Blue Hills of Morin-Heights: A hidden jewel in the heart of nature

by François Leroux
After a hot, dry summer autumn is approaching. It’s September, and the forest canopy is coming alive in tones of red, orange, yellow and gold. As we enjoy our usual Sunday brunch on the terrace we spot two flocks of Canada Geese overhead, southward bound on their annual migration. The sound of their honking fades as they pass, leaving behind a silence so profound that we resume our interrupted conversation in whispers. Around us it seems that no creature dares break this precious quiet.

Welcome to Blue Hills, a small haven of peace to the south-west of Morin-Heights. A popular cottage area in the lower Laurentians for urban dwellers from Montreal and Ottawa, Blue Hills has welcomed weekenders and permanent residents since the early 20th century. More arrived during the 1960s and 1970s and others more recently. Today the Morin-Heights section of Blue Hills numbers more than 225 houses and 239 electors, for a total population of about 300.

A little geography: mountains, lakes, rivers and forests
Mont Hurtubise, the mountain associated with the area we call Blue Hills, is located in the lower Laurentians in the MRC des Pays-d’en-Haut, 100 km northwest of Montreal and 145 km from Ottawa. Blue Hills actually extends into three municipalities: Morin-Heights, Wentworth-Nord and St-Adolphe-d’Howard. This overlapping of boundary lines proved controversial during early development attempts in the mid-1940s due to conflicting municipal interests. Unfortunately – or fortunately – nature and physical geography know no political borders.

The hilly territory that makes up Blue Hills measures approximately 25 square kilometres, and its highest point, Mont Hurbubise at an altitude of 509 metres (1,670 ft), is one of the loftiest in the lower Laurentians. Seven lakes dot the territory: Peter, Vert, Corbeil, Cook, Margaret (Joe/Jackson), Noiret (Noir), and also Bélanger (Jenny) in Wentworth-Nord. It should be noted that Lac Vert supplied drinking water to the village centre of Morin-Heights from 1946 to 2008. The northern edge of Blue Hills extends to the Chevreuil River (a tributary of the Simon River) and the former CN railway (now the Aerobic Corridor). It’s safe to say that 95 percent of Blue Hills is still natural forest ideal for cottages and outdoor recreation. On one side of Mont Hurtubise is the ski centre, le Sommet Morin-Heights.

The first arrivals
Although the area was very likely frequented by indigenous people, it was later owned by the British Crown. The first inhabitants arrived in the mid-19th century, settling on the lower section of the mountain on Range 2 of the township of Morin. For lots 41 to 47, each 100 acres in size, we find the owners’ names: John Murray, Alfred Baldwin, Robert McVicar, William Gilmour, Francis Murray, John Riley, John McMahon, and William McCulloch. As of the 1880s, newcomers began settling higher up the mountainside. Among records for this second wave of arrivals, we find deeds giving the purchase price and details of their lots.

    • 1883. John Reilly                             $30                                        lot 45, Rang, 2 100 acres
    • 1889. Pierre Henry dit Langlois    $31.50                                   lot 49, Rang, 3 70 acres
    • 1901. James Henderson                 $24                                        lot 48, Rang 3 58 acres
    • 1904. Alfred Corbeil                        $56.40                                  lots 46 and 47, Rang 3 188 acres
    • 1906. William Watchorn                $50                                        lots 51 and 52 200 acres

There’s no doubt that farmers in this hilly region faced a tough existence. Clearing trees and other hard labour meant they needed tools, which could only be bought in the village. With horse and cart the sole means of transport, travelling to Morin Flats, or farther afield to St. Jerome, was no easy matter. As time passed several inhabitants sold – or even abandoned – their property, taking with them only the essentials for a move elsewhere.

Montrealers take an interest in the country: The first developers
With the growth of the urban population and rampant industrialization at the beginning of the 20th century, some wealthy Montrealers began to see the value of fresh air. It seemed clear that nature-starved city dwellers would seek green spaces, such as those in the Laurentians.  Among these visionaries were Antoine Léonidas Hurtubise (who died in 1923) and his wife Marie-Louise Bourdon (d. 1935). Originally from Saint-Basile-Le-Grand, Mr. Hurtubise settled in Montreal around 1894. A man of many talents, he was an alderman and responsible for the finances of the city of Montreal. He was also a hay merchant and exported this essential material to the United Kingdom. His family were owners of an important building in Old Montreal.

Mr. Hurtubise purchased dozens of 100-acre lots in Morin-Heights and over the years acquired a substantial portion of the surrounding land. The mountain was named Mont-Hurtubise in his honour. On the death of Mrs. Hurtubise, their son Paul Hurbubise (1894-1968) and his wife Jenny Adrain (1907-1994) took over and continued the family project on the large estate they had inherited. Gradually they subdivided the land to sell individual lots.

The forestry industry
There’s no doubt the forestry industry between 1880 and 1950 was a major contributor to the lower Laurentians’ economic growth. And the land around Mont Hurtubise was no exception. Proof is found in deeds of sale that the Novy family left to the Morin Heights Historical Association archives. These documents tell us that Théophile Gandon sold woodcutting rights for lot 47 of Range 3 of Morin to the Laurentian Lumber Co. on September 25, 1903, (by act number 19366 in front of the notary C. Cushing) for $5,000. (A princely sum at the time!) The document also tells of earlier transactions (such as the transfer of lot 47 to Joseph Corbeil) and later (from the Laurentian Lumber Co. to J.E. Seale Lumber Co. in 1907).

It was around this time that Antoine Léonidas Hurtubise designed, ordered and built a road – today the cross-country ski trail Birkbeiner – that allowed early residents to reach the summit of the mountain by car or truck. Mr. Hurtubise named the new road after Ernest Charbonneau, owner of a farm on Range 4 north of the CN railway line. Among major forestry projects of the early century is that of Joseph E. Seale. His company logged lot number 47, and probably many others, for more than half a century. One such logging site was operated by Seale until April 10, 1924, when lot 47 was sold to Marie-Louise Bourdon, widow of Antoine Léonidas Hurtubise.

New owner, new vocation: Arrival of the Crédit Foncier Franco-Canadien
On April 15, 1947, Paul Hurtubise sold a portion of his land (536 acres), including the southern slope of Mont Hurtubise, to Crédit Foncier Franco-Canadien, which operated in Canada from 1880 to 1979. The aim was to create a domain for the bank’s owners and clients to hunt and fish. This period was marked by controversy surrounding the access road. Crédit Foncier wanted exclusive use of the existing road (the present-day Blue Hills Road) and proposed building, at its own expense, an alternative route of equal quality for residents of Old Settlers Road and the surrounding area. However, the new road was not up to the standards of the original, leading to disputes and eventually formal court decisions in favour of residents. The Crédit Foncier period lasted more than 10 years, until the property was sold.

A turning point and exceptional growth: the dream of Jaroslav Novy and Vilma Marushiak
Jaroslav Novy, born in Prague in 1907 and having served in the Second World War, came to Canada in 1951. While in Montreal he attended architecture courses at McGill University and went on to practise several trades in Montreal, Sept-Iles and Toronto, where he met Vilma Marushiak who had been born in Okolicne, Slovakia, in 1927. They married in 1953. One day in 1957 Mr. Novy noticed an ad in the Montreal Star for a large property for sale in Morin-Heights. He did his homework, conducted some research and concluded that buying this real estate would be a good move. Here’s the rest of this happy story.

While driving one day on Highway 117 Mr. Novy admired the breathtaking panorama of the surrounding mountains, shrouded in a faint blue mist. These were the “blue hills” that would give their name to his new domain and the company that followed. His dream was to develop the land and turn it into a holiday paradise. In May 1957 Jaroslav and Vilma bought the 536-acre property from Crédit Foncier, thanks in part to a down payment of $5,000 from Vilma. The domain included seven cottages, two lakes, a few private roads including the current Blue Hills, Old Settlers and Moon River roads, two horses, a cow and a Willys Jeep.

The new Blue
Hills Company established its first sales office in the largest of the houses that had been built many years earlier. The other houses were soon put up for sale to finance the construction of roads leading to the lakes. Because creation of new lakeside properties was essential for the development and success of the business, the shoreline was soon divided into lots with 100 feet of lakefront. In 1957, when Lakeshore Road did not yet exist, the first lakefront lot was sold next to what would become Senior Beach on Lake Cook.

By 1957 Gatineau Power was supplying electricity to the seven chalets at the top of MontHurtubise. The cottages on Lake Margaret and Lake Jenny (now Lake Bélanger) did not yet have power. When Hydro-Quebec took over the Gatineau grid it refused to provide electricity to the roads around the lake. Only when Mr. Novy managed to persuade Bell Canada to set up a telephone network, complete with poles and wires, did Hydro reverse its decision and use the new poles to deliver electricity to the region. During the 1960s it became clear that more roads were needed to give direct access to the lakes. Forest Hill was built to reach Lake Cook, and Lakeshore (formerly Maplewood Street) was extended in both directions around the lake. Other roads were added later, including Corbeil, County and Montfort.

There was a time when all these roads were private, with maintenance paid by owners. But by 1970 the tax base in Blue Hills and the surrounding area was sufficient for the Municipality of Morin-Heights to take over maintenance and snow removal. Very soon there was no more lakefront land for sale. In 1969 Novy began transforming a swampy area at the foot of the mountain next to Blue Hills Road into a small lake, which he named after his son, Peter.

It’s important to note that the lands around the Blue Hills Company domain (the Novy property) were also booming. Several hundred acres owned by Paul Hurtubise and his wife Jenny Adrain were subdivided and registered in 1953, including the entire Lake Jenny (Bélanger) with 29 lots; all sold within 10 years. Most of these lots were two acres or more with 150 feet of shoreline. It was the same for the land around Lake Margaret, also owned by the Hurtubise family.

Early in the development of Blue Hills, Mr. Novy was keen to promote sports and social activities among residents. And so was born the Blue Hills Club in August 1959. The role of these elected members was to represent Blue Hills property owners and ensure that life was well organized and agreeable. During its peak in the 1970s the club organized a summer camp for children, and weekly “father-child” softball games took place on the village school yard. A highlight every summer was the regatta held at Junior Beach, with swimming contests, canoe races and games for youngsters. This club was the forerunner of the Blue Hills Association, which today brings together owners of lakefront and non-lakefront properties from Lakes Cook and Corbeil. Today, all residents of the Mont-Hurtubise area use the term Blue Hills.

There you have the dream of pioneers such as Hurtubise and Novy: to build a peaceful haven in the large natural space of Blue Hills, bringing together a community based on respecting each
person’s values. Now it is up to us to preserve this dream and make sure it lives on.

Many thanks to Susan McNabb for her invaluable cooperation, to Lionel Hurtubise and Andreas Kraus, and to Susan and Jana Novy who donated many of their family records to the Morin Heights Historical Association and gave us permission to use part of the text “History of the Blue Hills” that they wrote in 2007.