The ups and downs of Côte Gilmour

The ups and downs of Côte Gilmour

By Peter Black

Earlier this summer Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to Quebec City to announce federal funding for a project to make Côte Gilmour, the winding road that connects Upper Town with Boulevard Champlain, accessible to motorized traffic year-round. The $8.2 million the prime minister pledged would pay for a major reconstruction of the road plus the creation of a pathway for pedestrians and cyclists.

Harper characterized the project as a present to the citizens for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2015. The revamped ramp is expected to be completed a year from now.

Quebec Mayor Regis Labeaume was thrilled with the announcement which presumably relieves him of his vow to shovel the steep chemin himself. The mayor has long argued a winterized road is needed to ease pressure on other arteries leading to downtown Quebec.

The decision to upgrade Gilmour Hill has raised many questions: what about the impact of salt and soot on the fragile forest clinging to the sheer slope? What about the effect of increased traffic on the serenity of the residences perched on the promontory?

Also, some people might ask: What about Gilmour? Just who the heck was he? We can dismiss immediately those who thought he might have been a hockey player nick-named Killer (Doug), a British rock star (David), or a revered old chap who used to spin vinyl at the CBC (Clyde).

No, Gilmour was actually a lumber and ship-building baron named John, whose financial fortunes plunged as precipitously as the pente itself, leading him – it is presumed – to take a suicidal dip in Montreal’s harbour in February, 1877. Before that, though, he’d been on top of the business heap in Quebec City, quite literally, being the proprietor of Marchmont, a mansion with a commanding view of the river, long since disappeared.

Ensconced at Marchmont, Gilmour needed only descend the winding path to visit his operations at Wolfe’s Cove, named for General James, whose life was, like Gilmour’s, marked by triumph and tragedy.

A stretch of the current Côte Gilmour was the route Wolfe’s troops used to scale the cliff that fateful September morn 254 years ago. Indeed, Quebec historian James MacPherson Le Moine recounts how workers digging a hole for a flag-post at Marchmont uncovered bones of Wolfe’s soldiers.

Le Moine, who resided at the neighbouring estate Spencer Grange, even unearthed an ode to Marchmont:

Oh! give me a home on that bold classic height,
Where in sweet contemplation in age’s dark night,
I may tread o’er the plain where as histories tell
Britain’s stout-hearted Wolfe in his victory fell.”

To borrow from another poem that reportedly inspired Wolfe on the eve of battle, and may too have been on Gilmour’s mind as he leapt to his death, the contentious road on the Plains might be dubbed a path of glory (leading but to the grave).

Proponents of the Côte Gilmour modernizing project are less gloomy; they see it as a path to the future.

Categories: Opinion

About Author

Peter Black

For years Peter Black was the producer of Breakaway, on CBC Radio One in Quebec City. Before arriving in Quebec City in the 1990s, he lived and worked in Ottawa and Montreal. Peter is married and has two sons.

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