Home / About / Portrait / History / Québec City, Fortress and Port (1756–1867)
In June 1759, British General James Wolfe arrived with close to 150 ships, 13,500 sailors and crew, and an army of 8,500 soldiers to conquer Québec City. French Lieutenant General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm rallied almost 15,000 troops to defend the city.
As of July, some 1,900 British cannons were shelling the city without respite. Nearly 15,000 cannon balls and bullets rained down on Québec, forcing its inhabitants to flee. The city held for a few weeks, but on the night of September 12 to 13, 4,500 British soldiers scaled Cape Diamond from Anse au Foulon. Wolfe mustered his troops where Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec stands today. Upon hearing the news, Montcalm left his camp in Beauport with 4,500 regular soldiers and 2,000 militiamen and Amerindians, and gathered his troops where the Martello towers stand today. A half-hour after the battle began, the French army was forced to retreat. Almost 650 people were killed or injured on each side, and both generals died. The city fell five days later.
The following spring, 7,000 French soldiers marched from Montréal to Québec City under the orders of the Duke of Lévis. They faced 4,000 men led by James Murray, and won what became known as the Battle of Sainte-Foy. Lévis set up camp and waited for reinforcements from France to help him take back the city. Unfortunately for the French, the first ships to arrive in May were flying English flags. Lévis was forced to retreat to Montréal, which fell in September 1760. Québec City was eventually named capital of the Province of Quebec—a British colony.
In 1852, remains belonging to French and English soldiers who perished in the Battle of Sainte-Foy were discovered. A burial ceremony was held on July 18, 1855, and the cornerstone to Monument des Braves was laid. Unveiled in 1863, the monument is now on Chemin Sainte-Foy, opposite Avenue des Braves.
Fearing both an attempt by the French to take back the colony and an uprising in the city, the conquerors quickly built up the city’s defenses. Guardhouses went up at each city gate to track residents’ comings and goings. Following the American invasion of 1775—an attempt to free Canadians from British rule—the English shored up their defenses once again. The Martello towers and particularly the Citadel—which was built between 1819 and 1832—are testaments to the city’s embattled past.
The first half of the 19th century was a golden age for the wood trade and shipbuilding. The Port of Québec was the third largest in the Americas behind New York City and New Orleans as Napoleon I’s continental blockade cut off British access to Baltic ports and wood supplies.
No fewer than 26 inlets between Montmorency and Cap-Rouge were used by the wood industry. The owners—rich merchants of English and Scottish origin—hired thousands of French Canadian and Irish laborers to build ships, square wood, and load and unload cargo.
Built in Québec City, the Royal William became the first Canadian steamboat to cross the Atlantic in 1833. A model of it is on display in the library of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec has a painting of the ship. Dated 1834, it is thought to be the oldest of its kind in the museum’s collection.
John Munn Jr. owned of one of Saint-Roch’s largest shipyards, which produced close to 100 boats from 1821 to 1857. Munn had stone houses built for his employees on his own property, the first workers’ houses of their kind in Canada.
Over the years, Québec City became an increasingly popular tourist destination. The first tourist guides published in the 1820s highlight the same attractions that continue to captivate visitors today, with the Kabir Kouba Falls on Rivière Saint-Charles and Montmorency Falls topping many a visitor’s list.
Paths and bridges were considered private property during the 19th century, and tolls were commonplace. Rates were determined according to vehicle type and the number of horses. Unruly herds of sheep, pigs, or cattle were also subject to tolls. In June 1860, a rate increase raised the ire of thousands of city residents, who threw the newly installed turnstiles into Rivière Saint-Charles!
During a visit to Québec in 1842, author Charles Dickens called the city "the Gibraltar of the Americas". The name has stuck ever since.
A devastating cholera outbreak claimed 3,000 lives in the city during the summer of 1832. In 1834, Hôpital de la Marine was built at Pointe-aux-Lièvres (where the Canada Revenue Agency stands today) to protect citizens from further outbreaks. At the time, the hospital, with its ancient Greece–inspired architecture, was considered one of the city’s most beautiful and impressive buildings.
Fire has always been another of the city’s scourges. On May 28, 1845, the Saint-Roch neighborhood went up in flames, destroying 1,630 homes and stores and over 3,000 shops and warehouses. Nearly two-thirds of the neighborhood’s homes were lost, leaving 1,200 homeless and 50 dead. A month later, fire struck again in the Saint-Jean Baptiste neighborhood: two churches, three schools, and 1,300 homes burned to the ground, leaving thousands homeless. According to contemporary accounts, the flames could be seen from as far away as Trois-Rivières! A full-time fire department was set up in 1858, but this didn’t prevent other neighborhoods from falling prey to flames in 1866, 1870, 1876, 1881, and 1889.
Under the Constitutional Act of 1791, Québec City became the capital of Lower Canada, which occupied most of what we know today as southern Québec. The Act of Union created the United Province of Canada in 1840, with Montréal, Toronto, and Québec City vying to become the nation’s capital. Québec City served as the provisionary capital of the Province of Canada from 1851–1855 and again from 1860–1865.
The Bishop’s Palace—home of the archbishop—was built between 1693 and 1695 on the site where Montmorency Park is located today. The government rented the palace in 1792 and then purchased it in 1830 to turn it into a parliament building. Work on the palace, considered the finest in all of the British Empire, was completed in 1850. Sadly, it burned to the ground in 1854 and was replaced by a parliament/post office building, which was inaugurated in 1860 and destroyed by fire in 1883.
In 1851, Catholic bishops decided that French Canadians should have their own university. Université Laval was founded a year later thanks to the financial and human resources of Séminaire de Québec. The university’s charter provided for four faculties, one each for the arts, law, medicine, and theology. Within ten years, the university was home to 70 students. Its first faculties were in Old Québec, near where the Basilica stands today.
Elzéar Bédard (1833–1834) became Québec City’s first mayor following the creation of a charter in 1832 enabling citizens to elect a municipal council (the city had previously been administered by justices of the peace appointed by the governor). The administration’s first major undertaking was to build an aqueduct, inaugurated in 1854 and considered to be one of America’s finest. This spelled the end for water carriers, who had previously supplied the city with water from Rivière Saint-Charles and the St. Lawrence.
Québec’s economy began to falter in the 1860s. England had found new wood supplies, steel-hulled boats had put an end to sail boat construction, and dredging work on the St. Lawrence River and the opening of the Lac Saint-Pierre channel had made it possible for ships to bypass Québec City entirely and go straight to Montréal. The city needed to diversify its economy. Shoemakers breathed new life into Saint-Roch, and various other companies helped diversify the economy. Some of them are still around today, including the Simons store (1840), the Brunet pharmacy (1855), and the J.B. Laliberté fur shop (1867).
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