First Link between Upper Town and Lower Town
As soon as Champlain decided to build a permanent fortified residence at the top of Cape Diamond in 1620, Mountain Hill—which now goes by its French name, côte de la Montagne—was laid out exactly where it is today. Some 50 years later, a steep pathway appeared where the Breakneck Stairs would be located. Does their name mean that you could actually hurt yourself if you took the shortcut?
Stairs that made the hill easier to negotiate
Rest assured, nowhere in the archives is there any mention of death or serious injury due to the path—or later, the stairway. Its name—Breakneck—dates officially from the 1960s.
In all likelihood this stairway is the city’s oldest. In or around 1680, stairs or landings were installed in order to make this dangerous shortcut safer. The stairway built in the 19th century had plenty of traffic from the Champlain district’s ever-growing population. It was a practical way to link the business district in Lower Town with the government buildings uptown.
From “Breakneck Stairs” to “Casse-Cou”
By 1880 or thereabouts, the old wooden stairway, officially named Champlain but nicknamed “Beggar’s Stairs,” had become so dangerous that London travel guides referred to them as “breakneck.” In 1893, the city replaced them with a more solid, three-ramp iron structure designed by engineer Charles Baillairgé.
When the work to restore Place-Royale began in the 1960s, the old Champlain stairway was completely renovated, assuming the look and name it has today. Despite its epithet, you can negotiate them safely. And there are landings where you can rest, because the hill is just as steep today as it ever was.
The real neckbreakers
According to the archives, the real menace on Mountain Hill in the 17th century was the foolish young rascals who hurtled down it at breakneck speed in their horsecarts. Residents complained that they drove recklessly and were a real public danger to pedestrians and other vehicles.
This very steep hill was a headache for authorities, too. Upkeep was a problem. In the winter, thawing and refreezing sometimes caused ice to form and made it practically impossible to use the hill for days at a time. Summer downpours ate away at the hairpin curve midway. But despite it all, Mountain Hill and Breakneck Stairs have provided an indispensable link between Upper and Lower Town Québec for four centuries now.
It has even been claimed that because of them, Québec women have the shapeliest calves in the world!