A Winding History
The Native people called it Kabir Kouba, the river of a thousand bends. Over the centuries it has served multiple purposes—a waterway for Aboriginals, a convenient harbour in the time of New France, and an open sewer during the industrial era. A few years ago, an ambitious shoreline rehabilitation program restored it to its former glory. Step by step, it became a magnificent city park.
The Native people followed the river upstream to its source some ten kilometres north of Québec. From there a system of connecting rivers and streams enabled them to penetrate much further inland.
Around 1620, Recollect missionaries renamed it Rivière Saint-Charles. The inhabitants of New France used its large estuary mainly for fishing and transportation. The first shipyards were established there.
The heyday of naval construction
Rivière Saint-Charles became even more strategic in the early 19th century with the booming lumber trade. Its estuary made it possible for vessels to approach the city under shelter in a part of the river where the water remained deep at high tide. Its shores became a lumber storage site.
Soon shipyards also made their appearance. It was a perfect location. The lumber was already there, and the river made it possible to transport the other materials required for building the ships. During the high tides in the spring and fall, high-tonnage vessels could be launched away from strong currents and choppy waves. In addition, the workers could live nearby on the tracts of land they were allotted.
A period of rampant pollution
When naval construction petered out sometime around 1870, Québec entered the industrial era. The abandoned shipyards were choice locations for water-intense industries. Steam engines were water powered, and water was used in manufacturing to cool equipment and remove waste material.
At the time the only thing that mattered was the convenience that the river provided. Slaughterhouses dumped animal carcasses and toxic waste in it, all manner of household garbage ended up in it, and even the city sewers emptied into it. It was assumed that the tides would carry it all away because the estuary was wider than it is today and, as a result, the river currents were stronger.
A failed renaissance
In the mid-20th century, the Saint-Charles was seen as a dumping ground. No one paid it any heed. In 1969 Ville de Québec tried to rectify the situation by undertaking a major cleanup project. The shore was tidied and four kilometres of it cemented in, modeled on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal.
But the Saint-Charles—a living river and not a canal—was choked and almost killed by the project. What’s more, the sewers continued to spew their contents into the river some 50 times a year when heavy rains overloaded the wastewater collection system. The result: Rivière Saint-Charles was still among Québec’s most polluted rivers. What’s more, its cement walls went quickly out of fashion.
New concept, new start
Thanks to advances in the science of shoreline rehabilitation, the City went back to the drawing board and launched a new project. Starting in 1997, the cement walls were removed and the shores restored to their natural state. Trees, shrubs, aquatic plants, and flowers completed the transformation. At the same time, storm water retention basins were installed. The city took advantage of the opportunity to create a 32-kilometre linear park with multipurpose trails from the mouth of the river right to its point of origin.
The project was a resounding successful. The river’s condition improved in every way, and its shores became a place for strolling, relaxing, and residing.