Whether or not it deserved it, the region of Terrebonne was so named in jest by its first seigneur, André Daulier Deslandes, in 1673. When one of his friends (whom he considered to be luckier) was granted the barony of Aubonne in Switzerland, the seigneur responded with his own particular brand of one-upmanship, christening his new territory, Terbonne (sic). Secretary General of the West India Company, Daulier Deslandes never set foot on this “good earth”. It was his successors who saw the potential of the place, which included a very interesting site – one small island set among the rapidly flowing waters of the Rivière des Mille-îsles.
In 1802, Terrebonne came into the possession of Simon McTavish, a Scot and principal partner of the North West Company, which competed with the Hudson's Bay Company. McTavish transformed l’Île-des-Moulins into a supply post for fur traders known as voyageurs, who navigated trade routes in canoes between 1690 and 1850.
Shooting the Rapids by Frances Anne Hopkins 1838-1919
The work of the voyageurs began in the spring with a gathering in Montreal to prepare the goods they would be carrying, at least 90 pounds’ worth each. Once the canoes had been packed, the men set off from Lachine, stopping briefly in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue for religious services. For 6 to 8 weeks, the voyageurs canoed and portaged their way to distant fur posts in a network that spanned 5,000 km. They rose well before dawn, stopping for breakfast only at about 8 o’clock. Each hour of the journey was marked with a smoke break, a practice which became so common that distances were measured according to the number of pipes taken along the route.
By the 19th century, l’Île-des-Moulins had become a pre-industrial complex managed by McKenzie, Oldham, and Co., and equipped with a forge, a bakery, and various types of mills. The mills produced goods for sale but were also used by the citizens of Terrebonne to grind their flour and cut their wood. In exchange, the people paid the seigneur a fraction of their produce, about one fourteenth.
At the height of his success, however, Joseph Masson fell ill after descending beneath a mill in the cold to fix a break. When he died a short time later, his wife took over the affairs of the island in order to continue to support their 8 children. With the assistance of Germain Raby, who her husband had previously appointed as seigneurial officer, she built an administration building and a new manor that came to be known as the “Château Masson.” She also established one of the most important textile manufacturing businesses of Lower Canada and managed a steamboat that transported merchandise, livestock, and passengers to and from Montreal. Even after the seigneurial regime was abolished, Raymond-Masson continued to invest in the territory of Terrebonne, while Raby became the village’s first mayor.
Turbine: A rotor driven by the force of moving water.
Millstone: A massive disk that turns on top of a fixed disk to grind grain.
Bolting or sifting machine: A long cabinet fitted with bins to receive the different grades of flour.
Groove: A furrow that carries grain.
Sieve: A mesh through which course and fine particles are separated.
Gear: A part of a machine with cut teeth that slot into each other to apply force or motion.
Terrebonne circa 1810
In 1720, Louis Lepage, pastor of a neighbouring island, acquired the territory and began to build. He first constructed a church and a manor that also served as the presbytery. In 1721, l’Île-des-Moulins got its first flour mill and in 1725 its first saw mill, both built over the river so as to harness the powerful current. Lepage’s prosperity lasted two decades, but he got somewhat ahead of himself. Although he asked the King for permission to build a forge, he didn’t wait for an answer, and was ultimately refused, just as his project was nearing completion. As a result, Lepage was forced to sell the seigneurie in 1745.
At night, the voyageurs slept under the stars, protected from wind and rain by tarps and overturned canoes. While they rested, a kettle filled with peas, water, and a few strips of pork simmered over a fire until dawn when the cook added “biscuits.” These biscuits were prepared by bakeries like the one established by Simon McTavish on l’Île-des-Moulins. Made from a mixture of flour, water, salt, and grease, they were twice baked in order to preserve them. To render them edible again, the voyageurs hung this staple in satchels made of flax that dragged in the water alongside their canoes.
In the province of Québec, l’Île-des-Moulins is the second most important restoration after Place Royale in Québec City, but its destiny was far from guaranteed. By the 1960s, an artificial lake had been dug out of the centre of the island, and its ancient buildings housed nightclubs and artists’ studios. Around the time of Expo ’67, the site also harboured a campground and trailer park. Finally, after much pressure from the citizens of Terrebonne, the Québec Ministry of Cultural Affairs recognized the historical significance of l’Île-des-Moulins in 1973. Five buildings were restored: