Founded in 1855, Morin Heights will celebrate the 165th anniversary of its establishment as a municipality in 2020. Since its humble beginning as a farming community carved out of forest by early settlers, it has evolved into a community with a rich involvement in the arts and in outdoor sports. As part of the recognition of the 150th anniversary in 2005, Sandra Stock, a teacher and founder of the Morin Heights Historical Association, wrote an article titled "A Brief History of Morin Heights". It is from that article that much of the information that follows is drawn.
Origin of the name "Morin Heights"
Our town was named after Augustin-Norbert Morin, who settled much of the area in the 1830s and 40s. He was a government minister and later co-prime minister of the Union of Upper and Lower Canada.
Morin Township was created in 1852 and included today’s Ste-Adèle, Val David, Val Morin, part of Ste-Agathe, and Morin Heights. In 1855 Morin Township was split in two; the southern part became the “Municipality of the Southern Part of the Township of Morin,” the official name until 1950 when it was changed to the Municipality of Morin Heights.
Morin Flats was one of the four small hamlets – the other three being Christieville, Britonville, and Leopold/Pleasant Valley – that made up the municipality in the early days. Morin Flats, which was considered the “downtown” core, changed its name in 1911 to Morin Heights, the name by which the entire municipality eventually became known.
Until the first half of the 19th century, only native hunters, mostly Mohawk, lived here seasonally. Although some settlement occurred around 1840 in the Mille Isle region, it was not until 1848 that Thomas Seale, from Connaught, Ireland, started clearing his farm at Echo Lake. Families that had originated as pioneers in Gore, Mille Isles and other townships settled Morin along with immigrants 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. Irish and Scottish immigrants continued to arrive, as well as French-speaking settlers who came mostly from St. Eustache, St. Jérôme and St. Sauveur des Monts. Among them were the Corbeil, Bélisle, Guénette, Piché and Groulx families.
The first settlers were cut off from the rest of the world, causing many hardships. In their early days, they had to cut down the trees allowing them to build homes and barns and to have the space necessary for subsistence farming (vegetables, fruit, wheat, etc.), although the soil was of poor quality and full of rocks. Hunting and fishing provided protein to complete their diet. The only cash source of these first inhabitants was the production of Potash made by cutting and burning hardwood and distilling the ash. They had to walk to Montreal - a painful 3-day hike - which brought them $5 a bag, a pretty sum at the time. The potash was used to make soap and fertilizers.
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. 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.
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.
There were eventually four post offices in Morin Township: Britonville, 1857, Morin Flats, 1875, Leopold, 1884, and Christieville, 1900. Britonville was 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 became 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. The increased production at the mills created jobs and growth in the community that lasted until the early 1960s and sustained the population through the recession of the 30s. As the growing season is so short and the soil so rocky, agriculture never really advanced beyond 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 saw many families through the cold, hard winter months.
Although the initial motivation for bringing in the train was to ship product like lumber out, the unforeseen benefit of rail transport was the beginning of a tourist/recreational industry as well. This was at first, during summer only, starting around 1900, but by the 1920’s year round 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 in “three season” homes, Echo Lake being the first part of Morin that attracted people wishing to escape the city. 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 earliest ski tows and offered, on a small scale compared to today, a true resort destination.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, skiing became even more popular and the trains brought many people to the boarding house and hotels every weekend. Horse-drawn sleighs and wagons from the various boarding houses 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 as the track was dismantled and removed. The Aerobic Corridor, for summer hiking and winter cross-country skiing, now goes along the old track bed to Montcalm. The warm-up chalet is near 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.
Growth and Change
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 Heights. However, with the improvement of the roads and better communications, Morin Heights was less and less isolated and rural.
Due to population growth and the opening of the Lac Saint Denis radar base, a new, large, modern school was opened in 1952 to replace the small one-room schools throughout the area. School bus routes were developed and 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. As well, there were always many “gifted amateurs”, mainly landscape painters, among our population. Recently this tradition continues with Arts Morin Heights presenting year around art displays, showing a vast variety of works by many gifted people. Our musical heritage is evidenced by the number of composers, singers and musicians working in Morin Heights and the Joyful Noise Choir, an amateur choir comprised of local singers.
Our economic base has diversified since the 1980’s with new industries such as manufacturing, construction, tourism and retail providing local job opportunities. Residential developments, like Balmoral Estates with its golf course, continue to bring more new people to our municipality.
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.