Saint John New Brunswick

Exploring the Merchant Heritage of Saint John, New Brunswick

One of the many figure heads found on the walk



   At 2p.m., on June 20,1877, a flash fire broke out in Fairweather's Hay Store in Portland, at the west end of Union Street. Outside, a brisk nor'wester howled, and as the flames broke through the outside walls of the store, a burning brand was carried by the wind, igniting the nearby MacLaughlan Boiler Works. The fire spread rapidly, engulfing one wooden building, then another, and another, until most of the South End was whipped into a roaring inferno. For nine long hours the fire raged. When it was over, two - thirds of Saint John, including most of the commercial district, was a smoldering mass of charred rubble.

   With 1,612 buildings destroyed and 13,000 people homeless, Saint John immediately turned its efforts to building anew - as quickly as possible. The next decade saw much of the South End rebuilt, mostly of brick. Many of these buildings remain intact today, and because they do, Saint John can truthfully claim to have some of the finest surviving examples of 19th century commercial facades in all of Canada. In fact, Prince William Street is the first streetscape in the country to be designated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as being of national historic and architectural significance.

   To protect the character of the buildings in this central core of the city, Saint John has created the twenty-block Trinity Royal Preservation Area. PRINCE WILLIAM'S WALK tours some of the charming streets within this area. You'll explore Prince William and Germain Streets, traditionally - and still - Saint John's main commercial avenues. So elaborate are some of the buildings and their detailing that it is easy to imagine the fierce competition among property owners, contractors and craftsmen to out-do one another in the grandness of their proud, new structures! You can browse through shops on Princess Street, visit two of the city's beautiful, historic churches, and stroll past the elegant brick townhouses on Germain.

   The imposing splendor of Corinthean columns, the whimsy of Queen Anne Revival, elaborate Italianate facades, and curious gargoyles grimacing from atop their cornice perches - you'll discover them all along PRINCE WILLIAM'S WALK, as you explore the intriguing faces of historic Saint John.

Gargoyle or figure head? Gargoyle! ????


   On June 24,1604 - St. John the Baptist Day - French Explorer Samuel de Champlain landed at the mouth of a mighty river. In honour of the day, he proclaimed that the river and the harbour at its mouth be named "St. John." Almost thirty years later, Charles de Ia Tour, self-appointed Governor of Acadia, built as his headquarters a fortified trading post at the river mouth. In 1645, the fort was captured by La Tour's rival for Governor, Charles d'Aulnay, after a valiant defence by Lady La Tour, while her husband was in Boston seeking aid from the English. In the years that followed several other French forts were built in the area, among them Fort Villebon which, under British rule, was to become Fort Frederick.

   In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ceded French Acadia, including the St. John River Valley, to England. The French settlers were gradually displaced by New England colonists and traders. The Massachusetts firm of Simonds, Hazen and White established a trading post at Saint John in 1762, and the first permanent settlement in the area was born.

   In 1774 the American Revolution broke out and bands of American rebels and privateers raided the eastern seacoast, destroying Fort Frederick and threatening to topple the Simonds, Hazen and White enterprise.

   With the erection of Fort Howe in 1777, the river mouth was safeguarded from further attacks and the struggling settlement resumed its growth.

   At the end of the Revolution, in 1783, 14,000 American supporters of the British arrived in Saint John en route to settle land grants up the St. John River allotted them by the Crown. Some of these "Loyalists" established two settlements on either side of the river mouth, "Parrtown" on the east and "Carleton" on the west. In 1785, the two settlements were incorporated by Royal Charter into the City of Saint John - Canada's first city.

   The years which followed brought economic growth and social development. Saint John developed a prosperous timber trade and a wood shipbuilding industry which by the mid-1800s ranked as third largest in the world.

   Meanwhile, Saint John had attracted an influx of immigrants, principally from Ireland. In the 1840s, over 30,000 Irish who had fled the potato famine arrived. Many suffered from small-pox and typhoid fever, and had to be quarantined on Partridge Island, where over 600 were buried.

   The 1860s saw the city's shipbuilding industry decline, as steel, steam-powered vessels replaced wooden sailing ships. Canada's Confederation, in 1867, dealt another blow to Saint John and to the Maritimes. In order to encourage Maritime trade with central Canada, the Government of the new Dominion imposed high tariffs on foreign goods forcing Maritime businessmen to import costly materials from Ontario and Quebec.

Artist rendition of the Great Saint John Fire

   Then, in 1877, a disastrous fire destroyed the City's central business district and much of the residential South End. The task of rebuilding the City was an enormous one for Saint John's citizens - but rebuild it they did, this time out of brick and stone in an even grander fashion than before!

Germain St. 1899

   Better times were underway. Beginning in 1880 the railway expansion provided direct links with the rest of Canada stimulating the flow of goods and commerce. Consequently, the port began to flourish and manufacturing boomed. Even the shipbuilding industry was revived with the establishment of the Saint John Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company in 1923. Gradually, Saint John regained its prominence as an important manufacturing and shipbuilding centre.

   But the story doesn't stop here; our city is still growing and changing. And looking back on our colorful past, we can only anticipate what exciting developments lie ahead, as the story of our historic port city continues to unfold.

   If you would like to learn more about Saint John's past, be sure to check out Trinity Royal.com a designated Historic District, is full of history and lies in the heart of uptown Saint John.