Is it me or are we lacking in ghost stories in this city?
Every year Halloween comes around and I get asked if I know any decent local ghost stories. Each year I come up short. It’s a problem for me, because in my opinion it’s a demonstration of a slightly larger, more complex problem – lack of local folklore. What we know about our city is very often defined in terms of what can be demonstrated – we speak of our city in scientific terms, in measurements, in percentages. When we discuss culture, we often tend towards using scientific terminology to discuss our society. There is a reason for this, or perhaps there once was, when it was necessary to demonstrate our local society as a measurement against a larger, more imposing cultural mass. But I firmly believe those days to be of another era, and that we have the cultural and societal strength and confidence to begin loosening our previous approach. What I find odd is how little is written on points of common cultural experience, of shared history and discourse between the two majority-minority groups that so define our peculiar nation of nations.
Folklore is cultural currency. A strong local appreciation of a city’s folklore, it’s common history, will provide the local arts community with a strong foundation of reference material. Look back at the works of some of our great artists, past and present, many have demonstrated in their seminal works a profound attachment to local culture and society through an understanding of our folklore.
Folklore is extremely important. Its typically packaged as morality tale wrapped in pertinent historical and cultural information, designed to convey an idea about why we live where we do, and why our society is how it is. Montréal, as a result of its history and linguistic divisions, has so far largely turned its back on developing the common folklore. Perhaps this is as a result of the Quiet Revolution, which aimed to turn away completely from the Grand Noirceur and the perceived backwardness of our provincial, agrarian past. But if there is a legitimate interest on the part of Québecois nationalists, sovereignists and/or cultural enthusiasts to protect the local French dialect and the cultural heritage of the people of Québec, what would be better than developing a local folklore, in which the stories are designed to be as relatable to the Montréal experience as possible regardless of which language they’re expressed in. For this, we need to take a good long look at who we were as a city, as a people, hundreds of years ago.
Montréal’s colonial era history has always fascinated me, though partially as a result of it being so overshadowed by American and Spanish colonial era history. We were intimately involved in the early history of the United States, Great Britain and the halcyon days of the Bourbon monarchy in France, and yet we retreat from the realities of the colonial experience.
When I was younger I heard stories of frontier folklore with an American colonial bent, whether in literature or through television and movies. It made me wonder what life was like back then, only here. Who were the ghosts of our past, and what perspective on the human experience could be gleaned through such stories. In my search I came across one story that’s always stuck with me. It’s the story of the ghost of a white horse, said to run down Gouin Boulevard in Ste-Genevieve. There are rapids in the Back River by Riverdale High School, by the park at the top of Boul. des Sources, and they are named after this galloping spectre.
As best I know it, the story goes like this. There are the remnants of a fort built by the French colonial administration in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, once called Fort Senneville. The fort has been destroyed twice, once by the Iroquois (in 1691) and then by Benedict Arnold in 1776 (though at the time it wasn’t in use by any party, and Arnold destroyed it so it could not be used by the advancing British regulars, Canadien militia and Iroquois warriors making their way up from Les Cédres). It was built to defend the vital trading post and community at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, not to mention the king’s road which linked Ste-Anne’s with Ste-Genevieve to the North and Pointe-Claire, Lachine and Ville-Marie to the East. It was during this first attack on the fort in 1691 that a dispatcher was sent out along the King’s Road to Ste-Genevieve, to warn of the possibility of attack. Riding a white horse he sped off down the trail, only to be killed by the attacking Iroquois. The horse carried on, terrified from violence and the deafening blasts of muskets, galloping down the well-trod trail until it eventually came upon the sleeping village of Ste-Genevieve. As one might imagine, a terrified horse would make enough noise to wake up the residents, and they were able to piece together what had happened what with the mangled corpse I can only assume was being dragged by the horse. The story goes on that the horse dies of exhaustion and that the spirit of the terrified horse would surge forth from the powerful rapids nearby each year on the anniversary of this fateful ride, determined to simultaneously remind the inhabitants to be vigilant and to look for his dead master.
Anyways, that’s what I heard. Two cops my brother found creeping around the fort a few years ago related it pretty much as I just did.
Something tells me it’s a bit of a mess story-wise, perhaps the synthesis of a variety of different local legends. I’d certainly like to know more about this if any of you know.
And aside from that, as far as ghost stories go, well, what would be worse than finding yourself on Senneville Road or Gouin Boulevard only to see the white flash of a mad steed barreling down you? I guarantee at the very least this spirit has certainly caused a couple traffic accidents.
Besides – when was the last time Mary Gallagher turned up? It’s time we find ourselves some new ghosts, no?