Saint-Sauveur History


The beginnings of skiing in the region

It was in 1905 that the Laurentians started to make a name for itself as a ski destination. That year, members of the Montreal Ski Club, used to the slopes and trails of Mount Royal, began to come to the Pays-d’en-Haut region to ski long distances through the woods and over fields until Shawbridge, where they would catch the train to return home.

They wore extremely long skis fitted with leather straps on their feet and didn’t use poles. Or, they used a single pole, as in hiking.  The sport really took off with middle-class English Montrealers; already in 1912, it wasn’t uncommon to see hundreds of people waiting at the Viger train station, skis in hand, eager to get “up north”. 

The Ski train, Saint-Sauveur 1940

In Saint-Sauveur at the time, agriculture was tapering off, industry was stagnating and summer tourism was developing slowly, making this influx of visitors a welcome sight for the municipality.  Curé Labelle had proclaimed that “(train) cars full of tourists” would come, and here they finally were.

The priest in Saint-Sauveur, Curé Desjardins, urged his parishioners to not miss out on this opportunity: “Little by little, they will get to know us better, fall in love with our picturesque village, buy property, build a summer home and soon, we will have new friends…” Families supplemented their income by hosting skiers in their home: the front of the house was reserved for guests while the family lived in the back. Villagers found work in hotels or as maintenance staff for cottages and country homes of wealthy tourists weekending in the area. 

Skiers at Saint-Sauveur 1942

The number of skiers coming to the Laurentians became so great that in 1927, Percy Douglas, president of the Canadian Amateur Ski Association, persuaded the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) to start running trains just for this purpose. The very same year, Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CP) followed suit and hence began the “snow trains”, otherwise known as the P’tit train du Nord. Not to be confused with the Train du Nord, which transported merchandise.

Hill 69

The P’tit train du Nord passenger train was an experience in itself: There were a lot of English people from Westmount, and especially McGill students. I remember the Early Bird train that left in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It was a real carnival! Sometimes someone took out a violin or an accordion. People danced in single file from one train car to another.
(recollection of a train conductor, taken from Allard, 2017, p. 173).

Saint-Sauveur road

Tourists coming from Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Toronto, Boston, New York and New England found skiing in what the Americans called “The Alouette Belt” to be rather exotic:

There was marvellous local atmosphere surrounding the small train stations; villagers came in droves to watch the train roll into the station. They didn’t drive motor vehicles, but rather horse-drawn buggies with little bells that jingled happily as they travelled along. Local residents had snowshoes on their feet, were outfitted in fur and spoke French. Percy Douglas, My Skiing Years.

Red Birds Ski Club and Jackrabbit 1930

At the time, the P’tit train du Nord was all the more important in light of the challenging road conditions. Highway 11 between Montreal and Mont-Laurier was not paved and in winter, snow clearing only went so far as Saint-Jérôme. Secondary roads 327 and 329, usually made of dirt and gravel, were narrow, winding and not regularly maintained. In contrast, two locomotives pulled a train full of skiers, thus avoiding delays due to snow accumulation. At the height of their popularity in the winter of 1938-1939, the snow trains transported some 112 000 people in 300 trains.

Arrival of skiers in Saint-Sauveur 1940

The ski industry transformed the regional landscape. At the end of the 1920s, the Laurentian’s first-ever slalom ski race was held in Saint-Sauveur. This type of skiing gained in popularity thanks to the Red Birds Ski Club, formed by McGill University graduates and based in Saint-Sauveur. Club members practised on the Big Hill, which they rebaptized Côte 70 (Hill 70) in honour of McGill University Rector, Arthur Currie. While leading the Canadian Army Corps during the First World War, Currie demonstrated his tactical skill and prowess at the battle of Hill 70, not far from the town of Lens in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. Saint-Sauveur’s Côte 70 was the first downhill ski run in the Laurentians to be equipped with a permanent chairlift, installed in 1934 by Frederick Pabst Jr, a brewer from Milwaukee.

Since 1905, the Saint-Sauveur church has risen above the village centre. Designed by architect Casimir Saint-Jean (1864-1918), the building’s eclectic façade features a mix of historical styles and appears to be gazing at the hills. The wave of skiers that descended upon the village each weekend turned the main street in a bustling commercial artery. Here, visitors staying at the former Sloane house (#185) found everything they needed close by: general stores (the building at #189 still stands), a bakery (7 de L’Église Street), a creamery (240 Principale Street) and a post office (#197) inside the house of former Mayor Joseph Chevalier (1869-1933). At the beginning of the 1930s, painter André Biéler lived in the house at 186 Principale Street, which he painted pink. His work, inspired by Quebec life and featuring the faces and natural beauty of Saint-Sauveur, deftly combines regionalism and modernism. Biéler hosted many friends from Montreal’s artistic community at his Saint-Sauveur abode.

Hill 70 in 1940

In 1932, the Penguin Ski Club, the first-ever, women-only ski club, was founded in Saint-Sauveur. Chaired by Betty Sherrard, this club contributed largely to the Wurtele twins’ brilliant skiing career as they each won dozens of medals and participated in the Saint-Moritz 1948 Olympic Winter Games. There were some thirty active clubs in Saint-Sauveur in the 1940s, including Hell’s Belles. English Protestant girls, usually minors, came to practice their sport and board here under the watchful eye of older, respectable women who made sure that the modesty of these “devil’s beauties” remained intact.

For the French, the very notion of a club went against the family and the morality preached by the Catholic clergy. That said, many French sporting clubs in different disciplines existed as of 1910: lacrosse, baseball and softball in summer; snowshoeing, hockey and speed skating in winter. Skiing, which required specific, expensive and fragile equipment, was perceived as an elitist pursuit for wealthy anglophones. As such, francophones turned to hockey and snowshoeing. The situation would prove to be quite different in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mont Saint-Sauveur in 2005

The ensuing period of change, driven by the automobile, would transform the landscape. As roads improved, salaries increased and automobiles became more accessible, day-trippers began to visit the area and large hotels became less relevant. Even the romantic P’tit train du Nord stopped running in 1960.

Saint-Sauveur handled this tourism shift better than many other Laurentian municipalities. At just 45 minutes away by car from Montreal, many former vacationers decided to move to the village. The picturesque little village of days gone by, once hailed as resembling “a little Swiss village” by Percy Douglas, gave in to resort and tourism commercial development. Restaurants and specialized boutiques sprang up while the municipality’s recreational and cultural services diversified. The amalgamation of hills 68, 69, 70 and 71 under the name Mont-Saint Sauveur in 1971 also contributed to making Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts what it is today, a world-renowned tourist destination.

Open to the public since 2007, Saint-Sauveur’s Laurentian Ski Museum addresses the role that this activity played, and continues to play, in the economic, touristic, technological and cultural development of the Laurentian region, and remembers all who have contributed to the advancement of skiing as a recreational and competitive sport.


Historical and iconographic research, text:
Marc-André Lapointe and Samuel Mathieu
Serge Laurin, Histoire des Laurentides, Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, 1989, 892 p.
Michel Allard, Le cœur des Laurentides, Montréal : Septentrion, 2017, 240 p.
Danielle Soucy, Des traces dans la neige, Montréal : Éditions La Presse, 2009, 256 p.
Jean-Pierre Bourbeau, Laurentides : la belle randonnée, Québec : GID, 2005, 210 p.
Jean-Pierre Bourbeau, Les Laurentides au temps du train du Nord, Québec : GID, 2013, 208 p.
Laurentian Ski Museum, website consulted in July 2017

Pictures :
Collection de la Société d’histoire et de généalogie des Pays-d’en-Haut
Fonds Conrad Poirier
Fonds famille Jackrabbit_
Collection Musée du ski des Laurentides

Extract of
The Pays-d’en-Haut: a Jewel of Leisure and Recreation

The Pays-d’en-Haut: a Jewel of Leisure and Recreation image circuit

Presented by : MRC des Pays-d'en-Haut

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