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Very, very long ago – over a billion years at least – the first mountain range on Earth was squeezed upward by the movements of tectonic plates deep beneath the surface of the planet. These first mountains are still here, although altered by ancient volcanic activity and worn and scraped by several ice ages. In Quebec, this mountainous area is called the Laurentians.

Native peoples, Tremblant area. (Photo - Farfan Collection)INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
The earliest human residents of the Laurentians were the indigenous peoples, the Algonquins and later the Iroquois. There were some semi-permanent settlements along the major rivers – the North and the Rouge – but in general, these populations were small and seasonal, due to the rigors of the climate. These hunting and gathering cultures penetrated the region as far north as Mount Tremblant (the “shaking mountain”), reports of which were given to European traders by the late 18th century.

Even though the St. Lawrence River Valley has been continuously occupied by French-speaking colonists since the 16th century, and English-speaking immigration commenced after 1763, settlement was sparse, with little exploration of the area beyond the northern shore of the St. Lawrence until the early 1800s.

When settlement in the Laurentians finally commenced, and documented history began, we see two main thrusts of development. The first, in the 1780s and 90s, was along the old fur trading water route west from Montreal and up the Ottawa River towards Carillon and St. Andrews East. This was mostly an English-speaking settlement initially of United Empire Loyalists and other Americans from New England, and later of immigrants from Scotland. These two groups established the towns of Lachute, Grenville and St. Andrews East. The first paper mill in Canada was in St. Andrews East. The first bridge across the North River was constructed there, as well. Much of the early history of this region is on display at the Argenteuil County Museum in Carillon.

The other settlement route came more gradually, and directly north from Montreal and the old north shore seigneuries around St. Eustache and Terrebonne. Taking place in the 19th century, it was an expansion of French-speaking farmers, again, mainly along the rivers that flowed down from the mountains. After the railways penetrated the Laurentians in the 1890s, English-speaking Montrealers constituted the main arrivals in the area. At first, the Laurentians were a summer-only destination, but with the development of skiing around 1900, a year-around tourist, and eventually cottage, phenomenon further populated the hills.

There are three distinct phases in the social and economic history of the Laurentians, which for this brief overview can be considered to be from Lachute-St. Andrews East in the west, to Shawbridge (Prévost) in the south, to Ste. Agathe in the north. These municipalities that either border on old Route 11 (now Route 117) or the Lachute Highway (now Route 329) are the true heartland of the Laurentians, as known to visitors.

Early settlers, Sainte-Agathe area. (Photo - Skiing Legends...)PIONEER FARMING
The early period, from about 1790 to 1860 was primarily a time of agricultural pioneering by first generation emigrants from the British Isles. This was an extremely hard and probably terrifying experience, especially for those who came after the milder lands along the North River had been occupied. The majority of settlers after about 1830 came from Ireland, their numbers peaking in the famine years of the 1840s. Many of these newcomers had not been farmers back in Ireland, but skilled artisans or middle class townspeople, who like the very poor, had been driven from home by the severe economic collapse.

The lands granted to these people were in the rougher, rocky areas above Lachute. As they had come by the old water route up the Ottawa River to Carillon, their settlement moved northeast. The townships of Gore, Mille Isles, and Shrewsbury were initially entirely populated by Irish who cleared the land – at least partially -- eventually establishing farms. As this group continued to move onward into the even more mountainous terrain of Morin, they encountered the French-speaking settlers moving in from the south – from the St. Sauveur region. Even now, unlike other municipalities in the Laurentians, Morin Heights remains steadily bilingual.

In the 1880’s, many of the next generation expanded further northwest to Arundel and Weir. There had also been expansion from Lachute and Grenville up the Rouge River valley towards Arundel with the settlements around Harrington.

Station, Joliette. (Photo - Farfan Collection)NATURAL RESOURCES AND RAILROADS
The second phase in Laurentians history – centering on the exploitation of natural resources and the arrival of the railways -- had now begun. There had been lumbering and associated forest industries, such as potash making, on a small scale, since land clearance began. The native white pine was much sought after for shipbuilding, and most domestic and commercial construction used wood. Winter heating was also almost entirely with wood until the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, the famous Curé Labelle managed to sell his idea of a railway north from Montreal to St. Jérôme after an especially hard winter in the 1870s, when Montreal was rescued from a firewood shortage by a convoy of log-bearing sleighs from the Laurentians.

By the 1890s, when both the Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific had built rail links as far north as Mont Laurier and St. Remi d’Amherst, there were great hopes (and some large fortunes) made in the lumber business. Farmers also benefited from this diversification as more money could be made “going to shanty” – working in the lumber camps all winter – than from many of the farms. The growing season in the Laurentians is, after all, short and the terrain uneven and strewn with rocks. The thin, acidic soil is also not very productive of traditional agricultural crops, such as wheat.

Other developments in the Laurentians at this time included mining, such as the granite quarries at Rockway Valley, near to Arundel, and a small mica mine that was opened near St. Remi d’Amherst. These, however, were on a small scale.