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« Last August I travelled by carriage from Montreal to Québec in four and a half days. »

Account by the Grand Voyer, Lanouiller de Boisclerc, 1735

At the onset of the 18th Century, the road system in New France crisscrossed only a minute part of the sprawling territory.There were the «rangs» of course, and short stretches of road here and there, but no thoroughfare linking the capital city of Québec to Montreal. In 1706, the Conseil supérieur (grand council) decreed that a road be built along the river shoreline bear settlements. Thanks to ste statute labour of his «corvées du roy», the Grand Voyer (senior road surveyor) Eustache Lanouiller de Boisclerc began work in 1731. When construction was completed in 1737, the chemin du Roy was 7.4 metres wide and streched over 280 kilometers, crossing through 37 seignories.

The chemin du Roy became the longest road in existence north of Rio Grande.

For a century and a half, the chemin du Roy would convey mail and travellers by chaise, stagecoach, mail coach and sleigh in winter. There would be up to 29 relay stations along the way. Among the busiest, owing to the location, was Berthier, where lunch was always served, and Deschambault. The trip could be made in two days at full gallop! Today Route 138 follows the old road, for the most part, from Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures to Repentigny, passing through Trois-Rivières.

The chemin du Roy is the land-based counterpart of the St. Lawrence River. Its paves the way of history in Québec along its entire length, nestled amid beautiful scenery and fascinating heritage sites. The chemin du Roy remains a living memorial to New France in the 21st Century.

 


Building of the chemin du Roy

Credit: Christian Morissonneau, historian et history professor at Social Sciences faculty, Université du Québec in Trois-Rivères.
(N.B.: this text is a summary of the French version provided by Mr. Morissonneau) 

 

Transportation in New France

At the dawn of the eighteenth century, a substantial increase in the number of cattle, and especially horses, in New France provided cause to contemplate land transportation, poorly developed to date when compared to water transportation along the St. Lawrence River, the main, if not the only, means of transportation. However, transportation by water had its limitations: floods, storms, ice in winter and the impracticalities of freezing and thawing in the fall and spring. 

 

Progressive Development of a Road Network

It is easy to imagine that the first roads originated from, and led to, Québec, the administrative and religious capital of New France. These first roads were used by ox carts to carry farm produce to the market in Québec. Sections of road were also opened in the seigniories and each landowner was charged with maintaining the section running through his land.

 

The Grand Voyer, Senior Road Surveyor

A senior official named by the Intendant was responsible for the road network. The Grand Voyer, seconded by few employees, saw to the inhabitants’ needs. He mapped out the routes, supervised their construction and coordinated their maintenance. Since there were no specific employees to do the roadwork, the Grand Voyer used statute labour and the local inhabitants. This was the known as the “Corvées du Roi” system.

 

Road Categories

There were three categories of roads in New France. “Royal roads and mail routes” were built and maintained by all the inhabitants of the seigniory that they crossed. These “royal” roads were 24 feet wide (1 French foot = 32.40cm) with three-foot ditches on each side. The two remaining categories did not fall under the authority of senior administration. Communication routes connected the “rangs” together and with the main road (royal). These roads were to be 18 feet wide, but many were not. Mill roads of no particular width were built by inhabitants under the authority of the seignior to gain access to the community mill to mill their grain. Thus, the entire road system was the responsibility of the inhabitants, from initial construction to the more demanding maintenance to render conveyance acceptable. 

 

The Grand Voyer Lanouiller de Boisclerc

Jean-Eustache Lanouiller de Boisclerc was named Grand Voyer on April 10, 1731, succeeding René Robineau of Bécancour. He spent the summer of 1732 in the field. Intendant Hocquart voiced his determination that haste be made on a road that was progressing too slowly. The Grand Voyer finished the construction of the road in good time, so much so that in 1735 he took a horse-drawn chair, summarizing the trip as follows: “Last August, I left by chair and travelled from Montreal to Québec in four and a half days.” Grand Voyer Lanouiller de Boisclerc, the man who built the chemin du Roy, died on November 25, 1750.

 

Road Construction, a Community Works

Who built the roads? First there was the Intendant, the administrative chief who entrusted responsibility for the road network to the Grand Voyer. This person mapped the route to follow and oversaw construction and maintenance. Those directly responsible for the roadwork itself were the militia captains or the seigniories. The inhabitants were obliged to provide passage through their land and construction labour. This was known as the “corvée.” There were no official road workers. A “corvée” was a mandatory community endeavour. The Intendant often intervened in the form of orders in difficult situations. Bridges, ferries and canoes were subject to the same principle of the “corvée.”

 

From Concession to Expropriation

Although expropriation was an unfamiliar notion in New France, the concept of concession was near inviolable. Assignment for a public thoroughfare was a clause found in each concession deed. The “corvée” system imposed concrete obligations and the Intendant or Grand Voyer was empowered to issue rulings to this effect.

 

Four to Six Days from Québec to Montreal…

By 1735, all the seigniories had their own section of road. Over the next two years, the emphasis was placed on ferries and bridges. New France had a burgeoning new route. It was passable, despite certain difficulties and the relative discomfort of the vehicles used, but it was adapted to the needs of the era. In 1737, it took between four and six days to travel from Québec to Montreal. The successful conclusion of the chemin du Roy in the 1730’s made it the longest road built north of the Rio Grande. It would be close to a quarter of a century before the United States was to envision the equivalent with a “national road” from Cumberland (Maryland) to Wheeling (Ohio). The federal government began planning the route in 1806, exactly one hundred years after the onset of the equivalent project of the chemin du Roy.

 


Users of the chemin du Roy

Credit: Christian Morissonneau, historian and history professor at Social Science faculty, Université du Québec in Trois-Rivières
(N.B.: this text is a summary of the French version provided by Mr. Morissonneau)

 

Users of the chemin du Roy

At the onset, travel along the chemin du Roy took place in conveyances known as chairs or calèches in summer. “It was a light, horse-drawn vehicle that could travel long distances. The chaise was very sturdy and easily driven along any kind of road. Its raised seat on springs accommodated two passengers and the driver sat directly behind the horse, making driving easy.” (P. Lambert, p11) In winter, the chaise was replaced by the sleigh, a kind of calèche mounted on runners to glide on snow or ice.

 

Birth of Public Transportation

With the opening of the chemin du Roy also came public transportation by land in the form of relay stations. Every fifteen kilometres or so where there was a semblance of a village, travellers would find a relay station maintained by the local postmaster. An order from Governor Haldimand in 1780 regulated the relays themselves and the transportation of mail and people very seriously. The road between Québec and Montréal (60 leagues) was divided into 24 and then 29 relay stations where local postmasters assured travellers conveyance by calèche or sleigh within fifteen minutes. In 1811, the calèches were abandoned for stagecoach service. At that point, mail coaches had already been in circulation for several years.

 

 Mail Service and the First Stagecoaches  

Organized postal service was a necessity in a country characterized by distance and dispersion. Mail traveled from Québec to Montreal and on to New England. In 1774, mail ran twice a week, leaving Québec on Mondays and Thursdays and arriving in Montreal on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Québec received mail on equivalent days (P. Lambert, p.14). The Canada-United States and England postal convention was signed in March 1792. Bags of mail were shipped by coach in mail coaches that could accommodate passengers. These mail coaches were the first stagecoaches in Québec. In 1799, one mail coach ran between Québec and Montreal weekly. Sleighs were the main method of conveyance in winter.

 

Stagecoach, Mail Coach or Steamboat

Much of the time, the mail coach carried travellers. In the 1810’s their number increased and companies began offering stagecoach services. But in 1815, during the summer, passengers began preferring travel by steamboat. Mail coaches continued to run year round, but passengers used them mostly in winter. Steamboats began conveying mail in the 1840’s. But since there were settlements between the relay stations, mail coaches continued to run each day. From 1801 to 1850 was the golden age of the stagecoach. Changes were made in the number of stops along the road. From some thirty stopovers during the era of the calèches, the number of relays was decreased to ten between Québec and Montreal: Ancienne-Lorette, Cap-Santé, Deschambault, Sainte-Anne, Trois-Rivières, Yamachiche, Maskinongé, Berthier, Lavaltrie, Bout-de-l’Ile.

 

A New Contender: the Train

The steamboat now monopolized passenger travel in summer, but after the 1850’s the railway emerged as another direct contender to travel by road. In 1854, the line between Lévis and Richmond opened with a connection to the Grand Trunk towards Montreal. The stagecoach vanished. Only the mail coach continued to carry mail and passengers during all seasons. However, it also ceased to operate in 1879 with the advent of the railway on the north shore of the river linking Québec, Montreal, Outaouais and Ontario. Mail runs between Québec and Montreal ended.