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The summer home in St Patrick, Quebec where Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada's first prime minister, summer between 1873 and 1890. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The summer home in St Patrick, Quebec where Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada's first prime minister, summer between 1873 and 1890. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Summer homes of Canada’s aristocracy still stand in Rivière-du-Loup Add to ...

This was once the hotspot of Canada’s Gilded Age, where moneyed families travelled every summer to escape the heat and filth of Montreal, the desolation of Ottawa and the constraints of their lives as industrial barons, military brass or political elite.

But it is a long way from the aristocratic summer hangouts along the eastern seaboard from the Hamptons on Long Island to Bar Harbour, Me., where U.S. titans like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers sailed.

This was the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River 200 kilometres from Quebec City, a stretch from Kamouraska to Cacouna, including the small regional hub of Rivière-du-Loup and the tiny former village of St. Patrick. Powerful Canadians of the late 19th century with names like Molson, Allan, Bate, McGreevy, Dufferin and Macdonald (John A., the first prime minister, and John S., the first Ontario premier) arrived alongside much of the fledgling country’s elite.

Communities across Canada are renewing connections to MacDonald this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth. Few people realize Rivière-du-Loup is where the nation’s founder spent many of his vacations in power, making the town the unofficial capital of summertime Canada. His main summer home for more than a decade was recognized as a National Historic Site on June 5, but it draws little notice.

Canada’s aristocracy was drawn by commanding views of the river that widens into a sea here, the soothing breeze, and beaches that were rocky and muddy but gave access to the bracing waters.

The richest parked their boats in the harbours at Rivière-du-Loup and Cacouna and built Colonial and Gothic-style wooden homes and mansions. Their camp followers, tourists of lesser means, and others, such as reporters from rival newspapers The Globe and The Mail, filled massive hotels and more intimate inns. The reporters filed dispatches on arrivals and departures and the prime minister’s legendary booze binges, once describing how he jumped off a pier and almost killed himself.

It is always tempting to declare such history forgotten: Most of the hotels, including the grand St. Lawrence Hall where 600 guests stayed, were demolished years ago. The barons of commerce and industry are gone.

But almost all of their summer homes still stand. More than 50 remain in St. Patrick, now part of Rivière-du-Loup, with many more on the other side of town in Cacouna. They bear names like Montrose, MacKay Villa, Rookwood Cottage and Brandy Pots that no longer fit their now overwhelmingly francophone environs.

Bernard Dionne, an amateur historian and unofficial tour guide, drives from house to house in his Honda Accord with his Pekinese named Bijou on his lap. He has documented the history of most of the old houses along Fraser Street. He has property records, newspaper clippings and interviews with descendants that fill carefully organized binders. Many stories he recites from memory.

He knocks on the doors of a few of his living sources. No longer aristocratic or particularly elite, they arrive by Air Canada and Nissan from places like Vancouver and Toronto’s Annex to vacation in their 150-year-old clapboard houses.

The shores of St. Patrick hold some of the earliest memories of Hilda Thomson, an 89-year-old Vancouverite who was raised in Quebec City. A wooden chimney pot crane typical of the 19th century still holds the kettle above the hearth for her and two more generations who follow her to the place every summer.

“We have a pool now. They’re spoiled! We swam every day in the river, we walked miles at low tide out to the islands to swim in that darned river,” said Ms. Thomson, who first came to St. Patrick in the 1920s. Her great-grandfather, William Collis Meredith, one of the founding judges of the Quebec Superior Court and chief justice from 1866 to 1884, was among the original St. Patrick summer residents.

Vancouver to Rivière-du-Loup is a long way to go for a view, but the connection is deeper than scenery, said Ms. Thomson’s son, Ian Good, a 54-year-old computer network designer who accompanied his mother this summer. “There are views everywhere, but this one strikes right here,” he said, thumping his chest with his fist.

Down Fraser Street from Ms. Thomson’s cottage, Brydon Gombay has just pulled in after a 1,000-kilometre trek from Toronto and is tidying up the home where Sir Charles Monck, Canada’s first governor-general, stayed in the 1800s (Lord Dufferin was just next door.)

Ms. Gombay, 80, the daughter of the Bank of Montreal’s onetime chief accountant, Ivan McCarthy, grew up in lower Westmount and began coming here when she was 12. She married the late French philosopher André Gombay and raised five children. She grew up in Montreal, lives in Toronto, but this place is the constant.

“My Toronto friends say, ‘You’re going to your cottage.’ It was never quite that to me,” Ms. Gombay said. “This is my home. Toronto is where I live in the winter.” Ms. Gombay said the house is her family’s most prized possession, but more than the building, it’s about community and that vista of the wide tidewaters and the mountains on the distant north shore.

While the extended families of the Gombays, Thomsons and others remain deeply attached to the place (and must eventually decide how to divide ownership and maintain the houses when the matriarchs are gone), the golden age of Saint Patrick ended a century ago.

Perhaps the decline began in 1903, when the massive tourist hub of St. Lawrence Hall burned to the ground, but it accelerated with the advance of the automobile. Suddenly, respite no longer relied on train and ship routes.

The First World War also cast a pall over the place. Sir Montagu Allan, the banker, hotelier, scion of the Allan Steamship Line family and famous sportsman, lost two daughters when a German U-boat sank the Lusitania in 1915. His only son died in the war. “I don’t think Montagu Allan came back here much after that,” Mr. Dionne said. “I mean, why would he?” Allan sold his Cacouna mansion to Capuchin monks for $10,000 in 1940.

Industrialists gave way to military men and professionals – people with more limited time and money to get away. Conservative politicians were replaced by Liberals as the 20th century wore on. Seventy years after MacDonald arrived, Louis St. Laurent was a regular. “My mother played poker with Madame St. Laurent,” Ms. Thomson recalled. Françoise Chouinard, then a teenager, served the annual lobster dinner to St. Laurent at her father’s Pension Chouinard. “He was such a nice man,” she said.

Pension Chouinard was no luxury hotel by today’s standards, but even well into the 1950s, formal dress was expected for dinner, and gin o’clock began as early as 11 a.m. “The party would really start at 5, when naps were over and the golf and tennis was done,” Ms. Chouinard said. “I don’t think they had the same life in Ontario or Westmount,” Mr. Dionne added.

The hotel register from the time shows a Mr. Molson being billed $57 for 57 meals. By the 1960s, room and board cost $40 a week.

In the early 1970s, a freeway was built practically in the Chouinards’ backyard. Rivière-du-Loup remained a transportation junction and a minor tourist destination, but mostly for cargo by rail and car travellers on their way to Gaspé or the Atlantic provinces.

Ms. Chouinard’s mother closed her inn in the late 1970s. “They stayed from Saint-Jean to Labour Day,” Françoise Chouinard said. “Who has vacation time like that any more?”

The memories remain fond for Ms. Chouinard. Her grateful English-Canadian guests had impeccable manners, she says, and sent gifts of candy for the kids and scarves for her mother from Eaton’s every fall and Christmas. “C’était la belle vie,” she said.

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