The Leisurely Way to See Historic Québec.
Until the early 20th century, horse-drawn carts and carriages ruled the road. The power and speed of the automobile would gradually win out, but carriages would never completely disappear in Québec. Today, they are in the form of tourist calèches that enable visitors to see Old Québec at the more leisurely pace of another era.
Horses make their debut in New France
Intendant Jean Talon introduced horses to New France in the late 1660s by importing stallions and mares from France. From that point onwards, the horse population grew rapidly, and horses played an important role. They were the pride of the colonists, who used them mainly as a means of transportation.
Horse-drawn carts and carriages
During the French Regime, in Québec as elsewhere, the most common conveyance was the two-wheeled horse-drawn cart or carriage. In winter, various kinds of sleds were used instead. In the area around the port, the traffic of carts laden with merchandise could be very heavy. In the first half of the 19th century, public transportation between Québec and Montréal consisted of four-wheeled diligences pulled by teams of four Canadian horses (the breed introduced by Talon). In winter the wheels were replaced by long runners.
In Québec in 1860, there were 2,000 horses to haul goods. Carters were regulated—they had to have a license, and the speed limit was a jog trot. In addition, carts had to be parked in specially designated areas so as not to obstruct traffic. If you could afford it, you had a carriage horse. The number of houses in Old Québec with carriage gates leading to garages and stables behind gives you an idea of the number of residents who had their own horse-drawn vehicles. For the less well-heeled, there were horse taxis.
The transition to tourism
With the job of coachman on the wane in the 20th century, many who were qualified in that trade put their experience to use by offering tours to visitors. The general feeling, even for Quebec City residents, is that the historic section of town is more colourful and authentic with calèches on the road. This service, which used to be a practical necessity, grew naturally into a “tourism product” branded successfully as “nostalgia for the good old days.”
Little by little, the City introduced bylaws to regulate calèche operations and ensure quality and safety. Since contact with horses was increasingly rare in urban settings, calèche drivers had to be trained. The owners of guide companies required their employees to be knowledgeable about Old Québec and its history.
Today Québec is one of the only cities in the world where this kind of tour is available. These calèche rides make it possible to discover Old Québec at the leisurely pace of yesteryear.