Old Quebec | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Old Quebec

Old Quebec is a historic district of Quebec City, designated UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. It is divided in two sectors: the Lower Town, concentrated around Place Royale and harbour facilities, and the Upper Town, delineated by its ramparts, the Citadel and other defensive structures. Together, they cover a surface area of approximately 135 hectares (1.35 km). Originally chosen by Samuel de Champlain for the construction of his first Abitation in 1608, the site grew during the 17th and 18th centuries and was established atop the promontory of Cap Diamant, gaining strategic and military advantages. The city then surrounded itself with thick fortifications which mark the district borders to this day. Despite the transformations it has undergone since the 19th century, Old Quebec remains a coherent and well-structured architectural ensemble, making Quebec City one of the most successfully preserved fortified cities from colonial times.

Habitation at Quebec
Champlain built the "habitation" which was part fort and part village in 1608 at the site of present-day Quebec City.

The French Regime (1608-1763)

Quebec City was founded by Samuel de Champlain on 3 July 1608. It was the first permanent French settlement in Canada; from then on, the French maintained an uninterrupted presence on North American soil. The first construction was the Habitation (Abitation de Quebecq in old French), erected on the present-day site of the Place Royale on the riverside near a cove which Champlain named Cul-de-Sac. This building ensemble served as a warehouse, a trading post, a fort and a dwelling. The wooden house succumbed to the winters and, in 1624, Champlain ordered the construction of another in the same location. Built in stone, this structure followed a U shape and was flanked by two corner turrets and surrounded by a palisade. It was burned down by the Kirke brothers, then rebuilt by Champlain in 1633 and became a shop. From the year 1640, a public square lined with houses and businesses developed around the site and the first water lot grants were issued for the areas along the St. Lawrence River.

The population which started converging in the Lower Town reflect the predominance of the sea trades. Dock hands, shipyard workers, crew product suppliers, merchants and businessmen shared the space during the period where defence structures were erected: the Royal Battery in 1690; the Dauphine battery in 1709; and the Pointe-à-Carcy battery during the Seven Years War. At this point, the harbour was essentially used for military purposes. Its commercial facilities were then limited to a few areas where longboats and canoes continuously made to-and-fros to unload their cargo. Among other goods, they brought fabric, clothing, wine, tools, nails and crockery from France as well as rum, sugar and molasses from the southern colonies.

Old Quebec
(© Natalia Pushchina/Dreamstime)

The Lower Town: A Prosperous Scene

During the mid 18th century, Quebec City was the capital of a vast territory which stretched from the St. Lawrence valley to the Gulf of Mexico. It became an economic hub, to the profit of great merchants such as wealthy businessman Charles-Aubert de la Chesnaye (1632-1702) and Louis Prat (1662-1726), shipowner and harbour master of the Port of Quebec. The lands near the river were in high demand for the construction of warehouses and residences, such as the house of Jean-Baptiste Chevalier (1715-1763), a specialized import and export merchant who started operating on the Cul-de-Sac banks in 1752. Now called Chevalier House, his dwelling has evolved with time but can still be seen along the Champlain boulevard which traces the line of the cove.

The Upper Town : An Administrative, Religious and Military Zone

The Upper Town developed around its markets and its administrative buildings. Among the latter was the Saint-Louis Fort, commissioned by Champlain and built in 1620 on Cape Diamond. The Saint-Louis Fort was transformed several times after William Phips’s attack in 1690. At the heart of this area were erected religious buildings such as the Notre-Dame-de-Recouvrance church (1633), the Collège des Jésuites (1635), the Séminaire de Québec (1663) and hospitals such as the Hôtel-Dieu (1639). They cemented the array of structures around which dwellings were constructed, namely in the neighbourhood of Couillard street (once named Saint-Joachim). Built for locksmith André Bouchard in 1728, one of the oldest houses of the town still stands at number 17 to this day.

This sparsely populated urban area was rapidly enclosed by fortifications such as the wooden rampart constructed by engineer Josué Dubois Berthelot de Beaucours in 1693 and the stone reinforcements built by engineer Gaspar-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry in 1745. At the North-West angle of the wall overlooking the Lower Town, Léry ordered the construction of one of the longest buildings under the French regime, namely the New Barracks, which would house soldiers and army auxiliary services.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the population of Quebec City was almost 1,900 strong, while 15,000 inhabitants were dispersed among approximately ten posts in the St. Lawrence valley.

Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Quebec City
Notre-Dame-des-Victoires in the center of Place Royale in old Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. ( © Wangkun Jia/Dreamstime)

The British Regime (1763-1867)

Under the British regime, the Port of Quebec was completely disarmed to make room for the warehouses and factories which sprang on the docks in the 19th century, and for coves dedicated to the timber trade. Job opportunities incited many immigrants to settle near the old port. The timber trade was in full swing at the same time as the shipbuilding trade, and shipyards on the Saint-Charles river hired almost half the population of the nearby Saint-Roch neighbourhood during the first quarter of the 19th century. The trading brought about the creation of the first covered markets, for example the Finlay market (1817) and the Champlain market (1858), which focused on the local commerce of food products such as meats, vegetables and fruits.

Within a stone’s throw of the port, Saint-Pierre street became the business and finance hub: Quebec City’s own Wall Street. There, wealthy anglophone entrepreneurs had installed the Quebec Bank, the Union Bank, and the Quebec Stock Exchange which was founded at the start of the 19th century. The French-Canadian elite established the Banque Nationale on the same street.

In the Upper Town, the foundation of the Université Laval in 1852 gave rise to the Latin Quarter, where Latin and French were both spoken. The Quarter’s main road was Couillard street and the professionals who populated the area turned the it into the heart of the city’s intellectual life. At this point, the population of Quebec City was 50,000 strong.

Quebec City, A Political Stage: 1867 to Present

Some buildings perpetuate the military vocation of Quebec City, such as the Citadel — a presently active base whose exterior walls were constructed from 1820 to 1831 — or the armoury built in 1885. However, the Upper Town mostly erected administrative structures which reflected its status as capital of Lower Canada before 1840, then of the province of Quebec starting 1867. Examples of such buildings are the first courthouse (1804) and the second (1887) on Saint-Louis street.

Incidentally, the latter was erected on the site where previously stood the building of the Sovereign Council, which administered justice under the French regime. The area thus witnessed the evolution of the court system of Canada for over 300 years, until 1979 when was launched the construction of the present courthouse located in the Lower Town.

Also on Saint-Louis street, the Château Frontenac opened in 1893. The central tower was added in 1924, and thus came about the unique profile we know today. Erected by the Canadian Pacific Railway, this structure stands on the site where governors lived until 1834. The large railway companies then wished to encourage luxury tourism. Now one of the most photographed hotels in the world, this architectural gem is one of the essential symbols of Quebec City and a major tourist destination.

In 1929, Price Brothers, a forest harvesting and lumber-and-wood company, followed suit and erected the Price building as their headquarters in the heart of the Upper Town. It was the first skyscraper in Quebec City and the only one built within the grounds of Old Quebec. The Art Deco structure presently includes, among other elements, the official residence of the province’s Premier.

Château Frontenac
(© Songquan Deng/Dreamstime)

The Historic District: Under Strict Regulation

Since 1963, this historical heritage site is protected under the Historic Monuments Act. The following year, a provincial order in council defined the boundaries of the historical district of Quebec City. The areal planning is governed by a very strict regulations which aim to preserve this heritage. Any construction on this site must be approved by the Commission d’urbanisme et de conservation de Québec, composed of city councillors and architects. The province and the city share the urban planning responsibilities of the residential and commercial neighbourhoods. On the other hand, Parks Canada manages the national historic sites with the aim of showcasing those landmarks through educational and cultural programs. Such sites include the ramparts, the Dauphine Redoubt and the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux site under the Terrasse Dufferin.

Nowadays, Québec City boasts a population of over 530,000 people. With its walls still standing strong, Old Quebec represents the most complete example of a fortified colonial town north of Mexico, thus making Quebec City an exceptional historic landmark and a universal heritage.

Fresque du Petit-Champlain
The Fresque du Petit-Champlain is located at 102, rue du Petit-Champlain. (© Ronniechua/Dreamstime)