07/07/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 09/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Lac-Megantic, Quebec: Portrait Of The Town Before The Explosion

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. - The most famous event in the history of Lac-Megantic to have occurred before its current tragedy also began with a fire.

A blaze in 1888 prompted a nearly year-long manhunt, and a gun duel, that remain ingrained in local lore as a wild tale for a forestry town that usually prides itself on its more serene natural beauty.

The Morrison family had immigrated from Isle of Lewis, Scotland, and settled in this community that was founded and built around the railroad tracks near the U.S. border.

Young Donald Morrison had left the family behind to work on a ranch out West, from where he sent home money to help pay off the family's debts.

But by the time he'd returned to Lac-Megantic, the family had lost its farm after signing a bad loan deal with the richest man in town — the municipality's first mayor, Malcolm Macaulay.

When the barn belonging to the new property owner was burned down, Morrison quickly became a suspect. He fled. Eventually the town hired a U.S. bailiff at $2.50 a day to track down Morrison, on whom there was a $25 bounty.

Morrison wound up killing the bailiff in a duel on the town's main strip — an area now best known as the epicentre of Saturday's rail explosion.

And, in a saga that saw Morrison immortalized in poems, including "The Canadian Outlaw" of 1892, and even on a Gaelic-language album in Scotland, he was hunted through the woods for 10 months before being shot, caught, and locked up in prison for murder until he died of tuberculosis five years later.

Until a few years ago, there was even a bar called The Morrison in the downtown strip.

The town expanded in the 1880s and '90s around the just-completed Montreal-St. John segment of the new transcontinental railway.

The municipality was originally known as Megantic — which stems from an Abenaki word meaning "place where the fish are held."

More than a century ago, it was merged with the town of Agnes next door, named after Susan Agnes Bernard, the wife of John A. Macdonald.

Canada's first prime minister, who spearheaded the national railway project, had visited the area with his spouse in 1879.

The town today remains a rare Quebec beachhead for Macdonald's political descendants. A famous local resident is Industry Minister Christian Paradis, one of only five Conservative MPs in the province and the government's Quebec lieutenant.

With the railway in place, Megantic developed as a forestry town, its main industries being logging, lumber and pulp and paper. Furniture manufacturer Tafisa Canada, a subsidiary of Portugal's Sonae Industria, operates a 65,000-square-metre plant in the area.

The surrounding Eastern Townships region is a tourist draw with its quaint 19th-century towns, numerous waterways popular with canoers and campers, and rolling hills that offer sweeping sights of the fall foliage.

Tranquility has been among the main attractions of the town of 5,900, located barely 10 kilometres from the Maine border.

For more than two centuries after a Catholic missionary visited in 1646, the area remained largely unsettled.

The absence of bustle remains a selling point to this day.

Fifty kilometres away, the region boasts the International Starry Sky Reserve — a unique spot protected from electrical lighting where people can marvel at the stars.

Without the dampening effects of light pollution, visitors can enjoy the sight of a sky that appears dusted with distant diamonds. Occasionally, they can even spot traces of the Northern Lights.

The town website manages to boast about two local distinctions.

According to the website, it was one of 52 municipalities in Quebec to receive a "Four Blossoms" rating from the provincial organization "Les Fleurons du Quebec," which rewards municipalities for attractive greenery. It was also ranked among the first eight municipalities in Quebec to earn a "Carboresponsable" attestation, for climate-change measures, from the Enviro-access consulting company.

The long straight street that leads into the heart of Lac-Megantic from the northwest doesn't appear any different from main drags in most small towns across Canada.

Rue Laval is flanked by a Canadian Tire, a big-box-style grocery store and fast-food joints, including a Tim Hortons.

But now, at the far end of this busy downslope, sits an area that Prime Minister Stephen Harper compared Sunday to a "war zone."

The downtown core is decimated.

The library has been destroyed. The library website, which chronicles the story of the legendary outlaw Morrison, was down Sunday and viewable only through Internet archives.

"It's a beautiful downtown here that's been destroyed," Harper said during his visit.

"There's really going to be a need for substantial reconstruction."

-With files by Alexander Panetta, Andy Blatchford and Jerome Roy

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