A Mountain of Surprises
Pierre Dugua de Mons, who unfailingly supported Québec’s founding without ever setting foot here, would have been surprised to learn that the three main geological formations in the province intersect in this very spot, right before your eyes. The Appalachians, Laurentians, and St. Lawrence Lowlands make up this stunning landscape, fashioned by millions of years of titanic reshapings.
At the crossroads of geography
Parc Dugua-De Mons, a park on Cape Diamond, pays tribute to a well-known fur trader who offered vocal support in France to Champlain, who was determined to found a permanent French colony here. In Champlain’s eyes Québec had a number of things in its favour, notably this cape, which constituted an excellent natural defence; arable land; good lumber for building; and the narrowing of the St. Lawrence, which made it easier to keep an eye on the comings and goings of fur trade rivals The backing of Pierre Dugua de Mons, shown here in this statue, played a decisive role in allowing the French to settle permanently in North America.
At the crossroads of time
Champlain, though, had no idea of the geological past that conferred the advantages he had identified.
He had no inkling that one billion years ago the hills that surrounded Québec on the north shore—starting at Cap Tourmente, which you can see in the distance to your left—were the same height as the Himalayas are today. The age-old and now-stooped Laurentians are part of the Canadian Shield, which covers 90% of the province of Québec. They end here, at the St. Lawrence Valley.
All of Québec City’s Upper Town is part of the Appalachians. This young mountain chain runs from the Gaspé Peninsula all the way down to Alabama in the southern United States. The rolling landscape of Québec City, Île d’Orléans, and the south shore of the St. Lawrence opposite the city was formed 450 million years ago.
For the 50 million years leading up to the formation of the Appalachians, the Iapetus Ocean covered a huge area to the south and west of the Laurentians. It left behind a flat landscape and sedimentary deposits that fertilized the soil in the St. Lawrence Lowlands. Québec City’s Lower Town belongs to these lowlands, which run between the St. Lawrence and the Laurentians to Cap Tourmente in the east and Montréal in the west.
These lowlands and the Appalachians met with such intense force in the area where Québec City stands today that sediments from the lowlands mixed with rock from the Appalachians, a blend that can be seen in the raised, twisted strata of Cape Diamond and Île d’Orléans.
The last glacial period also played a role. At its height 60,000 to 12,000 years ago, 3 km of ice covered the city. When the ice retreated, the Champlain Sea flooded the region. Around 9,500 years ago, the continent, freed from the weight of the ice, rose up enough for Cape Diamond to emerge. The continent continued to lift, and the water continued to retreat, until the landscape took its current form around 5,000 years ago.
The first inhabitants
The First Peoples of North America began frequenting the shores of the St. Lawrence some 8,000 years ago. They were nomadic hunters. Permanent occupation of the area dates back only to the 14th century, barely 200 years before Jacques Cartier came into contact with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians in 1535. At the time they lived in the village of Stadacona, which would become Québec. When Champlain came back to settle here in 1608, the people had disappeared. No one knows why.