July 13, 2012

Les Rochers reflected the craggy bluffs

Last weekend we were invited to a soiree at the prime minister’s summer residence. Okay, that sounded a little snooty.

We weren’t actually invited by the current prime minister, and the residence, at Riviere du Loup, 200 km east of Quebec City, belonged to a prime minister — Canada’s first, Sir John A. Macdonald — who last stayed there in 1890, the year before his death.

It also wasn’t a “soiree,” but an afternoon birthday gathering for an old friend. It was a completely booze-free occasion, which might not have pleased Sir John, an extraordinary politician but a notorious drunk.

I couldn’t help thinking as I tested the solidity of the thigh-high rail rimming the open gallery with its soul-stirring view of the St. Lawrence River, if a tipsy Sir John had ever taken a tumble.

The founding father of Canada started summering in what was then called St. Patrick in 1871. There are several theories why he chose this particular spot, seeing that it’s a long train ride from the nation’s capital of Ottawa and the bustling cities of Montreal and Quebec. One story says Sir John was seeking a healthful climate and discreet getaway for his brain-damaged daughter.

Regardless, Sir John rented a modest farm property to begin with, but in 1882 upgraded to the spacious manor-like residence, which he named Les Rochers, to reflect the craggy bluffs on which seaside houses were built in the area.

But it was the original farmhouse that was the scene of what I like to call (and indeed wrote a 2007 magazine article about) Sir John’s “lost weekend.”

To make a long and mind-bendingly complex story short, what happened was Sir John, according to several reports, disappeared for a period of about three days in August 1873.

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