The streets of Canada: Water Street
The oldest street on this continent was claimed for Elizabeth I in 1583, sacked three times by invaders, and has no monuments left but epic memories. Yet its power over St. John’s and Newfoundland still stands
Water Street, the oldest thoroughfare in North America, strolls like a path along the north shore of St. John’s harbor through the ever-present smell of the sea and salt cod laid over the heady atmosphere of a history spiced with the rich smell of rum, lit by fire and filled with the echo of clashing swords.
For three hundred years after Sir Humphrey Gilbert first walked its length on a fine Sunday afternoon in August 1583, pausing to pick wild raspberries and strawberries, it was known as the Lower Path. Sir Humphrey had come to stake out a claim to Newfoundland for Queen Elizabeth. Under the second Elizabeth the path is called Water Street, and it is the main artery not only of the city of eighty thousand but of Newfoundland itself.
To most Newfoundlanders it is still a combination of St. James Street and Fifth Avenue as well as Main Street — the place to buy and sell and borrow. In addition to
all this, Water Street has wielded concentrated power, both economic and political, although the latter has been seriously challenged in recent years by an upstart called Joey Smallwood. But, in the social structure of the island, it continues to be the Big House on the Hill where the squire lives.
Broad Water Street, with the wharves and the ocean at its back door, is almost completely lacking the grey sentinels of buildings that stand guard over the past on far less venerable avenues. This lack of visible antiquity is not surprising, however, along a street that for a hundred years was not permitted to exist and then, when it did get a struggling start, was ravaged seven times by fire. It was burned twice by the French, once by the Dutch and the other four times by the inhabitants’ own carelessness. The last French assault was made in 1762, three years after they were beaten in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, when they were defeated at Fort William,
then at the end of Water Street, and the present site of the Newfoundland Hotel. The accidental fires were probably caused by local custom: before the invention of matches housewives were in the habit of going next door to borrow a cup of coals from a neighbor to revive a hearth that had gone dead during the night. Most of the houses were made of wood.
The street's agonizing birth pangs were the fault of the English fish merchants, who feared a permanent settlement would encourage a local fishery and cut into the big profits they were making from their annual expeditions to the Grand Banks. They ruled the little colony like a ship. No women w'erc allowed; houses with chimneys were forbidden. In 1674 some houses w'erc actually burned to discourage settlers. It wasn’t until the French turned ugly and showed a tendency to ignite the place every few years that the home government stepped in and permitted Water continued on next page
The streets of Canada: Water Street continued
Sailors strolling from the navy dockyard's gate on Water Street see a cigar store Indian, an aging alleyway, traders' crowded store fronts — and a barrelmaker at rest
Street and the rest of the city to take shape, temporarily at least.
The fires, combined with the need to build quickly with wood, have conspired to rob Water Street of its rightful look of graceful old age. Today it is a street with no more distinction or personality (except when the breeze is from the harbor and Steers’ salt-cod packing plant) than a street in any one of a score of eastern Canadian cities.
Some old cities have a kind of magic in their stones that quickly conjures up the past. Water Street seems to lack this quality. Yet, when you stand on the street itself and look down one of the coves, the name given to the short, sharply pitched streets leading to the water-
front, and you catch a glimpse of the dark hulls and the thin masts of the little coastal schooners tied up outside the warehouses at the back of the stores, you do get a glimpse of days gone by.
You arc standing where the moccasined Beothuk Indians, now extinct, stood to welcome, and if you believe the stories of the sailors, rob, the white men as they came ashore. You are probably standing near one of the places where Drake’s bully boys, full of rum, taunted Spanish fishermen about that armada of theirs to the point where the flash of dirks enlivened this veterans’ reunion. Once the harbor, now almost empty, was so full of sail, bound for the Grand Banks for cod and to the
icc for seal, that the masts looked like a forest and,a man could walk, so the old-timers say. from shore to shore on the decks. But no longer is it necessary to have a watcher on Signal Hill above the Gap. to run up the house flag of a “foreign-goer” for the owners to see as it runs the final leg of its long voyage home. No longer, of course, do convoys of rusty merchantmen, flanked by their lithe grey escorts, choke the harbor as they did during World War II. On a recent Saturday a single Canadian sailor was seen on duty, not one warship was tied up at the once teeming navy dock.
Through the now yawning dockyard gates, which give on Water Street, passed some of the bravest men ever to sail the Atlantic. Water Street knows about sailors. When some of them got drunk, to forget the war or just because they were sailors on leave, and smashed store windows, the merchants boarded up the holes and carried on. When sailors got sick in the gutters or made love to their girls in store doorways Water Street looked the other way. On VE day the liquor stores were left open and there were no riots such as there were in Halifax.
During the last war the naval officers’ club, the Crow’s Nest, collected the insignia, in the form of plaques, of ships that put into St. John's harbor. After the war the club was disbanded and the plaques dispersed. When the club was re-opened on an inter-service basis an attempt was made to collect them but they may never hang all together again where they should be.
Water Street has had a hard time hanging on to its mementos. Up on Duckworth Street, in the provincial museum that was once closed by the commission of continued on page 63
Water Street continued from page 19
“A panhandler, working his way up to the price of a bottle of screech, calls you ‘Skipper’ ”
government as a needless expense, the curator, Leo English, has made a brave attempt to keep the past alive. His exhibits include old furniture, ancient weapons, a buxom figurehead irom a sailing vessel, and drawings of her people made by Shanandathit, the last of the Beothuks. who died of tuberculosis in 1829. But on Water Street itself, for all the unbecoming newness, ior all the absence of relics, there are memories and traditions that make it clear this is no ordinary street.
No business section in Canada celebrates more holidays than Water Street. A plebiscite established Saturday closing for all stores and offices. The people who work here knock off for St. Patrick’s Day, St. George’s Day, and Burns’ birthday as well as for the more familiar holidays. And they have a unique holiday on Regatta Day, held on the first Wednesday in August, but actually set by Í committee of citizens who once signalled their approval of the suitability of the weather for races on Quidi Vidi lake by firing a gun. Now the decision is given by radio on the morning of the holiday. The year 1929 is fondly remembered as a vintage holiday season for this was the one in which the races were called off each day until the Saturday. Each day the postponement was delayed until the whole town was at the lake and there seemed little point in going back to work.
The National War Memorial, close to the place where Sir Humphrey Gilbert is supposed to have landed, between Water and Duckworth Streets, is the focal point of another kind of holiday. On July I. 1916, eight hundred officers and men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment stormed a strong point at Beaumont Hamel which the Germans had held for two years. Earlier in the day two British regiments had been cut to pieces in unsuccessful assaults. 1 he Newfoundlanders failed, too. and only sixty-six were not casualties. Four members of the Ayre family died that day— three with the RNR and the other with a British regiment. Long before confederation. July I was a holiday of a sombre kind on Water Street.
While the gun that used to boom from the shores of Quidi Vidi has fallen silent another may soon speak again. Until 1871, when the British garrison was withdrawn from the island, a noonday gun was fired from Signal Hill, the site of Marconi's first trans-Atlantic wireless reception. The army has been asked to revive the custom and Water Street may regain some of its past.
Overlooking the docks, just off Water Street, Ernest Spracklin runs the last sail loft in the city. But his fid, the ironwood instrument shaped like a marlin spike used in his trade, rarely works on a suit of sails these days. And when it does the sails are for something called a dinghy.
Spracklin, now seventy, remembers the days of fifty years ago when he helped to make sail for the great bankers like the Bluenosc, although he never worked for that famous ship.
"My boys work with me here part time, but they're smart — they have other jobs. I'm too old for anything else," he said. "This?" he said answering a query about the canvas on which he was working. “A tarpaulin cover for a truck.
Mostly we do tarpaulins, awnings, and once in a while a hatch cover for a ship. That’s about as close as we get to the sea these days."
Water is a street where a panhandler, working his way up to the price of a
bottle of screech or pinkie, tugs the peak of his cap like a forelock and calls his prospective client "Skipper." The salutation is at once nautical, respectful and effective. Screech is a mixture of rums now sold by the liquor board under a
new label that displays a map of the island and the legend "Newfoundland’s Famous Screech." Pinkie is cheap wine, highly regarded by waterfront connoisseurs. a chaser for screech.
Water Street complains there are no
more characters, once a feature of the island like the dialect stories which Newfoundlanders are suspected of devising and promulgating the way Henry Ford was supposed to have put out stories about the Model T. Sample from the 1958 line: Two Newfoundland fishermen had been out in their dories all morning. When the boats drifted near to each other one of the men, anxious to know how his frient! was doing, inquired, "Am?” The other replied “Nam.”
The characters seem to have gone like the cobbles, which were taken up nine years ago with the tram lines, and the snows of yesteryear which have been hurried on their way by stretches of heated sidewalk, of all things, along the street. But Water Street remembers men like Mickey Quinn, Doc Neyle and The Hermit.
Mickey, who operated at the turn of the century, was a man of style, not unlike W. C. Fields in manner. One day he fell asleep in his cart blocking a narrow road. When a traveler came along in his carriage he sent the coachmen up ahead to tell the fellow to move. “Go away, you bother me,” said Mickey. The owner of the carriage finally came up and wakened him. “Who are you?” demanded Mickey. “I'm the governor,” said the other indignantly. Mickey smiled and put out his hand. “You've got a good job, hang on to it, me boy,” he said warmly, and went back to sleep.
Doc Neylc’s passion was funerals. But not any old funeral rated his patronage. To make sure he was convoying the best corpse in town Doc would sit by the side of the road with a bottle of rum until the cortege drew near and then step out and hold up his hand and stop the solemn procession to find out who was aboard. If he felt the deceased was worthy Doc would respectfully bring up the rear.
The Hermit was a remittance man who lived in a hut on the South Shore in the Eighties and made a meagre living by peddling trout, at twenty-five cents a dozen, and rabbits along Water Street. He wore corduroy pants and a rough Gansey jacket, named for the Guernsey tweed from which it was made. He was a wild-looking, bearded, taciturn man and no one paid much attention to him until the day the cable arrived from England. Down from the hills he came dressed now in a frock coat, grey vest and silk hat and swinging a silverknobbed cane. Down Water Street he came with small boys following him in wonder. Without speaking to any of the gaping townsfolk he marched aboard a boat and sailed back to England, to a great inheritance, so it was said, and Water Street never saw him again.
Sid Pearce, now an engineer at Pepperrell, the United States Air Force base just out of town, remembers what it was like for a boy on Water Street at the turn of the century. "We would scrape together our pennies to get ten cents to buy the sailors a tot of rum and then ask them to bring up a parrot from South America or a stick of sugar cane from Barbados. Sometimes they remembered and they did bring them. Other times we would egg them on to fight each other when they were drunk. They told us wonderful stories about the Flying Dutchman which some of them swore they had seen,” he said.
A quarter of a century later some of these same boys stood at dusk on Water Street and watched a little silver airplane swung down the harbor eastward bound for the ocean and eventually Paris and fame for a young barnstorming pilot called I.indbergh.
These are some of Water Street’s
memories but the influences which made it the Bourse of all Newfoundland stemmed from the counting houses w'here bay windows look out to the sea, which brought the merchants their wealth and their power.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the colony, having won the right to exist, had begun to attract resident merchants and the custom of absentee ownership had fallen into disrepute. Most of the new merchants owned ships which carried the cod of the Grand Banks to the West Indies and South America, took spices and rum home to England, with a stop in Oporto in Portugal for sherry and port, and then brought manufactured goods out to be sold to the fishermen in stores operated or supplied on a wholesale basis by these same merchants. Some of the buildings on Water Street, converted from fish sheds, have retained the shape anti the smell of their original use.
Over the years a system of barter and credit grew up which made Water Street the bank as well as the corner store of the island. Fishermen were trusted for their supplies during the season and beyond, if they had had a bad year. This way of dealing persisted pretty well unchanged until confederation when cash payments of baby bonuses and old-age benefits gave some of the people of the outports more regular cash than they had ever before seen.
Even though the old way of trading looked like a closed circuit in which the merchant could not help but make money, many a proud houseflag dipped in defeat after a couple of barren years of small catches and low prices in the fishery. But a few old firms have survived, like Jobs (1779) who vie in friendly argument with Harveys (1776) for the honor of being the oldest company; Ayre and Sons; Baine, Johnston (1780) and Bowring Brothers (1811). The latter’s St. John’s store, founded by an Exeter watchmaker and his wife who opened a little place to sell laces and dry goods, was the beginning of C. T. Bowring Co. Ltd. of London, one of the world's greatest privately owned businesses. It comprises some forty firms which control plantations in the tropics, once ran whaleoil plants in the Arctic, and still run shipping lines and sell insurance. When the Newfoundland banks closed in an 1894 panic the firm printed its own bank notes and carried on.
Of these old firms only Jobs still sends trawlers to the Grand Banks and the company deals only in fresh frozen fish. Bowring got out of the fish business shortly after World War II, after examining their books for the previous fifty years and figuring out they had lost money in it. The firm got out of wholesale trade about the same time. “We felt we could use the money much better in our retail business. The traditional policy of long-term credit seemed unrealistic to us,” said Derrick Bowring, forty-one-year-old head of the big Water Street store. The firm still operates two scaling vessels where once three thousand men went to the ice in a hundred and twenty-five ships.
Bowring is engaged in a continuous redesigning of the Water Street store which is made up of five old buildings. "At one time it was impossible to get to the store from the executive offices,” he recalled. “We always had bad luck with the fires. None of them ever got this far.”
The walls of Baine, Johnston's offices, tucked away behind a variety store, also opetxited by the company, are lined with pictures of the ships of the great sealing fleet the firm once sent out. The president, T. W. Collingwood, who was eighty-
this July and has been with the company sixty-three years, is agent for Newman’s port, the famous wine that is sent to Water Street to mature. This aging, which takes from three to five years, takes place at a grey-stone bonded warehouse next to one of the street’s three liquor stores. Canadian Customs and Collingwood have the two keys that are needed to get into this wine bibbers’ treasure house. The aging process was discovered 370 years ago when a shipment was diverted from Portugal to Newfoundland and arrived in England with a finer bouquet than any of the direct deliveries had ever had.
But the man whose name is most often heard on Water Street hasn't even got a business there unless it is a knitted-wear shop called Irene's which he and his associates financed with the province’s money. He is Premier Joseph E. Smallwood. Joey to the rest of Newfoundland and often something unprintable to the men of Water Street.
Fie rarely goes to the street. He never goes to the City Club. His is the Laurier, a Liberal club up the hill. His office is a large converted private dwelling across from the firehall which he occupies while waiting for a planned eight-million-dollar legislative building, called Joey's Ivory Tower by his critics.
Smallwood has waged four elections and successfully sponsored confederation for Newfoundland by representing the merchants as the Water Street gang, a group of selfish, wealthy reactionaries.
Today confederation is generally accepted as a good thing even on Water Street. Any criticism that is left is now directed at the manner in which it was brought about—a shotgun wedding negotiated by Canada and the U. K.
“That's natural,” said Smallwood recently as he drove around his capital, pointing out the place where a posse complete with rope threatened to lynch him after a pro-confederation speech. “The man who brought confederation
was bound to be an s.o.b. That’s the reason the Water Street crowd became Tories, just because I was a L.iberal. Now there is a Tory government in Ottawa they have at last found a spiritual and political home. They didn't know what they were before that; they only knew they hated me.”
And Water Street, which has had such bad luck with its mementos, may soon lose its chief hate, the man who made an effective political symbol out of the ancient thoroughfare.
“I’d like to get out of politics in a year,” said the premier. “I could have had a senatorship before the Liberals went out but I turned it down. I’ve had my rendezvous with history. I’m not going to be one of those politicians who hangs around too long and becomes a pitiful figure. I want to retire and do some writing. After all I’m a newspaperman by profession. I'm going to write the story of Newfoundland’s confederation. I think I'm the only one who can tell the whole story. And I'll tell it without any punches pulled.”
But before he goes he wants to lead the province’s tenth birthday celebration next summer. He hopes the rest of Canada, or Canada as it is still known to many Newfoundlanders, will show a little more enthusiasm than it did ten years ago. Canada took the addition of the tenth province so casually, with no more interest than might be shown in the opening of a new television station, that many feelings were deeply bruised.
Water Street, when it hears about Joey’s possible departure, will bite the bullet and carry on and prosper just as it did when it became part of Canada. Bowrings, for instance, is planning to invade the mainland. And not the Maritimes hut places like Montreal and Toronto.
If Water Street continues to stretch out in this way it could add to its fame as the oldest thoroughfare in North America the distinction of being the longest.