Origins, Formation, & Mount Royal

Ali Virji
This section aims to situate the emergence of the Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association within the city’s larger efforts to provide recreational space to its growing urban population. It will highlight the competing interests of association members and city officials in envisioning the future of Mount Royal Park. Would the park maintain its unspoilt “integrity” or would access for all be ensured?  

The origins of the Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association are inextricably tied to Mount Royal. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, city planners grew concerned at the lack of outdoor recreational space available to Montreal’s growing urban population. Inspired by the creation of city-owned spaces in American cities, the City of Montreal purchased Mount Royal in 1869. Within six years, the city would acquire over 482 acres of space. In 1873, the city commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, an architect of New York’s Central Park.[1] The following year, Mont Royal Park was officially opened to the public with a privately operated inclined railway constructed to provide access to its summit. Popular legend held that Jacques Cartier was so taken with its spectacular views that he christened the mountain ‘Mont Royal’ in the name of the French crown.[2] Montrealers were now able to access that same experience.

McCord Museum Photograph | Mount Royal Funicular Railway, Montreal, QC, about 1900 | VIEW-3024

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Montreal Tramways Company proposed the construction of a tramline through the park to improve the public’s access. In response, a group of elite, Anglophone, protestant women organized themselves into an informal committee and began to circulate a petition to preserve the park’s integrity. In the winter of 1885-1886, the new Parks Preservation Association gathered over twenty thousand signatures in an attempt to persuade the legislature to deny the company the rail franchise. Sensing growing public opposition, the company withdrew its proposal.[3] The association then lobbied Montreal City Council to amend the city’s charter,[4] resulting in the insertion of clause 546:

“The City shall, in perpetuity, preserve and maintain the whole of Mount Royal Park, according to its present limits, as a public park; and the city council shall not have power to alienate any part of the said park for the exercise of any special rights, privileges, or franchise thereon, nor shall the council permit the laying of any tracks, poles, wires, or electrical apparatus for steam, electric or traction purposes by any person or corporation…”[5]

However, in 1900 the Québec Legislative Assembly passed an amendment that partially abrogated the clause. Consequently, the women formed the Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association (MPPA) to protect city-owned open spaces and to stimulate public interest in their preservation and development. They sent out a leaflet inviting interested women to apply for membership for a yearly one-dollar fee.[6] Concerned that Montreal lacked an adequate number of parks, the committee endeavoured to acquire land. According to the law, this would necessitate incorporation.[7] One year later, the Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association drafted an Act of Incorporation with the stated purpose of “promoting the preservation and extension of the parks and open spaces in and about the city of Montreal, the provision of children’s playgrounds, the improvement of the city, the acquisition of land and other property to be used for the benefit of the citizens of Montreal for the purposes of recreation and other similar purposes in and about Montreal and other parts of the Province of Québec.”[8]

In 1904, the Association officially received its charter. The Hon. George A. Drummond chaired the first Board of Directors along with members of the city’s male Anglophone elite. The executive was to meet each November and annually appoint two committees: one responsible for parks, and the other for playgrounds. The Committee for Playgrounds was to acquire, establish and maintain playgrounds for the city’s children.[9] They planned to establish playgrounds in the city’s crowded areas in order to keep children safe, improve their health, and make them better citizens.[10] Since the turn of the century, press reports had suggested a correlation between bad behaviour, vagrancy and the small number of playgrounds available to children.[11] Similarly, the Committee for Parks was to protect and preserve existing parks and, if possible, develop additional public spaces. At the time of the MPPA’s incorporation, the city possessed Mount Royal, Isle St. Helene, and Parc LaFontaine as its major green spaces.[12]

Opposition to Streetcars on Mount Royal: “It is not a Coney Island where it costs ten cents to go in and five dollars to come out” 

During the first two decades of the century, the Montreal Street Railway Company periodically indicated its intention build a line through the park. This engendered continuous opposition from the Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association, until the tramline was finally constructed in 1930.[13] By 1916, Mayor Médéric Martin had intensified calls for the construction of a tramline up the mountain. Martin argued that the park had become both elitist and a recreation ground for the millionaires of the city and neighbouring Westmount. The poor, an observer told the Montreal Gazette that April, could not afford to hire a cab to reach the mountain’s summit. Only carriages, horseback riders and athletic people were to be seen ascending its hilly roads. Why should the city’s working people, their families, and the elderly be relegated to Parc Jeanne-Mance [then known as Fletcher’s Field] at the park’s base?[14]

The Mayor echoed these views, arguing that the poor were deprived of the park’s natural recreational capacity. He rejected the notion that a tramway would interfere with the character of the park. Access for all was his main concern.[15] This grew especially salient after 1920 as the existing incline rail was decommissioned after being deemed unsafe and too expensive. The MPPA mobilized in opposition before the city’s Tramways Commission. Member and lawyer Eugene Lafleur questioned why the city would renew efforts for such a scheme, when the public had clearly demonstrated a tramway was not in the public’s best interest. The Association claimed that families extensively used the park during the summer and that increased access via rail was unnecessary. The construction of a tramline would not ease access to the poor, it argued; it would commercialize the space and instead impede access. “It is not a Coney Island,” said Lafleur, “where it costs ten cents to go in and five dollars to come out.”[16]

Political Cartoon: Montreal Daily Star, January 22nd 1923

“At it Again, or What the Public Would Like to Know,” Montreal Daily Star, January 22nd 1923, File: Political Cartoon – 1923, Box 14, Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association Scrapbook 257 – MG2079, c.7 (1916-1925), McGill University Archives.

Nadine Klopfer argues, however, that the association’s opposition was born partly out of self-interest. To the mainly Anglo-Protestant members of the opposition, she wrote, the prospect of noisy crowds invading the mountain and disturbing those engaged in “contemplative promenades” seemed inconceivable.[17] Since its development as a public park, citizens shifted their perception of Mount Royal from the imagined periphery to the heart of the city. It represented a space that was both at the centre of the developing city, yet still a distant retreat. Members of the MPPA were keen on maintaining their escape.[18] Their greatest fear was the possible commercialization of the mountain. Over the course of the next decade, the MPPA repeatedly vilified Coney Island in the press. Its beaches and cool breezes had long served as an escape for New York’s city-dwellers. To increase access and demand, New York City constructed a number of transit lines linking the island with downtown Brooklyn in the 1880s. This facilitated the Island’s rapid development as a commercialized centre of recreation.[19] Between 1895 and 1904, it would see the development of three amusement parks.[20] Coney Island represented the antithesis of what Association members envisioned for Montreal’s parks. The chairman of the MPPA’s Parks Committee best articulated their position: “The value of Mount Royal Park to the public depends on its quiet, its safety, its natural beauty, its rural charm, and its freedom from the danger of our noisy city streets.”[21]

The tramline pitted those wishing to maintain the natural, rugged, rural character of the mountain against those who saw it as an integral function of the urban city. In the end, the latter were successful. An initial line linking Côte-des-Neiges Road and the mountain’s historic Smith House was completed in 1924. Then, in 1930 an additional line was erected between Avenue du Parc and the Smith House. Both lines ran along the park’s northern border with the cemeteries.[22] Construction was a highly inflammatory topic; it is worth noting that the MPPA was but one of the many voices in opposition to or in favour of the project. The association’s rhetoric escalated prior to the approval of the second tramline. In 1927, the city amended its charter to legalize the project, asserting that the double-tracked line running along Shakespeare Road would “hardly be visible from the roadways.”[23] The MPPA retained counsel to oppose the amendment before Québec’s legislature. The MPPA’s retiring president AD Braithwaite claimed the tram would “greatly interfere with the tobogganing and skiing on the northern part of Fletcher’s Field, where many thousands of young people take their recreation.” In their quest, the association secured the support of a number of prominent citizens and Braithwaite wrote to Prime Minister Mackenzie King personally. Protection of the park from such destruction, the Association reminded the press, was what had led to the Parks and Preservation Association’s successful insertion of the Prohibitory Clause into the City’s charter some forty years prior. This was their raison d’être; they would fight the city until a decision was reached.[24] When the city countered it had found a route that would neither deface the park, nor impede the activities of tobogganers or skiiers, the MPPA shifted its attacks to questions of money. The city had approached the province to foot the 600,000 dollar cost, an expense Braithwaite alleged would be passed to the taxpayer. That money, the MPPA countered, could be used to create or improve parks in the city. They worried that it would be a waste – built at enormous costs, but only usable for short periods each year.[25] The MPPA would lose this battle: a streetcar would operate until 1959. However, the Association would continue to oppose any potential future development on Mount Royal.


  1. Kathleen Jenkins, Montreal, Island City of the St. Lawrence (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), 413.
  2. Norman Murray, Murray’s illustrated guide to Montreal and vicinity [microform] : containing new map of Montreal, description of places of interest, cab tariff, postage rates, U.S. customs, baggage inspection, regulations, business cards of representative business houses (Montreal: N. Murray, 1889), 17.
  3. Caroline Andrew, Life Spaces: Gender, Household, Employment (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1991), 67-68.
  4. E. Laird Wilson, Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association Inc. (M.A. thesis, McGill University, 1953), 17.
  5. “Playgrounds Body Oppose Tram Line: Retain Council to Protect Montreal Park before Legislature,” Montreal Daily Star, Feb 12, 1926.
  6. Parks and Playgrounds Association: Montreal, April 1900 – Leaflet, McGill Archives Scrapbook 257 – MG2079, c.7 (1916-1925).
  7. Wilson, 20.
  8. Act of Incorporation, 1901, McGill Archives Scrapbook 257 – MG2079, c.7 (1916-1925).
  9. Act of Incorporation, 1901, McGill Archives Scrapbook 257 – MG2079, c.7 (1916-1925).
  10. Wilson, 19.
  11. “Juvenile Courts,” Montreal Gazette, 1900.
  12. John Irwin Cooper, Montreal: A Brief History (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1969), 76.
  13. Nadine Klopfer, “ ‘Terra Incognita’ in the Heart of the City? Montreal and Mount Royal Around 1900,” in Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture, Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle, ed., (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Editions Rodopi, 2009), 137.
  14. Wellington, “Letter to the Editor: Access to Mount Royal,” Montreal Gazette, April 16, 1916.
  15. “Board Favours A Tram Line to the Mountain,” Montreal Daily Star, May 4, 1916.
  16. “Stormy Opposition to Trams Entering Mount Royal Park,” Montreal Daily Star, May 4, 1916.
  17. Klopfer, 138.
  18. Ibid., 145.
  19. Brian Cudahy, How We Got to Coney Island: the Development of Mass Transportation in Brooklyn and Kings County (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), x-ix.
  20. Ibid., 21.
  21. Klopfer, 151.
  22. “Short History of Mount Royal,” Les Amis de la Montagne, March 31, 2014.
  23. “New Tram Line being opposed: City Hall authorities surprised at Action Respecting Mountain Service,” Montreal Gazette, Jan 27, 1927.
  24. “Playgrounds Body Oppose Tram Line: Retain Council to Protect Montreal Park before Legislature,” Montreal Daily Star, Feb 12, 1926.
  25. “Opposed to Tram Line on Mountain: Parks and Playground Committee Sees Better Uses for $600 000,” Montreal Gazette, Feb 25, 1926.


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