Home / About / Portrait / History / An Era of Transformation (1867–1945)
On November 11, 1871, some 1,000 soldiers paraded through the streets of Québec City while the band played "Goodbye, Sweetheart, Goodbye" and "Auld Lang Syne". The British garrison was leaving for England. It was replaced by Battery B, an early form of the regular Canadian army made up of six officers and 153 noncommissioned officers. At the time, a number of residents complained about all the military fortifications blocking urban traffic and expansion. A few gates indeed fell beneath the picks of the wreckers. However, Lord Dufferin’s rise to the post of governor general in 1872, combined with the efforts of people who saw the value of the fortifications, soon put a stop to the demolition.
In 1838, Durham Terrace, some fifty meters long and fifteen meters wide, was built in front of where the Château Frontenac now stands. Fifteen years later, it was extended a few dozen meters toward the Citadel. In 1869, engineer and architect Charles Baillairgé hatched a plan to lengthen it still further in response to increasing numbers of strollers. Lord Dufferin was right behind the project. Construction began in 1878 as the terrace was extended by some 300 meters and fitted out with cast and wrought iron kiosks.
On July 1, 1867, Québec City became the capital of the province of Québec. Members of parliament sat in the parliament/post office building, which quickly proved to be a little confining. An enormous field along Grande Allée was therefore chosen for the future parliament. Construction of the building began in 1877, following the plans of Eugène-Étienne Taché. It took nine years.
In the early 20th century, Québec City was one of the foremost industrial cities in Canada, boasting 225 factories and workshops. Of the 10,000 workers who labored there, over 4,000 worked in shoemaking. The city’s reputation was built on corset and furniture manufacturing, the tobacco industry, munitions factories during the great wars, and tourism. Anglo Canadian Pulp and Paper Mills, known today as Papiers Stadacona, commenced operations in December 1927. Some 500 staff, including laborers, managers, and engineers were employed there, not counting the 2,000 men who cut wood.
Georges-Élie Amyot founded Dominion Corset in 1886. After a few moves, he set up his operation on the corner of Dorchester and Charest, the current site of the La Fabrique building. Dominion Corset quickly became the city’s largest employer and Canada’s biggest corset manufacturer. In 1911, the company was producing 450 dozen corsets per day, or 9 every minute, and by 1931 no fewer than 1,000 workers were employed there. Products were sold as far away as South Africa, Latin America, England, Australia, France, and New Zealand. After Amyot’s death in 1930, the New York Times reported the passing of this "prominent member of the Winter colony".
Québec City also moved into the services sector, particularly wholesale and retail sales. People came from all over the region to shop and purchase supplies.
The crisis of the 1930s did not spare Québec City: statistics indicate 7,150 people without jobs in December 1930. To help them, the City set up what we would now call an employment insurance plan and began various public works projects, including construction of the drinking water reservoir beneath the Plains of Abraham and the collecting sewer system.
During the early 20th century, Rue Saint-Joseph in the Saint-Roch neighborhood bustled with 126 brightly lit businesses and shops, cabarets, and hotels—the very incarnation of North American style. No wonder it was nicknamed the Broadway of Québec City! Meanwhile, Grande Allée was hailed as Québec City’s Champs-Élysées. The upper class quarter, it was a posh artery featuring a variety of architectural styles.
In the late 19th century, the president of Canadian Pacific wanted to build "the most talked about hotel in the world". The result was the Château Frontenac, designed by architect Bruce Price. Opened in 1893, the hotel was subsequently expanded in 1897 and 1908, before an 18 story central tower was added in 1924.
The hotel’s potential for attracting tourists was quickly realized with the first Québec Winter Carnival in 1894. Some twenty committees organized the festivities. Montmorency Electric Power agreed to provide lighting for the ice palace—a major attraction in itself. Twenty-one thousand copies of the souvenir program were printed. The parade included 100 floats under the banner of various snowshoeing clubs, businesses, military units, and schools. The festival was a huge hit. Business leaders turned the occasional event into an annual one in 1954, a year that also saw the first appearance of Bonhomme, its celebrated ambassador.
The city’s population shot up from 69,000 to 150,000 between 1900 and 1931. Migration from rural areas to the city and mergers with Saint-Sauveur in 1889, Saint-Malo in 1908, Limoilou in 1909, and Montcalm in 1913 were behind the increase.
The Quebec Land Company planned the development of Parc Limoilou, which would be "the loveliest neighborhood in Greater Québec thanks to its outstanding site and the arrangement of its streets and avenues", declared Le Soleil on June 11, 1910. The new district was even divided into streets and avenues in imitation of New York City. The company’s advertising encouraged potential buyers to "flee the narrow, dusty, and clogged streets of Old Québec and come enjoy the fresh air".
In the late 19th century, Mayor Simon-Napoléon Parent wanted to provide a green space for the working families of Saint-Roch and Saint-Sauveur. In 1896, Québec City established Parc Parent, named after the project’s founder. The area was crisscrossed with narrow paths that allowed visitors to enjoy thousands of flowers. It also featured a restaurant and observation tower. As the opening was scheduled for 1897, the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, Mayor Parent requested authorization from the governor general to adopt the name "Parc Victoria". More than 20,000 people attended the inauguration. Initially a place of relaxation, the park acquired a more recreational feel with the arrival of a playground and swimming pools in 1928. Ten years later, the municipal stadium was added.
The worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic struck Québec City in the fall of 1918, eventually claiming 500 lives. At the height of the epidemic, health authorities ordered the closure of theaters, schools, taverns, and even churches, in addition to restricting business opening hours.
In 1878—around the same time as Alexander Graham Bell—clockmaker, jeweler, and inventor Cyrille Duquet successfully transmitted a conversation and even a snippet of song between his stores on Rue Saint-Joseph and Rue de la Fabrique. He also established, well ahead of his time, a telephone line between his shop and the Jésus-Marie de Sillery convent, where one of his daughters attended school. Today he is known as the inventor of the telephone handset with a combined transmitter and receiver. Duquet would later assign his patents to Bell Telephone Company of Canada, which in 1880 opened an office in Québec City for its 79 customers.
In 1886, thanks to hydroelectric power from Montmorency Falls, incandescent lights were used for the first time in homes and businesses; streets and public squares followed a year later. In 1897, the first electric streetcars made their appearance.
Thus was dentist Henri-Edmond Casgrain’s automobile—the province’s first—known to the people of Québec City in 1897. His car, a Léon Bollée weighing about 330 pounds, had three speeds: 5, 9, and 18 miles per hour. To fill the tank, Casgrain had to visit the local purveyors of lamp oil, the only source of gasoline. Would-be automobile owners of the day didn’t visit car dealerships, but rather Joseph Varennes, whose sign proclaimed him as a "seller of bicycles, watches, jewelry, and automobiles". Twenty years later, with over 10,000 cars bustling through the city, traffic jams were already being reported on Rue Saint-Joseph!
Thus was described Pont de Québec, a cantilever bridge—that is, a bridge with a suspended overhang—featuring the longest unsupported span in the world. Construction began in 1900 and was disrupted by two major disasters. The first occurred in 1907, when the southern half of the bridge collapsed, causing the deaths of 76 people. And in 1916 the central section gave way, killing 13. A new central span was installed a year later. The bridge finally opened in 1919, having cost the lives of 113 workers. Initially reserved for trains, it was opened to automobile traffic in 1929.
Beginning in 1920, civil and commercial aviation took on an increasing role in the Québec City area. A first aerodrome was established in 1929 in Sainte-Foy, where the Laurier Québec and Place Ste-Foy shopping centers and the university hospital now stand. Airplanes were towed by hand from the hangars to the 1,067 m long clay landing strip. To keep the aerodrome open in winter, the provincial government brought in the first-ever snowplows to keep Chemin Saint-Louis clear all the way to the airport. In 1939, a more modern facility was built in L’Ancienne-Lorette. It has since grown into the Jean Lesage International Airport we know today.
In 1927, the Price Brothers Company hit on the idea of building a 16 story building near the Château Frontenac for its head office. The project was a controversial one, pitting those opposed to putting up a skyscraper in the heart of Old Québec against proponents of progress and modernity. In the end, the city council granted the construction permit in 1929. The Price building was inaugurated in 1931 and recalls New York City’s Empire State Building, built around the same time.
Although the first provincial exhibition was held in 1854, the event only really took off with the creation of the Québec City Provincial Exhibition Company in 1892. In 1897, the company acquired the site Expo Québec has occupied ever since. Various buildings were constructed there, including a 1,000 seat stadium and a racetrack. In 1911, the increasing size and complexity of the event led the city to create the Exhibition Commission, and Expo Québec became an annual occurrence the following year. Naturally, the agricultural sector predominated, with livestock shows and various contests, but businesses also exhibited their products. The fair also featured plenty of popular entertainment with its "midway" (amusement park) and roller coaster, acquired in 1913.
Tuberculosis was a scourge in Québec City in the early 20th century. To treat sufferers, it was decided to create Hôpital Laval, one of the first institutions to specialize in tuberculosis in North America and, in its day, one of the most advanced. Construction began in 1916, and the first patients were admitted in 1918.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. France and Britain then declared war on the invaders. A few days later, Canada followed suit, and Québec City braced itself for the worst. Soldiers were stationed strategically at Pont de Québec, the viaduct in Cap-Rouge, and the city’s power stations. In industry, the Federal Arsenal, with its three units at Côte du Palais, Saint-Malo, and Valcartier, would produce over a billion cartridges between 1940 and 1945. Women made up most of the labor force, numbering some 8,000 of 14,000 employees.
On June 9, 1941, to the scream of sirens, Québec City was plunged into darkness. It was 10 p.m. The blackout exercise was designed to ensure as much protection as possible. People had to follow a number of instructions: stay inside, avoid driving, and of course, turn off the lights. To make people believe a real attack was taking place, airplanes flew over the city. At 10:25 the lights were turned back on and the exercise was over. Industries deemed essential to the war were, however, exempt. As Le Soleil sardonically noted, the Arsenal would be easy to fix.
The Second World War was a chance for Québec to join the inner circle of cities hosting conferences among leaders of two of the great allied powers: the United States and Great Britain. It would be the only city to claim the honor twice, in 1943 and 1944.
On August 8, 1943, strange things were going on around town. The Château Frontenac was requisitioned, and the 849 guests were obliged to leave the premises, among them Maurice Duplessis, then head of the provincial opposition. Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, arrived two days later, followed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During their time in Québec City, the two would orchestrate the deployment of allied troops, notably the great Normandy invasion of 1944.
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