From 1812 to 1871 this fortified tower, along with three others, formed part of an advanced defence system. The tower could shelter a dozen troops for up to a month, providing them with the ammunition, food, and water they needed. Comfort and convenience, however, were not included. Once the tower’s military life came to an end, the family of a law enforcement officer moved in for a few years.
Building up Québec City’s defences
In the final hours of 1775 British troops narrowly succeeded in repulsing the American revolutionary army that was on the verge of capturing Québec. Afterwards city officials erected the Martello Towers in order to better defend the capital city of Lower Canada.
The chief engineer, Ralph Henry de Bruyères, chose the tower, a defensive design that had been increasingly used throughout the British Empire ever since the Royal Navy had bombarded a similar tower at Cape Mortella in Corsica to no avail. British engineers copied the Mortella design and changed the name to Martello.
Four remarkable towers
In 1808 Governor James Craig ordered that four towers be erected along an imaginary line about a kilometre west of the city walls. The construction was completed in 1812, just as the United States again declared war on its British neighbours. The enemy was halted well before Québec, however, and the towers went untested.
The design of these towers is nevertheless noteworthy. The walls consist of cylindrical stones topped with a platform equipped with a piece of heavy artillery that can pivot 360 degrees. The wall that faced assailants is about 3.5 metres thick and was impregnable to powerful cannon fire. The opposite wall is only 1.5 metres thick and could have been destroyed from the direction of the city if the tower had fallen into enemy hands.
A ladder provided access to the only door on the upper floor. It could be hoisted inside in the event of an attack. There was space to store food and munitions on the ground floor, and rainwater was collected and stored in a cistern. Tower No. 4 on Rue Lavigueur and Tower No. 1 overlooking the river are smaller than the other two. They could accommodate only a dozen people, compared to twenty in towers No. 2 and No. 3.
Today the Martello Towers in Québec City possess a singular feature that distinguishes them from the usual design: their conical sloped roofs allow snow to slide off rather than build up on a flat roof.
A variety of uses
Following the war of 1812–1814 British authorities constructed a vastly superior defence system—the current Québec City Citadel. The Martello Towers became less important and were relegated to use as occasional barracks. Once a lasting peace was established, the federal government inherited the Martello Towers. One of them, No. 3, was located opposite where Grand Théâtre now stands and was demolished in 1905. In recent years Tower No. 1 has hosted an exhibition on how the towers were constructed and what life was like for the soldiers who lived in them. On occasion special events are held at Tower No. 2.
Tower for rent
As the years rolled by, the Martello Tower on Rue Lavigueur found itself surrounded by the ever-expanding Saint-Jean district. By the end of the 19th century there was talk of demolishing a structure that was no longer needed and that partially obstructed the street. But the city had other ideas and instead chose to develop a public space alongside the tower so people could enjoy a stroll while taking in views of Lower Town. A law enforcement officer and his family even set up house in the tower for a few years!
More recently the tower was restored and the walkway bordering it brightened up. The National Battlefields Commission is preparing to open the property to the public on certain occasions.
Built between 1808 and 1812, this tower was once part of the city’s advanced defences. Its masonry walls were thicker on the side exposed to attacks than on the side facing the city. A central pier meant that a heavy cannon could be installed on the terrace at the top. A dozen men lived inside, below the powder magazine.
This tower’s upper terrace was covered with a roof 11 years after it was built to protect the soldiers, artillery, and masonry walls from the Québec climate. The roof was, however, lower than the current one. The pierced parapet surrounding the terrace made it easier to see and fire at enemies.