City of Westmount minutes:
Unexpected discoveries await when sifting through Council minutes
By Michael Walsh
It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead centre of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for.
– Lois McMaster Bujold
Have you ever experienced a serendipitous moment? True to the word’s origin (a Persian tale of the three princes of Serendip – now Sri Lanka) this entails making unexpected discoveries.
During the course of reading council’s minutes I have experienced many such moments. Specifically, items that don’t fit within a particular context. One such instance occurs with objects of art or manuscripts presented to the City for various reasons over many decades. By themselves, these objects pose an interesting question: do any still exist, and if so, are images of them available?
My presupposition was that some of these items are packed in archival boxes and stored under the care of the City of Westmount archival staff. Others, if not many, may have been lost, misfiled or simply discarded over the years.
To that end, I contacted Kayleigh Girard at the City of Westmount and was pleasantly surprised that some of these artefacts still exist and are stored within their extensive collection. Plus, their staff kindly provided images that form the basis of this article.
Bringing these images back to light, in a small way, illustrates Westmount’s rich history and emphasizes the important work performed by the City of Westmount’s professional archival staff.
We begin our journey with one serendipitous moment: a sketch of Westmount’s “Haunted Cottage” with the accompanying legend attached to the back of the painting.
‘Bringing these images back to light, in a small way, illustrates Westmount’s rich history and emphasizes the important work performed by the City of Westmount’s professional archival staff.’
The Sec. Treasurer submitted a communication from Mr. G. Durnford asking the City’s acceptance of a sketch of the Cottage known as “The Haunted Cottage” of Sisson’s Lane. On the back of this sketch is noted the legend of the place an old land mark of Westmount.
– Council Minutes, May 7, 1918
(Sisson’s Lane was renamed St. Catherine Street West in 1884)
Here is the transcript of E. Durnford’s note:
* * * * *
The Haunted Cottage on Sissons Lane
This little cottage was probably the original house on the farm known about 1850 as the Helliwell Farm, which is now the M.A.A.A. Grounds. It was at the time used as a residence by a famer of the name of Robert Wark, who later on added the old Selby property to this farm, and resided in the Selby house, now occupied by Mr. R. W. Kerr.
In the 50’s of the last century it was occupied by the coachman of Captain Durnford of Green Hythe, Patrick Bushell, his wife and family, – who lived in it, immediately before him I have no recollection. Shortly after tales went around that a Peddler had been murdered there, but I could never trace anything more than the vaguest of rumours, but the ghost was supposed to draw chains about the garret.
I think the man was more frightened that his wife, and he told me that one night when they were sitting on the stoop looking out on the grounds, a light appeared about one hundred yards in front of them at the side of the stables, and while they were watching it and wondering what it could be a tremendous blow was struck on the side of the stoop, and they fled into the house.
I frequently accompanied him down the lane, which was a very pretty one probably somewhat over half a mile in length, and only about half a dozen houses the whole way.
One night when the ghost was more that usually obstreperous they got so frightened that they picked up their children and fled to a neighbour’s farmhouse occupied by a connection of theirs. When they got there and told their story, there was a wild young Irishman by the name of Michael McDermott who jeered and laughed at their terrors, and using frequent and free language said “He would like to see the ghost that would turn him out!” They said if he would go back with them they would give him a room to sleep in. It is not known whether he intended the challenge to be accepted or not, but he could not very well back out, so back they went and turned him into a spare room in which there was a bed for visiting friends, and they returned to their slumbers.
‘One night when the ghost was more that usually obstreperous they got so frightened that they picked up their children and fled to a neighbour’s farmhouse…’
However, they had not settled down, in fact they were not yet asleep before woeful cries arose from their spare room of “Oh! Pat! Come quick! Bring a light! He is pulling the clothes off me!” Pat got up, lit a light, opened the door and found McDermott in a state of terror. He said he would not stay there any longer, so he took up his mattress and laid it down on the floor of the room in which they were sleeping, and all was fairly peaceful till morning.
Anyhow, they finally got so terrified that they gave the house up, and of its later history I know nothing, but it was still here at the time the M.A.A.A. took possession of the grounds and pulled it down, which laid the ghost effectually.
(signed) E. Durnford
* * * * *
That a sum not to exceed fifty dollars in all, be expended of water colour or oil paintings of certain points of interest in the Town… viz:
(a) The Hurtubise chateau
(b) Saint Germain home (showing old cross)
(c) Old toll gate (winter scene)
– Council Minutes, February 1, 1897
In this instance, paintings of the St. Germain house and the toll gate still exist. The Hurtubise chateau painting, unfortunately, is no longer a part of the City’s collection.
One’s serendipitous list always exceeds, despite best efforts, what currently exists. Not surprising given that most items date back to the 19th century. These items include:
The Mayor stated that before proceeding with the business of the evening he would ask that a note of thanks be tendered to Mr. A. G. Walford for the handsome picture he had presented to the Council.
– Council Minutes, October 7, 1895
Submitted and read letter from Mr. George Durnford enclosing certain letters in reference to the early days of Cote St. Antoine and historical events of that time.
– Council Minutes, January 4, 1897
Submitted and read letter from Mr. George Durnford, dated 20th November 1899, donating to the Town a copy of a sketch made by him in 1855 of the toll gate which stood at the corner of Atwater Avenue and Dorchester Street.
– Council Minutes, December 11, 1899
That Mayor Lighthall and Councillor Rodger be authorized to arrange for the framing and hanging of the picture of our late Queen donated by J. N. Arnaud & Company.
– Council Minutes, October 6, 1902
This brings us to an end of our journey of unexpected discoveries. Next time you read a topic of interest, have a notebook on hand and jot down nuggets of information that pique your interest – you might be pleasantly surprised with what you discover.
I would like to thank Kayleigh Girard and Anthony Chiasson, City of Westmount, for their invaluable assistance in preparing this article.
Feature image: Sisson’s Lane sketch, courtesy of the City of Westmount
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training, and publishing, include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. During this period, he was also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Prior to moving to Montreal, he was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education evaluating bilingual primary and secondary school programs. Today, he enjoys spending time with his (huge) Saint Bernard while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at email@example.com or through his blog Westmount Overlooked