The Mountain’s Origins
Contrary to popular belief, Mont Saint-Hilaire is not a volcano. Instead, the mountain was formed over 120 million years ago by magma intrusions that welled up from deep in the earth and were blocked by a three-kilometre-thick layer of sediment. About a million years ago, the region was slowly scraped and sanded down by at least four successive glaciations, which eroded away the softer sedimentary rock and left Mont Saint-Hilaire and the other Monteregian Hills behind.
It was much later that the first inhabitants, the Abenakis and then the Iroquois, settled in the area. Samuel de Champlain was the first European to describe the mountain, which he saw on his second expedition in 1609.
The Mountain Village
Beginning in the 18th century, the village owed its prosperity to orchards, a long row of mills and about 40 sugar bushes. The apple cider was so popular that one priest even complained that people on the mountain drank more apples than they ate!
In 1841, the scourge of alcoholism led to the erection of a giant cross on Pain de sucre summit. In the meantime, the seigneurs had made the mountain a major tourist destination, first with Campbell Café and then the prestigious Iroquois Hotel, which could accommodate 400 clients at a time. Iroquois Hotel stood just a few metres from the trail that leads to the Visitor Centre today.
A Soldier to the Mountain’s Rescue
After the village’s decline, a new chapter opened in 1890 when Seigneur Campbell put his mountain up for sale to be logged. Brigadier Andrew Hamilton Gault, a lover of nature and green spaces, purchased it in 1913. Without any heirs but intent on protecting his most precious property, Brigadier Gault left the mountain to McGill University in 1958 in order “that its beauties and amenities may be preserved for all time to come, not only in the immediate interests of the University itself, but through its corridors of learning, as a great heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of youth of Canada.”
The Mountain’s Future
Gault’s mountain was saved, but its flanks remained coveted for urban and agricultural development. Over time, thanks to several citizen initiatives, some of the mountain’s environs have been protected. But threats to the mountain come from all fronts. Ever-growing numbers of visitors and neighbours demand constant vigilance to protect the riches of the mountain and surrounding greenbelt, and to keep them intact. The battle is far from over.