Articles

SAINT JOHN: CITY OF FIRSTS

IAN SCLANDERS June 15 1950
Articles

SAINT JOHN: CITY OF FIRSTS

IAN SCLANDERS June 15 1950

SAINT JOHN: CITY OF FIRSTS

Articles

IAN SCLANDERS

A SALMON carved from wood and encased in a skin of 18-karat gold swims at the tip of the tallest church spire in Saint John. This weather vane revolves against a seaport background of ships, wharves, cargo sheds and grain elevators.

As it turns in the wind its gleaming snout points from the knoll where the Micmacs greeted Champlain, from Market Slip where 10,000 refugee United Empire Loyalists disembarked from their transport, vessels, to Partridge Island where the first steam foghorn in the world trumpeted a warning at mariners.

The sweep of the gilded fish takes in the site of the Exchange Coffee House, where Benedict Arnold drank alone, and the cove where Colonel Edmund Fanning, Tory guerrilla leader of the Revolutionary War, hacked the toes off a blacksmith in a duel fought on the ice with broad-hladed axes.

It takes in Marsh Creek, where James Smith launched that amazing clipper, the Marco Polo; the hovel where Hollywood’s Louis B. Mayer was bom in poverty; the barn where Broadway’s Margaret Anglin played Shakespearean roles for her schoolmates; the store where actor Walter Pidgeon clerked for his father; and the newspaper office where Lord Beaverbrook was a $5-a-week cub reporter. They all belong in Saint John’s story.

For New Brunswick’s chief city has a timeless

quality and its memories are as indestructible as its rocky hills. Its past blends with the present and is as much a part of the atmosphere as the brine-laden breezes of t he Bay of Fundy, the spicy odors that waft up from the docks, or the doleful toot-toot of tug whistles.

When the Partridge Island foghorn blows Saint Johners recall that. Robert Foulis, who invented the device in 1854, let a fortune slip through his fingers by neglecting to secure a patent. They chuckle over the fact that Dr. Abraham Gesner, who founded the first public museum in British North America at Saint John in 1842, almost drove his poor wife crazy by converting his attic into a ,, camping ground for the Indians who killed and skinned animals and birds for his collections.

They stroll among the lilacs and honeysuckle in the Old Burying Ground, consecrated in 1874, and smile quietly about the versatility of the original gravedigger who sawed a fiddle at dances when he finished the chores of the day.

Still Some Speak for Secession

BECAUSE Saint Johners talk of such things transient authors and lecturers, who pause briefly in their midst, often jump to the conclusion that Saint John’s main activity is the contemplation of bygone times. A number of these authors and lecturers have said so - after departing a safe distance.

Their statements were unfair, hut contained just enough truth to hurt, for Saint John has fallen

OF FIRSTS

short of the bright promise it showed in an earlier period and tends to regard the last century as its Golden Age.

In 1871—the year of the first federal census— Saint John was Canada’s fourth city, with a population of 41,000. Ahead of it were only Montreal with 129,000, Quebec with 60,000, and Toronto with 59,000. Winnipeg was a village of 241 pioneers, and Vancouver was not worth mentioning.

Saint John has since slipped to 15th position. Its population is now 55,000 if you count residents of the city proper, and 76,000 if you count residents of Greater Saint John, which embraces the adjoining parishes of Lancaster and Simonds.

Saint Johners blame their community’s retarded growth on Confederation, the accepted theory being that this left the seaboard region at the mercy of Ontario and Quebec and that those provinces shaped national policies entirely for their own gain. There are still individuals in Saint John who insist that New Brunswick should break away from Canada and become a separate country —although they aren’t very clear about how this could be accomplished.

Actually, the decline in Saint John’s fortunes did set in soon after Confederation, but the extent to which the union was responsible is debatable. The wood-wind-water economy in which Saint John flourished was already fading; wooden shipbuilding, which employed thousands, was doomed; new forces were beginning to concentrate manufacturing in Central Canada; and the opening up of the West was in sight. Thus, even without Confederation, Saint John was probably due for a setback.

But the average Saint Johner contends that the place is just about right as it is—big enough to have a reasonably metropolitan outlook, and small enough that a man can stroll home from work for his noonday meal. Swiftly he can slip from downtown Saint John to a trout stream or lake, a duck marsh, a broad river or a white beach pounded by the surf.

There are 20 lakes and a dozen streams within Saint John’s corporate limits, together with forests extensive enough for logging operations, a seaswept island, and 12 miles of shore on two rivers.

Saint John’s harbor yields all the salmon, shad and alewives the local market can consume, plus a substantial quantity for export. You can watch the little fishing craft—dories and launches nudging in and out among ocean liners. So abundant are the fish that the dry dock, which could berth the Queen Elizabeth with room to spare, generally gets a catch when its locks are opened to admit a ship. Once it caught 500 tons of alewives. On an equally memorable occasion it trapped a moose. (Saint John is so close to tracts of rough tree-covered country that both moose and deer have been known to venture into town and a couple of them have pushed their antlers through plate-glass windows on the main street.)

A royal charter issued in 1785 made Saint John

the first incorporated city in British North America and today it moves at a leisurely pace which befits its venerable age. The revolving doors don’t spin like airplane propellers, few business executives wind up with stomach ulcers, and the inhabitants are seldom too hurried for a street-corner conversation.

Yet, in its calm way, Saint John accomplishes a good deal. Of Canada’s seaports, only Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax handle more import and export traffic—and Saint John’s freight tonnage in some years exceeds that of Halifax.

Two Shows a Day at the Gorge

THE annual output of Saint John’s factories, more than $40 millions, tops that of the factories in any other city in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland or Prince Edward Island. Among other things Saint John manufactures railway equipment, brooms and brushes, sulphite pulp, cotton textiles, clothing, building supplies, pottery, biscuits, hats, sails, awnings. It builds ships and pleasure boats. It blends and packages tea, coffee and spice, refines sugar, processes fish.

And, in this old town, most of the industries are old too.

T. S. Simms and Company, which claims its brush and broom plant is the biggest in the British Empire, was started by Thomas Stockwell Simms with money he drew in back pay and pensions as a veteran of the American Civil War. L. W. Simms, his son, heads the firm.

The sail and awning loft has been operated by the Holder family for three generations and once fashioned “suits” for windjammers. Much to the disgust of William H. Holder, who is more than 80, the sails stitched today are for yachts, and the bulk of the output is awnings and tarpaulins. But the loft, with models and oil paintings of square-riggers on its walls, remains an unofficial club for visiting captains, who sit around on coils of rope and bales of canvas, swapping yams about their voyages.

Saint John straddles the estuary of the St. John River and looks out over the Bay of Fundy. In the name of the city the “Saint” is spelled out. Saint Johners are very crochety about this. The spelling is abbreviated in the case of the river, which flows 450 miles to sea from Quebec and northern Maine, has

Continued on page 58

Like most salty old characters Saint John (watch that spelling!), N.B., has its peculiarities. Like the shortest main street in Canada, some of the worst slums. But it has also a venerable dignity and charm as befits the first city in British North America

Saint John: City of Firsts

Continued from page 9

dozens of tributaries, and is the mightiest river emptying into the Atlantic between the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi.

Like most salty old characters Saint John has peculiarities. They include what is perhaps the shortest main I street in Canada, a tide that has a 25-foot range, and the Reversing I Falls.

The surprisingly short main street I —King Street—climbs uphill the whole three blocks of its length. It begins at Market Slip, where the Loyalists I landed and where coastal schooners and tugs are now moored, and it ends at j King Square, where band concerts are held on summer evenings.

When the tide goes out the vessels in Market Slip are left high and dry and heel over on their sides until the tide I comes back in and refloats them. Half ! the film used in Saint John by cameratoting tourists is devoted to recording this fact pictorially.

No other river of the St. John’s magnitude has such a narrow mouth - 100 yards wide through limestone cliffs 100 feet tall. Every 12 hours Fundy’s tide rises above the level of the river and thunders upstream through the gorge, tingeing the water with salt at Fredericton, 90 miles j distant. Then Fundy’s tide drops j below the river’s level and the St. John roars down through the gorge, white with wrath. This phenomenon is called the Reversing Falls - although Reversing Rapids would be more accurate.

On each ebb and flow of the tide there is a half hour when Fundy and the St. John strain against each other with equal force and are deadlocked. Only then can a ship be navigated from the bay into the river, or the river into the bay.

In Saint John’s long history many people have been drowned in the Reversing Falls, most of them suicides. The bodies are never recovered. Apparently the undertow sucks them down and carries them out to sea. But in 1916, when a playful mental patient escaped from the nearby Provincial Hospital and dried in for a swim,

howling with glee, a whimsical current matched his mood, kept him on the surface, spun him in circles, and tossed him safely back on the shore.

Ugly and elegant, drab and exciting, the city at the estuary of the St. John River is a study in contrasts. Bliss Carman, the poet, liked to wander bareheaded along the water front, his unkempt hair tossing in the breeze. He wrote of Saint John:

All the beauty and mystery Of life were there, adventure bold, Youth, and the glamour of the sea, And all its sorrows old.

For another view you can turn to the reports of Saint John’s own Town Planning Commission, which state bluntly that no other Canadian community of comparable size has a worse slum problem. Or you can peruse the data gathered by the federal census takers in 1941.

In that year—and the situation hasn’t changed much—eight out of every 10 Saint John families lived in flats or apartments. Only Montreal and Verdun had a smaller percentage of self-contained dwellings. Less than a quarter of the families in Saint John owned their homes, and the rest rented. Ninety per cent of all housing was wooden.

Streets of Sagging Tenements

These statistics translate into street after street of sagging tenement buildings. Flat-roofed and dismal they lean against one another for support and are j set flush against the sidewalks. They | lack lawns and gardens and in hundreds of them the tenants share the plumbing facilities.

Many of these warrens should be torn down, hut mass demolition must await the provision of new housing. While 960 units have been built in j Saint John in the last eight years under public programs and hundreds of | others have been put up by private | individuals there is still an acute | housing shortage, because during the war the population took an unusual upward spurt.

Saint Johners refer to the boxshaped tenements of the poorer dis| tricts as “Saint John Gothic" and sadly

joke that a fire would improve the scenery. Ironically, one of the biggest fires in Canadian history was partly responsible for present conditions. It swept Saint John on June 20, 1877.

The Daily Telegraph of June 21 was cranked out on a borrowed hand press —the one press which escaped the flames. A single sheet, headed A DAY OF DEATH AND DISASTER, this issue reported:

“Yesterday was the most calamitous day ever known in the annals of Saint John. Nothing could have burst more suddenly on the unsuspecting citizens than the fire, which destroyed so many valuable lives, wasted property by the millions worth, laid arrest on many and varied forms of industry, and spread not only desolation but terror and consternation all around. The public buildings, the palaces of commerce, the temples of religion, the banks, the palatial residences, the newspapers and telegraph offices, the schoolhouses, almost all the things of which the citizens of Saint John were proud, were all, in a few hours, laid in ruins

The property loss was more than $15 millions—a staggering sum in those days—and the homes of nearly half the inhabitants were destroyed.

Currier and Ives brought out a lurid lithograph of Saint John ablaze. Queen Victoria cabled condolences. And relief poured in by trainload and shipload. Toronto alone raised $70,000 for Saint John and there were generous contributions from Chicago, Boston, New York and other centres.

With thousands of families sheltered in Army tents and winter just five months off housing had to be constructed fast at the least possible cost, because only one third of the loss was covered by insurance and funds were scarce.

There was neither the time nor the money for decent architecture—so “Saint John Gothic” was born. It has survived because the population has grown too slowly to encourage realestate developments, because the rocky and hilly terrain makes self-contained houses expensive, and because, until half-century-old streetcars were replaced with buses a couple of years ago, Saint John’s transportation system was so bad that most people wanted to live within walking distance of their work.

On top of this, Saint Johners are exceptionally fond of camps and cottages and a lot of them seem willing to endure mean surroundings in the winter if they can summer beside a lake, a river or the sea. No matter how small his income is a Saint Johner will pinch and scrape to acquire a spot in the country.

Inside, Mahogany and Silver

Even on the majority of better-class residential streets the houses nudge the sidewalks but they have a midVictorian dignity about them. They are more impressive inside than out. Behind their1 walls you usually find high-ceilinged well-proportioned rooms, brightened by mahogany and silver heirlooms.

The most exclusive district is Mount Pleasant, which originally was bare rock. Rich shipowners chose it for their ¡homes because its elevation let them sweep the harbor with their telescopes as they watched for incoming vessels.

Barks and brigantines and schooners ordinarily sailed from Saint John with full cargoes of lumber, discharged at foreign ports, and loaded stones for ballast on the return voyage. The Mount Pleasant shipowners—and Saint John was then the fourth largest wooden shipowning port in the world —had their captains bring back ballast

of clay and loam. This was hauled up by horse and cart and spread over the bare rock, so now Mount Pleasant has trees and gardens and lawns. Dig there and your spade will turn up a dozen layers of earth from a dozen countries.

The old shipowners are gone but some of the mansions remain, designed by the same men who designed the windships, and constructed of the same materials by the same carpenters, and paneled with mahogany and walnut and oak.

While Saint John has no university it has a certain cultural tradition. For example, its art colony, headed by painters like Jack Humphrey and Miller Brittain, is internationally known although poorly rewarded financially. Humphrey is regarded by many critics as Canada’s best colorist. He and his wife, Jean, who weaves on a handloom, live in a downtown office building in a suite that formerly housed a law firm—two rooms and a vault. The vault is now serving the Humphreys as a pantry.

The New Brunswick Museum—the one founded by old Dr. Gesner—contains the Canadians gathered by the late Dr. J. Clarence Webster, who was chairman of the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board. This collection, worth more than $1 million, includes what is said to be the world’s best assortment of pictures of General Wolfe and papers relating to Quebec’s conqueror.

Beaverbrook Borrowed a Buck

New Brunswick’s Music Festival, held in Saint John each spring, has upward of 2,000 participants, the majority from Saint John itself. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” national anthem of the United States, was written by Francis Scott Key, who was the son of a Loyalist and spent his early childhood in Saint John.

The honorary patron of Saint John’s Theatre Guild is Margaret Anglin. The famed actress and her brother, Frank, late Chief Justice of Canada, were children of a Saint John newspaper editor, Timothy Anglin, who became Speaker of the House of Commons. At 74 Miss Anglin is remembered in her home town as a tomboy who alternated between climbing trees and spouting Shakespeare. Her first performance (admission one cent! was in a barn behind the family residence on Waterloo Street.

Louis B. Mayer, who earns more than $1 million a year as a motion picture tycoon, is remembered in Saint John as a hungry urchin.

Saint Johners remember Walter Pidgeon as a skinny kid with a fine voice, whose knees rattled with fright as he sang “Blow, Blow Thou Wintry Wind” at a patriotic rally in the old Imperial Theatre in 1916.

Lord Beaverbrook, who revisits Saint John each year, now has a tremendous fortune. But Saint Johners remember when he was a $5-a-week cub reporter who occasionally borrowed a dollar to tide him over until payday. He’s so popular in Saint John that members of the sedate Union Club rise and applaud when he drops in for lunch. And he still likes to reminisce about his brief and underpaid reportorial career.

Old and wise Saint John has less racial and religious intolerance than most cities. Jews are not barred from any social circles. A Negro, Joseph Seale, is a prominent fish exporter. Years ago when a lunch wagon proprietor refused to serve a Negro the indignation was so widespread that he lost half his customers.

Protestants outnumber Catholics six to four and official positions are allotted

in roughly that ratio by an unwritten agreement.

Saint John is the sort of town where grocers hand out cookies to the toddlers who go shopping with their mothers, where the fact that Hon. D. L. MacLaren is New Brunswick’s lieutenantgovernor doesn’t stop people from calling him “Larry,” and where the neighbors always arrive with baked hams and potato scallops when there’s a death in a family. In other words it’s friendly.

Its newspapers, the Telegraph - Journal (morning) and the Evening TimesGlobe, are both published by the same company. The Telegraph-Journal brought out a 70th anniversary edition in 1938.

Elderly Saint Johners are fond of compiling lists of “Saint John firsts.” Besides the first foghorn, the first museum, the first board of trade, the first cotton mill, the first biscuit factory they count the first fire insurance company in British North America, established by Munson Jarvis in 1801; the first compound steam engine in the world, invented by Benjamin Tibbetts in 1845; the first postage-stamp album in the world, by Robert Reid in 1853; the first YWCA in Canada, opened in 1870; the first Knights of Pythias Lodge in Canada, established in 1870; the first Boy Scout Apple Day in the World, held in 1931.

They Fish Till They Die

The first hollow midsection hull was designed in Saint John in the 1870’s by David Lynch and racing yachts have been built on this principle ever since. It was in Saint John that old Dr. Gesner started the research which enabled him to patent kerosene oil. Dr. W. Rupert Turnbull, of Saint John, who is still living, invented the controllable pitch airplane propeller now in universal use.

The first long-bladed speed skates were invented by a blacksmith a few miles from Saint John. And the first Canadian to be world speed-skating champion was Charles I. Gorman, of Saint John, who set records in 1927 which are yet to be broken.

All Saint Johners learn to skate soon after they learn to walk, and skate until age stiffens their joints.

They learn to manipulate a fishing rod about the time they discard their teething rings, and fish until they die. (They’re such enthusiastic anglers and hunters that when the Saint John branch of the New Brunswick Fish and Game Protective Association has a meeting it hires the town’s second largest theatre and packs it to the doors. )

An amazing number of Saint Johners learn to handle boats. The broad reaches of the St. John above the Reversing Falls, and its biggest tributary, the Kennebecasis, give them plenty of scope for yachting and from May to October the blue rivers are dotted with white sails.

Because Robert Foulis developed his foghorn at Saint John people all over the world concluded that Saint John must be constantly blanketed with fog. They dubbed the place the “Foggy City.” Actually it has less fog than most seaports. In the winter months it often has more hours of sunshine than any other spot in Canada where records are kept by the Dominion Meteorological Service. Its summer sunshine rating compares favorably with inland points. Because of the surrounding salt water, which never freezes, the climate is mild in winter, cool in summer.

When July and August heat waves blister most of North America visitors flock to Saint John, where the tempera-

ture rarely noses above 70 degrees and you can always sleep with a blanket over you at night.

Samuel de Champlain, of Brouage, France, is the first tourist of whom Saint John has an authentic record. He arrived on June 24, 1604, but other Europeans must have preceded him because Choudun, the Micmac chief who greeted Champlain, could speak a few words of French, which he had apparently picked up from French fishermen.

Champlain named the river the St. John, because it was St. John the Baptist’s Day. The city is named after the river.

An Arnold Opened a Store

Saint John’s name is at times a source of confusion and annoyance. Several million Canadians and many more millions in the United States seem incapable of distinguishing Saint John, N.B., from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and St. Johns. Quebec. A good deal of mail is consequently misdirected.

A couple of years ago the Saint John Board of Trade, in a rash moment, proposed that Saint John change its name. Loud howls of protest promptly arose on all sides from proud and angry citizens.

The first English settlers at Saint John were James Simonds, William Hazen and James White, hard-trading New Englanders who built a post in 1764 and dealt in fish, furs, timber and limestone. The Hazens still in Saint John are descendants of William.

By the close of the American Revolution most United Empire Loyalists had fled to New York. The British decided to send them to Saint John. The first fleet of 20 transports, bearing 3,000 refugees, reached Saint John May 11, 1783. Before the snow flew another 7,000 Loyalists were disembarked.

Hundreds died in the winter of 1783-84 and the work of chopping trees and building homes was interrupted by daily funeral processions. But by the spring of 1784 there were 276 wooden houses and stores. By the winter of 1784-85 there was a tavern -the Exchange Coffee House —and an inn, the Mallard House.

Benedict Arnold, who had been one of George Washington’s trusted generals but had tried to betray him to the British, expected to be received with open arms when he came to Saint John and opened a general store. But the Loyalists couldn’t tolerate a traitor. They refused to drink with him at the Exchange Coffee House, burned his effigy in the street, drove him from town with their scorn and ridicule.

The end of the revolution also brought to Saint John Colonel Edmund Fanning, who had led 1,000 guerrilla fighters. He was despised as a sadistic butcher who boasted of the number of victims he had killed.

Just 76 Days to Aussie

In the Exchange Coffee House a huge blacksmith insulted the bantam cock of a colonel. Fanning challenged the blacksmith to a duel. The blacksmith chose broad-bladed axes and picked as the site a frozen cove on the Kennebecasis River. People expected thut the towering smithy would finish Fanning with one swipe. Instead the fast tough little man chopped off the blacksmith’s toes and left him bleeding and blubbering on the ice.

Since the duel hadn’t rid Saint John of Fanning the citizens decided on another method. They trumped up a fais«charge that he had raped a Negro girl. An obliging judge convicted him

and sentenced him to death, but suspended the sentence when Fanning agreed to depart forever from New Brunswick.

In 1833 the Loyalists celebrated the 50th anniversary of their landing. Saint John then had theatres, newspapers, sawmills, grist mills, shipyards, brickyards, foundries, hotels. Stagecoach roads had been run up the St. John River Valley in one direction, and to Nova Scotia in the other. There was a substantial trade with Great Britain, the West Indies, and the United States.

The forests poured over its wharves as lumber, its shipyards were busy day and night, its windjammers plowed the Seven Seas, steamboats puffed up and down the St. John River, and everything which Saint Johners touched seemed to turn to gold. Saint John was sure it would be one of the great cities of the world.

In 1850 the keel of the 184-foot Marco Polo was laid at Saint John, in Marsh Creek. Although she was designed for freight James Baines, of the Black Ball Line of Australian Packets, bought her and converted her for the passenger trade.

Under James Nicol Forbes, a resolute Scotsman, the Marco Polo carried 930 passengers from Liverpool to Melbourne in 76 days. She returned to Liverpool via the Horn also in 76 days. Shipping circles were astounded by a passage never before equaled. Saint John’s shipbuilders were swamped with orders for ships and more ships like the Marco Polo.

By 1867—the year of Confederation —Saint John was a highly diversified industrial centre; her products ranged from teapots to pianos to railway trains. It had a rink, the Victoria, which was one of the wonders of the period, and the biggest and most luxurious hotel in Canada.

Then came the slump. Bravely Saint John rose again after the fire of 1877, but it was never the same. By 1895 the shipyards were silent, or nearly so, many of the factories had

folded up under the strain of central Canadian competition, and unemployed walked the streets.

In the months when the St. Lawrence was closed by ice most of Canada’s imports and exports were moving through Portland, Me., or Boston, and the Canadian Government was subsidizing steamship lines which carried Canadian mail from those U. S. ports. Saint Johners dug into their civic treasury to create port facilities for ocean liners and its M.Ps won a fight to have a federal subsidy paid to a steamship company that was willing to take mail from Saint John rather than from Portland or Boston.

Historic and Happy-Go-Lucky

Eventually other lines—among them the Canadian Pacific Steamships— plied to and from Saint John. Deepwater piers were stretched along the water front, grain elevators, cargo sheds and the dry dock erected, and Saint John emerged as one of Canada’s chief cargo ports.

Today Saint John is reasonably well off. It may be shabby and dilapidated in spots, it has difficult problems, some of its people are now unemployed, and it has not succeeded as yet in attracting many new industrial plants. But it has shaken off an attitude of defeatism which prevailed for years and you can notice a new spirit, a new courage. The upsurge of population which began with World War II is continuing, there are major plans for slum clearance, and there is more new construction in progress than there has been since 1877. Perhaps, after all, Saint John will achieve a great destiny.

For now, though it is neither very big nor very rich, it is pleasant, comfortable, friendly, hospitable, historic, romantic, colorful, leisurely and happygo-lucky. Yes, and it has its own kind of beauty and dignity. It has grown old gracefully without losing the sparkle of youth. ★