Saint-John sits directly on the water, on the Bay of Fundy and the River Saint-John. Samuel de Champlain landed here in 1604 but it is Charles de Saint-Etienne de la Tour who is considered the founder of the city in 1631 which was incorporated in 1785. For years, Saint-John was the center of attention with its port and shipbuilding manufacturing. The growth of the economy was promising and new immigrants selected Saint-John to build their new life. Especially during the 1840s, the Irish escaped the potato famine and arrived in Saint-John.
Then, in 1867, there was the merge of territories to create Canada. In a smaller form than the current existing land, it was at the beginning of the new country. In 1867, it was the unification of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada (Quebec and Ontario). The formalization was executed in Charlottetown, PEI. The union brought adjustments to all and Saint John was directly impacted by the rules of importation and the reinforcement of the importance to buy goods from the country.
Ten years later, unfortunately, and of course, unexpectedly, a disastrous massive event hit the growing town. In the afternoon of June 20th 1877, a fire killed 19 people, destroyed more than 1600 structures, and left hundreds homeless and businesses without stock. Eight (8) churches, six (6) banks, fourteen (14) hotels were gone within hours. The fire reached the water and also burned boats and schooners. The wooden buildings and their proximity made the control of the propagation of the fire difficult to contain.
The Loyalist House (1810-17), the Nutting House (1819), the Stone Church (1825), the City Market (1874), and the No.2 Engine House (1840-1) survived the fire. More information is below.
Despite this disaster, the survivors did not give up. During the following years, immense efforts were concentrated on the reconstruction. If you walk Prince William Street, you will be astonished by the beautiful diverse architecture created between 1878 and 1881. Public offices, banks, hotels, insurance, shipping and legal offices selected this location to rebuild, but this time, the structures are made of stones or bricks for its fire resistance.
Saint-John reminded me of a tiny version of the old part of Montreal with the European touch. It is by the water and it offers a beautiful sunset on the Victorian-style houses and unique restaurants/pubs in the late 19th-century construction.
I have the feeling that our visit did not represent the full potential of the city. I can easily imagine this place as a vibrant place to have a good time, but, without visitors, without cruise ships and with the museums closed due to the pandemic, the place was quiet with limited activities available.
What to see in Saint-John today
Saint-John has two (2) main elements that deserve our attention, the natural element: the water (port, tides, geopark) and the historical aspects (streets, buildings).
Bay of Fundy
Saint-John is located on the Bay of Fundy where the highest tides occur. The effect of the transfer of water can be seen where it meets the Saint-John River.
Due to the tides, the water from the Saint-John River can be reversed in the bay and it will change direction according to the tides. Interesting and a rare phenomenon.
The port activities bring action in the region with traffic of people and merchandise. Some cruise ships add a stop to this port for the town’s architectural beauty and proximity to other parks, including the Hopewell Rock Provincial Park, the Geopark and the Fundy National Park.
The effect of the sunset on the town is simply majestic. The golden, orange-reddish colour on red stones is something to see and provides an European romantic cachet.
Stonehammer UNESCO Global Geopark
Saint-John is within the Stonehammer Geopark area where research and pieces of evidence were found on the geographic evolution of the place. The playground of geologists for almost 200 years, it provides geological details of the movement of the continents over billions of years. The Stonehammer Geopark is not a single site, it is a large territory (2500km) of mostly coastline where you can explore different sites.
A visit to the city must include a walk on some streets nearby the port terminals. Despite many constructions dating back to the same period, there is a variety of designs in the architecture but yet, is harmonized with the surroundings. I highly recommend Prince William, Germain and King Streets.
Pre-fire – historical buildings
Fortunate sections of the city were saved by the fire, see which ones below:
· King Square (1785) – The trails of the relaxed green space meet at its center where a two-story bandstand (1908) is erected above the fountain (1851). Monuments are placed in the different zones of the square.
· Loyalist House (1810-17) 120 Union Street – It is now a museum. British protectionists, the loyalists, explain the context of life and wars. The Merritt family built this house after emigrating from England to the United States and later moved to New Brunswick to support the British colonization.
· Nutting House (1819) 2 Germain Street: The oldest brick building in Saint-John.
· Saint-John Anglican a.k.a Stone Church (1825) 85 Carleton Street at the end of Wellington Row – Solid and simple styled church which stands out for the masonry work and the different colored stone mix and contrast which was emphasized over the years.
· No.2 Engine House (1840-1) 24 Sydney Street: now Saint-John Firefighters Museum. Information on the big 1877 fire is exposed here.
· City Market (1874) 47 Charlotte Street: Farmer’s market: the market bell is rung daily to announce the opening and closing times.
Special mention: Three sisters lamps – located in Saint-Patrick’s Square. The lamps were installed in 1848 and have been a symbol of the Trinity Royal Heritage Area of Saint-John.
Revival and post 1877
Walk the streets of Prince William Street, Germain Street and King Street.
· Domville Building (BMO) (1878) 2 King Street: now the Bank of Montreal building is within the walls of the Maritime Banks of Saint-John founded by Senator James Domville. Look at the architectural details, the styling of the columns, the lion heads sculpture. It is a beautiful building at the corner of a busy intersection.
· Commercial Palace (1877-81) 12-14 King Street
· Imperial / Bi-Capitol Theater (1912-1923) 24 King Square South: life performance hall
· CIBC building (1901-4) 44 King Street
· Church of Saint Andrew and Saint David (1878-9) 164 Germain Street
· Old post office (1881) 115 Prince William Street – look at the Coat of Arms. The lettering “GR” refers to Gratia Regina which means Grace Queen.
· Bank of New Brunswick (1879) 119-125 Prince William Street: The first branch of the bank, it was merged in 1913 with the Scotiabank.
· Trinity Church (1880) 115 Charlotte main entrance via Germain Street
National Park of Fundy
The National Park of Fundy is a great place to appreciate nature exploration with its lakes, cascades, falls and forest.