards, as farmers began selling large tracts of land to developers, and city-dwellers like my parents began flocking to the area.

There are some people who would characterize the transformation of the West Island from rural backwater to modern suburbia as progress.  Some would back up this viewpoint by saying that the lives of the people who toiled on the seigneurial farms that once carpeted the area were anything but idyllic.  Others would insist that the disappearance of the polo-playing elite and their elegant estates was a desirable by-product of the social revolution which swept Quebec during the second half of the twentieth century.  Such arguments are not entirely unfounded.  But at the same time it cannot be denied that the wanton destruction of the rural West Island between 1950 and the present day represents an irreversible environmental upheaval of massive proportions.  For those interested in the history of their surroundings, it is equivalent to the unceremonious sweeping away of three centuries of Montreal history.

Fortunately, a glance at Google Earth reveals a few significant outposts of green in the West Island of today, such as the Bois-de-Saraguay, the Bois-de-Liesse and Cap-Saint-Jacques, as well as large swathes of Senneville, Sainte Anne-de-Bellevue and Île-Bizard.  As is the case with the Angell Woods in Beaconsfield, the origins of many of the surviving green spaces in the West Island can be traced back to seigneurial times.  Without adequate official intervention and protection their future remains uncertain.  The recent history of the Bois-Franc district of Saint-Laurent is a case in point.  This sleepy enclave sandwiched between Cartierville Airport and Highway 13 preserved many traces of its agricultural heritage well into the 1980s.  Within the past two decades, however, farmhouses, fields and forests have all disappeared in the wake of intensive industrial and residential development.  Despite worrying precedents such as this, and the seeming indifference of the majority of the population, I sincerely hope that if enough people are made aware of the fascinating history of the West Island, and the obvious environmental importance of its remaining green spaces, then this precious rural patrimony will be saved for future generations.

George Vassiadis was awarded a BA in Classical and Hellenic Studies by McGill University and a PhD in Modern Greek History by King’s College London. His main interests are the social and political history of nineteenth and twentieth century Greece and the Greek diaspora. He is also actively researching the social and architectural history of Montreal’s Square Mile and West Island.