October 29, 2010 1:19 pm

Rousing ghost of Mount Royal

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MONTREAL – Just in time for Halloween, archaeologists are unearthing the tomb of a Montreal fur baron whose vengeful ghost was said to haunt Mount Royal in a toboggan and exact deadly revenge on those who dared disturb his castle.

Archaeologists with the city of Montreal have been begun excavating the site of Simon McTavish’s mausoleum, which sits in a quiet, wooded section of Mount Royal just below the main path, Olm­sted Rd., and north of Peel St. Once an imposing structure topped by a six-storey-high stone column, the city destroyed it and covered it in rubble in the 1870s to deter grave robbers and quell recurrent tales of a ghost that was terrorizing the mountain.

For 140 years, it worked, said Donovan King, an amateur historian who is writing a book about McTavish and hosts haunted tours of the city through Montreal Ghosts.

“There was no more grave robbing, and the memory of his ghost faded from the public consciousness – until now as we try to resurrect the story. Archaeologists are digging, and even though it’s been dormant for 140 years, people are becoming more interested. …

“As you know from horror movies and ghost stories, the moment you crack open the tomb, there’s a chance of the ghost re-emerging.”

Archaeologists working the site yesterday, who had already uncovered the former monument bearing the words “Sacred to the Memory of Simon McTavish Esquire,” said there had been no sign of McTavish’s spirit. Yet. They don’t work nights, however.

They referred media questions to the city’s spokespeople, who were not able to answer questions from The Gazette yesterday, perhaps wary of the negative publicity unleashing the unholy fury of a raging phantasm on an unsuspecting public could incur. Officials called later to say they were doing exploratory work finishing up today to determine if there’s something else that could be done to honour McTavish.

Descendants of McTavish and local activists have long complained his memory has been treated poorly, nothing but a small stone monument on the mountain and his name on a downtown street left to commemorate a man who was once the wealthiest and among the most influential in the city.

McTavish came to Mon­treal from Scotland at the age of 25 and founded the North West Co., amassing his fortune mainly with the export of furs, in direct competition with the Hudson’s Bay Co. He started to build his McTavish Castle, two storeys high and overlooking the 9,000 inhabitants of the city below, on the side of Mount Royal in 1800, with the family tomb located slightly up the hill. But in 1804 he fell sick and died at the age of 54, likely of pneumonia. The Castle walls and roof were already built, but McTavish’s young French-Canadian bride quickly remarried and departed for England with their four children, and the castle was boarded up, “leaving Simon McTavish’s earthly remains abandoned, betrayed and locked in a mausoleum,” King writes.

McTavish would not stay locked up for long. As years passed, he was seen dancing on the roof of his house, flitting in and out of windows and taking the occasional moonlit toboggan ride in his coffin.

The city finally tore down his home in 1861. During the work, a construction worker fell three storeys and died. It was said he was pushed by the ghost of McTavish, exacting revenge for destroying his dream home. About a decade later, the mausoleum was torn down and covered, and McTavish faded away, King said.

Now, his tomb is being unearthed. And King thinks that would suit McTavish just fine.

“I think he would be pleased, because his ghost hasn’t been sighted in 150 years,” he said. “When they buried that mausoleum, they buried the spirit with it.”

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