A Brief History of Morin Heights
Heights is celebrating its 150 anniversary as an established
municipality this year.
Before the mid nineteenth century, there were only the occasional seasonal aboriginal hunters passing through the Morin Heights region, most likely Mohawk. Although some settlement had begun in the 1840’s, coming from the direction of Mille Isles, it was in 1850 that Augustin-Norbert Morin, with his guide, Simon, from Oka, came to survey the area. Morin later was the government minister for Lower Canada in charge of the colonization of our entire district and oversaw the organization of Morin into a township in 1855.
The first settler in Morin was Thomas Seale, from Connaught, Ireland, who had started clearing his farm at Echo Lake in 1848.Families that had originated as pioneer in Gore, Mille Isles and other townships settled Morin along with emigrants directly from Ireland. Among those who arrived in the 1850’s were George Hamilton, who later became the first mayor, Lawson Kennedy, Archibald Doherty, John Reilly, William Watchorn and John Newton.
In 1855, the Township of Morin was incorporated. Within a few years there was a community of pioneers working on the land, building homes, churches, mills and schools. Irish and Scottish immigrants continued to arrive, as well aas French-speaking settlers who came mostly from St.Eustache, St.Jérôme and St.Sauveur des Monts.Among them were the Corbeil, Belisle, Guénette, Piché and Groulx familes.
The first real census of Morin was taken in February 1861, by Charles Sinclair, a young farmer, who probably traversed the district on snowshoes. There were about 350 residents, average age nineteen, with very few older than sixty. In his report, Sinclair commented on the “hilly and rough” terrain and the isolation of many homesteaders.
Our earliest settlers suffered many hardships and were extremely cut off from the rest of the world. However, they managed to eke out a living from the rocky soil. Their only cash crop was potash, made from burned felled hardwood trees. There were a few gristmills and soon these were transformed into sawmills. The first stores and blacksmith shops were established at this time as well. The first bridge, at Christieville, was erected across the Simon River in the 1850’s, and the trail network slowly evolved into real roads for wheeled vehicles.
There were eventually four post offices in Morin Township: Britonville, 1857, Morin Flats, 1875, Leopold, 1884, and Christieville, 1900. Britonville was (as the name may imply) on the border of Morin and St.Sauveur, near Lac Breton, and was the first as at that time the thickest settlement was between Cote St.Gabriel and Echo Lake. Morin Flats eventually become the chief village, and in 1911, the name was changed to the much more appealing “Morin Heights”! Leopold was a small hamlet near Lake Anne at the end of Kirkpatrick Road. Christieville was (until the 1960’s really) a much more commercial spot, with a mill, a general store, a forge and until 1962 when the railway was disbanded, a station. The Christieville station was located where Cote St.Gabriel Road crosses Route 364 now, just over the border into St.Sauveur. The reason for having four post offices was that until the mid-twentieth century, many residents relied on either horses or foot to go from place to place. This also was the reason for having several small one-room schools in our area.
The coming of the railway, Canadian National Railways, to Morin in 1895 ended the isolation of our community and encouraged the growth of the already thriving lumber industry. The two main mills were the very large J.E.Seale and Sons and also Guénette’s with a sash and door operation.
As the growing season is so short and the soil so rocky, agriculture never really advanced beyond the subsistence level in the Laurentians. The farmers had always taken other work when it was available and the establishment of lumber camps in winter and sawmills really improved the local economy. Although the initial motivation for bringing in the train was to take raw materials – like lumber – out, the unforeseen benefit of rail transport was the beginnings of a tourist/recreational industry as well. This was at first, summer only, starting around 1900, but by the 1920’s year around visitors were coming, by train (there were no real roads all the way north from Montreal at all, especially in winter) and the sport of skiing became very popular. The summer residents were housed either in usually summer only homes, Echo Lake being the first part of Morin that attracted people wishing to escape the city. Also, many large boarding houses were created – often as add-ons to existing farmhouses- around Morin Heights Village for those who wished to stay for shorter periods of time, especially the winter skiers.
By the 1930’s several real hotels – the Rockcliff, the Bellevue, the Alpino, the Chatelet and others were built. Many of these were owned and operated by families who had come to Morin from Germany and Switzerland and who had experience in the hospitality trade. Also, many of these people, such as the Baslers, established the first ski tows and offered, on a small scale compared to today, a true resort destination.
In the 1930’ and 11940’s, skiing became even more popular and the trains brought many people to the boarding house and hotels every weekend. Boarding house sleighs used to meet the trains and, all year around, the arrival of the trains was always considered a major event for the local residents. The last train, in 1962, brought this era to an end. The Aerobic Corridor, for summer hiking and winter cross-country skiing, now goes along the old track to Montfort. The warm-up chalet is on the site of the former train station. Since the early days of skiing, cross-country trails have been laid out and over the years, Morin Heights has produced many champion skiers. There have been several downhill ski tows, with Ski Morin Heights, started in 1981, the present popular recreo-tourist destination.
Until the mid-twentieth century, lumbering remained an essential part of our local economy and there still was active farming, mainly sheep and dairy, in Morin. However, with the improvement of the roads, better communications and the coming of the Lac St.Denis radar base, Morin was less and less isolated and rural.
A new, large, modern school was opened in 1952 and school bus routes to it replaced the little one-room elementary schools throughout the area. In the winter, transportation to school was often by large snowmobiles (also used as taxis and mail delivery). These were an exciting, if noisy, ride and the seating area of these unique vehicles made absolutely no concessions to comfort! In a few years, this larger new school offered a complete high school education and remained so until 1981. Then, for various reasons, it reverted to being elementary only and the high school students were bused to Lachute.
Morin Heights gained many new residents in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including young Americans opposed to the Vietnam War. The village, at least, became a more cosmopolitan and cultural area known for music and art. However, it must be said that Morin Heights, with its quiet atmosphere and great natural beauty, had always attracted artists, many of whom became renowned throughout Canada like Edwin Holgate, Helmut Gransow and Peter Whalley. There were always many “gifted amateurs”, mainly landscape painters, among our population also. Recently this traditiona continues with Arts Morin Heights presenting year around art displays, showing a vast variety of works by many gifted people.
Our economic base has diversified from the 1980’s with new industries such as Gourmet de Village, established by Mike and Linda Tott. Residential developments continue to bring more new people to our municipality, one of which is, Balmoral Estates with its golf course.
Protection of our natural environment, and also of our many heritage sites, has always been a priority among the citizens of Morin Heights. This environmental awareness continues to increase as we look towards our future. We pride ourselves on our bilingual heritage and secure and lively community life. The slogan of the municipality,” Harmony is in our nature” is very appropriate indeed.
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