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The Customs House

The Customs House

A Symbol of the Port’s Prosperity

The opulent architecture of the Customs House embodies the golden age of prosperity of the Port of Québec in the mid-19th century, when it was the hub of a brisk import-export trade with Great Britain. For many decades this port was the biggest in Canada. But the advantages that made it great contained the seeds of its destruction. 

A monument to the glory of the port

This new Customs House, located a stone’s throw away from the river, was built on piles sometime around 1860. A monumental stairway led directly from the ships to Customs.

The building’s imposing style was no accident. Its broad colonnaded entrance and large dome contributed to the look of wealth and authority befitting Canada’s biggest port. At the time the duties collected on merchandise entering the country accounted for the lion’s share of government revenue. The Customs House was therefore an apt symbol of the country’s and Québec City’s prosperity.

Growing by leaps and bounds

Between 1800 and 1850, the Port of Québec enjoyed tremendous growth. The number of vessels that dropped anchor there every year went from about 100 to over 1,200. Development was due almost exclusively to the booming lumber export industry, Québec’s leading economic sector.

Beginning in 1806, what was a bane for Great Britain was a blessing for the Port of Québec. The Emperor Napoleon, seeking a decisive victory over England, implemented a tight continental blockade. No longer able to count on Europe as a lumber supplier, Great Britain turned to the North American colonies and their vast forests, and to Québec, which had all the attributes of a great exporting port.

Number one in Canada

The lumber came from the Saguenay, Mauricie, and Outaouais regions. It was carried by river currents all the way to Québec, where it was loaded onto boats and shipped to Great Britain. This flourishing industry stimulated other lumber-based sectors, particularly shipbuilding, and to a lesser extent, the production of potash from wood ashes.

Thus the Port of Québec became not only the leading Canadian port, but the third biggest in North America, after New York City and New Orleans, even though it came to a standstill in winter.

Disorganized port facilities

This heavy growth necessarily meant more port infrastructure. Entrepreneurs had private wharfs built perpendicular to the shore in deep waters so that ships could be loaded and unloaded at low tide. They also built huge warehouses right on the wharfs or near the shore to store potash, wheat, flour, and other merchandise. Lumber was also piled in nearby coves, often directly on the banks.

It was not long before development got out of hand. The tangle of service buildings, hangars, and wharfs all along the shore east and west of midtown Québec hindered navigation. In 1858 a harbour management commission was finally created to set consistent rules for the port facilities.

The end of an era

The new Customs House was opened only a few years before the lumber industry fell apart. Its nosedive had a devastating effect on the economy of Québec. Competing with the Port of Montréal, which gained ascendancy due to improved navigational conditions and the meteoric rise of the railway system, the Port of Québec would have to be repurposed.

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