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:
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.
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.
The reign of the seigneurs came to an end in 1854 with Geneviève-Sophie Raymond-Masson. Her husband, Joseph Masson, was the first French-Canadian millionaire, not surprisingly, since he was an importer, judge, commissioner, and president of the board of the Bank of Montreal. Masson was responsible for bringing turbine technology to l’Île-des-Moulins from the United States. Whereas previous mill wheels froze in the ice, turbines allowed them to work year-round, quadrupling production.
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.
By 1896, over 250 members of the religious community had been buried in the crypt of the Motherhouse, and it was full. The bodies of nuns who died in the winter were kept inside the windmill until the ground thawed. Finally, a small plot of land was consecrated to be a cemetery. It is in an idyllic rose garden on the hillside that dominates the island. Even at that, limited space required that the graves contain at least two bodies, attested to by the names on the white marble tombstones.
Some mystery is associated with this same hill on the west side of the island. It is oval-shaped and has a steep slope, rising about 100 feet above the water level of the lake. Historians once suggested that the hill might be more than the work of a former ice age. That humans could have contributed to its formation is supported by its ressemblence to similar, albeit more diminutive, mounds which have served as burial grounds. The idea that the hillock could have been the work of a lost people was borne out during an excavation in 1854 that recovered 18 skulls within approximately 18 square feet, along with many other bones and weapons.
Photo credit: Gilles Douaire QUÉBEC, CANADA
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