Unique in North America
The fortifications surrounding Old Québec run for more than 4 kilometres. The section in front of the National Assembly has been there since the end of the French regime. The strategy employed by General Montcalm, who led the French forces in 1759, took the fortifications out of play, and defeat followed for the French. The British would use them more wisely in years to come, but it remains something of a miracle that they are still standing today.
A man of conviction
By the time Lord Dufferin was appointed the new Governor General of Canada in 1872, demolition work on the fortifications was already underway. Dufferin, however, considered them one of the city’s architectural gems and sprang to their defence. He sent for an Irish architect, an expert in rebuilding medieval military installations, to craft a plan to save and embellish them, conscious all the while that local concerns about the fortifications would have to be addressed.
If walls could speak
St. Lewis Gate, which now goes by its French name, Porte Saint-Louis, was the first part of the fortifications to be removed,. Three more of the five narrow gates that controlled access to the city centre followed suit in the name of easing traffic congestion.
In 1878 construction work began on a new Porte Saint-Louis. The gate—which is still standing today—was built on the same site, but was a big improvement on the original in looks and size. It was the first major component of the plan put forward by Lord Dufferin and architect William Lynn to see the light of day. The same stones were used to preserve the gate’s historical charm, and attractive medieval-style turrets were added along with a broad archway to keep traffic moving. Also with traffic in mind, an opening was made in the wall at the end of Rue Dauphine to create a brand new gate, Porte Kent, similar to the new Porte Saint-Louis. And for good measure, a walkway was added along the top of the wall.
Locals were pleased with the improvements.
The first fortified wall was erected in Québec in 1690 facing the Plains of Abraham. In 1716 the new king’s engineer, Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, proposed replacing the series of 11 stone redoubts linked by a wooden stockade with an unbroken fortification made from stone. Work began in 1720 but was suspended when an economic crisis struck France.
Twenty-five years later, the fortress town of Louisbourg—previously said to be impregnable—fell to the British. There were fears that Québec would be next, so work on the fortifications picked up again. Although not yet completed by 1759, it is believed today that the city’s defences would have been enough to repel the British. Unfortunately for General Montcalm, he opted to face the English on open ground, thus taking the city’s defences out of play.
Halt! Who goes there?
The victorious British completed the work begun by the French. From 1786 to 1812, they added fortifications to the clifftop overlooking the St. Lawrence River and installed a glacis–that is a long, sloping bank leading to a ditch at the foot of a fortified wall—by the Plains of Abraham
The city was jealously guarded. Military men kept watch over the five narrow gates that controlled comings and goings in and out of town. And at night the gates were locked.
Residents complained of the effects on daily life, commerce, and the city’s development, and so when British troops left in 1871, residents got rid of what they considered to be pointless hindrances: the fortifications.
A visionary and his followers
It is no exaggeration to call Lord Dufferin a visionary—after all, he saw the heritage potential and unique charm of the wall that ran around Old Québec long before anyone else. And more than anything he understood that the city’s military architecture would need to be changed and embellished if it were to play a positive, lasting role in peacetime. His cause was difficult at first, but Quebecers soon got behind him, paving the way to the completion of Dufferin’s plans, most of which came to fruition after he had left Canada.