The Modernisation of the Port in the 19th Century
The wharfs, basins, and immense grain silos that you see were built in the middle of what in 1875 was the mouth of Rivière Saint-Charles, in an ambitious bid to modernize the then-declining Port of Québec. The endeavour was so pivotal for the economic revival of Québec that Queen Victoria gave it her official endorsement.
An inauguration with the royal seal of approval
On a beautiful day in July 1880, a large crowd attended an official ceremony that symbolized hope. Wielding a finely wrought silver trowel, Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter, married to the Governor General of Canada, spread the cement where the cornerstone of Bassin Louise would be laid. The goal: revive the Port of Québec.
A necessary step
After a period of remarkable prosperity in the first half of the 19th century, the Port of Québec was grappling with a major slowdown. By 1875 lumber exports and shipbuilding had dwindled to the point of near extinction.
The port authorities were looking for new avenues to give a second wind to the port, which had played such a key role in the city’s economy. Many obstacles had to be overcome, starting with the dilapidated facilities unable to accommodate the steamships that required bigger wharfs and deeper channels. Worse, the port was not served by the railway, a serious drawback in the late 19th century.
Creating a modern port
The vast undertaking to modernize the port included dredging the estuary of Rivière Saint-Charles, building a wharf at Pointe-à-Carcy (its present-day location), and adding new facilities. But the most important innovation of all was construction of Princess Louise’s pier and basins.
The pier included a dock for transatlantic vessels. The two basins were separated by a lock to save the second basin from the drastic tidal differential—up to six metres’ difference between high tide and low tide. The pier and two basins would now be served by the railroad—a must—around which hangars, service buildings, and storage facilities sprang up.
The Ellis Island of Canada
Since Québec was the main port of entry into Canada, a huge two-storey building was constructed on Louise Pier in 1888 to accommodate the 26,000 immigrants that disembarked on average each year. This 4,000-capacity building included a dining hall, dormitories, a currency exchange office, and newly minted telephone and telegraph technology. Those who only wanted to transit through Québec could board a Canadian Pacific train that stopped right in front of the building.
Prospecting for new markets
Since Great Britain was importing more and more meat and dairy products from Canada, the authorities took the opportunity to equip the port with a refrigerated warehouse and livestock hangar. But it was the grain trade—especially wheat—that became the biggest port activity at the turn of the 20th century. Ever-larger grain silos for storing the Canadian commodity for export went up at Pointe-à-Carcy and Louise Pier.
A sector that is alive and well
The Bunge elevators and silos are still used to store grain. The cutting-edge technology they employ makes it possible to load and unload big cargo ships with lightning speed. The structures also served as an oversize projection screen from 2008 to 2013 for The Image Mill, multidisciplinary artist Robert Lepage’s signature audiovisual production. And for several years now, Bassin Louise has been home to the Old Port marina where pleasure craft dock.