Québec City geology rocks!

Québec City geology rocks!

mag_dec2016_coverThis article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Mark Lindenberg 

Have you crossed Logan’s Line recently? Chances are you have and didn’t know it!

Think of Québec City, and it’s only natural that history comes to mind. Jacques Cartier landed here 475 years ago; Samuel de Champlain founded the city itself 408 years ago; Montcalm and Wolfe fought on the Plains of Abraham 257 years ago. Exploration, discovery and battle are part of the foundation of tourism in Vieux-Québec, and rightly so.

But that foundation of military, social and human history is built on far older bedrock that, when you dig a little deeper, can be just as fascinating and far-reaching.

Walk around the city for a while, and you can see the influence that geological time has had on the area. It’s where the Canadian Shield (one billion years old) and the St. Lawrence Platform (500 million years old) meet the 450-million-year-old  Appalachian Orogen (an orogen is a belt of rock involved in the formation of mountains). Logan’s Line is the visible fault between the latter two stone ages. Named after Montrealer William Edmond Logan, director of the Geological Survey of Canada from 1842 to 1870, it extends as far south as Montréal and as far east as the coast of Newfoundland.

I decided to go looking for Logan’s Line this summer, starting at the Saint-Louis Gate in Québec City’s Upper Town. The gate is 322 years old and has been rebuilt four times, most recently in 1878 using St. Lawrence Platform Ordovician limestone. The other existing entrances to the old city – the Saint-Jean, Kent and Prescott gates – share similar histories of construction and rebirth, and were built of similar limestones.

Walking down Rue St-Louis to the Château Frontenac, I pass the Maison Cureux (86, rue St-Louis), made of Cap-Diamant blackstone, otherwise known as “stinking stone,” as it reeked of sulphur when quarried. Looking at one of the Château’s towers, I see one of four different kinds of stone the landmark was built with: blue limestone from the St. Lawrence Platform, quarried in the appropriately named town of St-Marc-des-Carrières, upriver.

Across the street is the Gérard D.Lévesque Building. Formerly the Québec City courthouse, it now houses the provincial ministry of finance. It was built with at least four types of stone —green sandstone, limestone, granite and grey sandstone— between 1883 and 1887.LiQ_Sub_Dec2015

Walking still farther, I find the Terrasse Dufferin, a wooden boardwalk constructed above Lower Town. My back to the river, I look to the right and see the Price Building, built in the 1920s. It was also built using limestone from St-Marc-des-Carrières – grey, fading to beige as it weathers – and limestone from Queenston, near Niagara Falls in Ontario.

Stone from outside the region was occasionally used to meet demand for accelerated construction. One quarry simply couldn’t do it if the building was to be completed in a year. Because it has fossils embedded in it, Queenston limestone is pink and takes on a yellow-red tinge as it weathers. The fossils would have lived underwater in the Paleozoic era and would have been deposited in the rock bed as water receded.

And speaking of time travel, beside me on the Terrasse is the funicular. Whether I ride it down to Lower Town, or walk down the steep and imposing Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Steps), I’m crossing one of the city’s clearest boundaries of geological history.

Here, I find Logan’s Line.

Standing in Old Québec’s Upper Town, I’m standing on the Appalachian Orogen; as I make my way to Lower Town, I end up on the St. Lawrence Platform. In the space of a few minutes, I go back in time millions of years. I touch the stone at the corner of Rue St-Pierre and Côte de la Montagne, and I’m all of a sudden aware of the sheer weight of history, not to mention all that rock.

That may have been the way it was for Logan, too. A skilled painter, he became a member of the Geological Society of London in 1837. Three years later, he presented a paper describing his theory about the formation of coal, the validity of which was confirmed by further observations in the United States, Canada and Scotland. As director of the Geological Survey of Canada, Logan realized that properly surveying the country’s geology had to be a well-funded effort. Over a number of years during which he collected, documented (in painstaking detail) and presented specimens, he convinced successive governments to fund ever-greater endeavours.

Want to follow in Logan’s footsteps? You can. But if you’re going to use your smartphone to navigate all that stone, be warned! Google Maps doesn’t show you any of the varying, and sometimes wicked fluctuations in elevation in this area.

Got a car? Drive over the bridge to Île d’Orleans, and Logan’s Line is the rise after you get off the bridge. A nice little bonus is Montmorency Falls, just visible before you cross the bridge. That’s where the Grenville Orogen joins the St. Lawrence Platform.

Whether you drive down the Côte du Cap-Rouge, or bike up the hill from Boulevard Charest Ouest to Chemin Ste-Foy, or take Métrobus #802 into Limoilou, you’re crossing Logan’s Line. Same thing if you walk down the steps from the Faubourg St-Jean-Baptiste into St-Roch.

Stone doesn’t just commemorate the city’s fascinating history; it’s part of our daily lives. And whether or not we’re conscious of it as we stare down at sandstone cobblestones at the intersection of Rue du Fort and Rue des Pains-Bénits or stand at the asphalt intersection of Avenue Honoré-Mercier and Côte d’Abraham, our geological history is another Québec City treasure waiting to be explored.
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About Author

Mark Lindenberg

Mark Lindenberg's essays have appeared in The Globe and Mail and Maclean's Magazine, among other publications. In a career spanning 15 years, three provinces, and two official languages, he has written, edited, and translated work on a wide variety of topics for employers and clients alike. Mark lives in Quebec City with his wife and two cats.

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