Descending to the Past

A unique archaeological site beneath Quebec City’s Dufferin Terrace highlights centuries of changing occupation and uses.

Written by Nancy Payne

Posted March 8, 2022

When our family last visited Quebec City in 2009, the area at the base of the ridiculously photogenic Château Frontenac hotel was, to be honest, kind of a mess. It was an interesting mess, though: Parks Canada staff were excavating a sizable spot just south of the famous statue of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, revealing partial stone walls and foundations.

This time, though, with our two sons away at university, it’s just my husband and I who are visiting. For once we’ve made no plans and have done virtually no research about this getaway, beyond booking a hotel inside the walls of Old Quebec. We know that we can walk everywhere from our lodging — and that everywhere we walk will be both beautiful and positively drenched in history.

I’m looking forward to once again strolling along the famous Dufferin Terrace (no matter how casually I’m dressed, in my mind I’m wearing an outfit that involves a bustle and a multitude of complicated buttons and I’m carrying a matching parasol) when I wonder what ever became of that dig we saw more than a decade ago? When we take our first walk on the clifftop terrace, we see the first clue to the site’s evolution: Three big glass boxes called “archeoscopes” offer tantalizing glimpses of displays and passageways that are right under our feet. It turns out that the mess of thirteen years ago is now part of a National Historic Site offering a literal descent into this storied location on Cap Diamant.

After we pick up tickets — a bargain at less than five dollars per adult — in the pretty Frontenac kiosk, cheerful bilingual staffers direct us to the entrance stairs. As soon as we enter, we’re captivated by the feeling that we are, quite literally, walking where Huron-Wendat chiefs, British governors, and Champlain himself previously trod. Well, they and a whole bunch of servants, too.

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Over the course of centuries, the site evolved from a First Nations meeting place where chiefs such as Jean-Baptiste Atironta welcomed European newcomers to a seat of power complete with the trappings of an imperial outpost. Small, well-lit display cases highlight evocative artifacts that help to tell the story of the site’s four forts and two châteaux: glass trade beads, a decorative gold pin, European and Huron-Wendat pipe fragments, and delicate china and glassware that seem disproportionately fancy for the rough-hewn surroundings.

We haven’t bothered to download the Parks Canada app’s audio guide, preferring to poke around at our own pace. Signs explain the original purposes of the rooms that we enter.

Given its vantage point high above the St. Lawrence River, it’s not surprising that there was already a Huron- Wendat village here when Champlain built the first wooden fort and palisade in 1620, before expanding it six years later. (He died on this spot in 1635.) The fort’s third version took twenty-four years and added stone to the ramparts. A fourth variation enhanced the fort’s defensive capabilities, but after the British captured Quebec its military role was superseded by a new nearby citadel that now serves as the secondary residence of Canada’s Governor General.

The first of the two châteaux was a single-storey stone structure built by French Governor Charles Huault de Montmagny in 1648. The second rose during the time of his successor, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, and was ultimately taken over by the British. The many structures that have occupied the site are reflected in the plurals of the official name: Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux National Historic Site. For good measure, there have been several incarnations of the promenade initiated in 1838 by Lord Durham and then greatly expanded during Lord Dufferin’s tenure as Governor General in the 1870s.

To be honest, we don’t worry too much about the provenance of the rooms and passageways as we explore them. We’re too absorbed in the tidbits of information on offer about Atironta’s diplomatic skills and about the complexities of colonial food preparation; apparently, Frontenac had a personal confectioner whose specialty was preparing the governor’s beloved sorbets.

Partly because of its unique setting, and partly because hundreds of tourists are wandering just a few metres overhead, the site has a kind of pleasant hush about it. Its spotlighted architectural and historical features are easy to take in at an unhurried pace, and visitors’ conversations are low. The whole site evokes a feeling of having made a discovery that required us only to descend a few stairs in order to be transported to another time.

We climb back up to the terrace, emerging into the sunny afternoon amidst visitors eating ice cream, taking photos, and marvelling at the view as generations before them have done. We spent perhaps forty-five minutes in that other time, and, glad as we are to be back in an era of peace and convenience, we’re equally glad that we now know a little more about how this remarkable place came to be.

IF YOU GO

WHEN TO VISIT: The archaeological crypt at the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux National Historic Site is open seasonally. Check with Parks Canada for precise dates.

GETTING THERE: Do yourself a favour and arrive by train in Quebec City if you possibly can. Not only is it a relatively relaxing trip, but you don’t have to worry about navigating the narrow streets of Old Quebec or finding parking. As a bonus, you’ll arrive at and depart from the beautiful Gare du Palais, which echoes the appearance of the Château Frontenac.

WHERE TO STAY: Besides the fabled château and a few other large hotels, there are myriad charming smaller accommodations inside the city walls; many of them include breakfast with your stay. We enjoyed our time at the lovely and reasonably priced Hôtel Cap Diamant on quiet avenue Sainte-Geneviève.

EXPLORE: Everywhere you turn in Old Quebec, history beckons. Walk the Plains of Abraham, visit the Musée Royal 22e Régiment, explore the province’s history at the Musée de la civilisation, or just wander around reading the numerous commemorative plaques. For an unparalleled view, take the short ferry ride to Lévis and back.

BRING: Be sure to pack comfortable shoes for all that walking and a good book — or history magazine! — to read in the plentiful parks.

Nancy Payne is Editor of Kayak: Canada’s History Magazine for Kids.

This article originally appeared in the April-May 2022 issue of Canada’s History.

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