Articles

North America's Oldest Boomtown

IAN SCLANDERS June 1 1952
Articles

North America's Oldest Boomtown

IAN SCLANDERS June 1 1952

North America's Oldest Boomtown

St. John’s, Newfoundland, was a thriving port when New York City was a swamp. Today, after being burned three times, sacked by pirates, sabotaged by England and split by Confederation, it’s more prosperous than ever

IAN SCLANDERS

ST. JOHN'S. Newfoundland. a salts community with a weather-beaten but attractive face, a warm heart and a population of sixty-eight thousand, clings to the rocky rim of a snug harbor and looks out over the ocean. It’s a seaport, a defense base, the capital of Canada’s tenth province and North America’s oldest and most easterly city.

So far out in the Atlantic that ships pass it when they are two fifths of the way from New York to Liverpool, it’s a blend of the new world and the old but has a personality as distinctive as the flavor of its famous delicacy, seal-flipper pie. It speaks with a pleasant and inimitable accent, has the bluff good nature of a sailor, and relishes jokes like that of the resident who once advertised for a carpenter to shingle cows, to keep rain from diluting the milk.

It’s where the cornerstone of Britain’s overseas empire was laid, where the first trans-Atlantic wireleas signal was received and where the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight started, but its favorite stories are of such leaser events as a boat race and a fencing bee.

The race was won by eight mighty fishermen. They lived at Placentia and packed their heavy dory ninety miles to St. John’s on their shoulders so they could compete. After their victory they lugged it back to Placentia.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral at St. .John’s, which seats six thousand, is a reminder of the fencing bee. When Bishop Anthony Fleming decided to build it, more than a century ago, all the unoccupied land was owned by the crown and

colonial authorities refused his request for a grant of nine acres. Fleming crossed to England by sailing vessel a dozen times to plead with them. He was finally told, with a laugh, that he could have the area he wanted if he could fence it to a height of six feet in a single hour. Whitehall officials believed they had assigned him an impossible task. But, on the date fixed for the fencing, everybody in St. John’s—Protestants and Catholics alike turned out to help the bishop. The nine acres were enclosed according to specifications in twenty minutes. The governor was there with his watch, witnessing the proceedings.

“These Newfoundlanders,” he muttered with grudging admiration. “In a full hour, they could have fenced the whole damn city!”

Modest about most things, St. John’s does a bit of boasting about its age, which can’t be matched elsewhere in Canada or the United States. Its tourist literature announces casually that St. John’s was an international port when New York was still a swamp. And any of its school children can tell you that Squantum, the Indian who greeted the Pilgrim Fathers in English when they reached Plymouth Rock, learned the language at far older St. John’s.

They can also tell you that it was on June 24, 1497 just five years after the epic voyage of Christopher Columbus —that John Cabot, an Italian navigator with a commission from Henry VII, discovered Newfoundland.

When Cabot returned to England, where King Henry paid a reward of ten pounds to “hym that

found the new isle,” he spread tales of fishing banks where the cod were so plentiful that they could be caught “with a basket.” Adventurous fishermen, stirred by his reports, flocked to Newfoundland in 1498. Cabot hadn’t exaggerated, and their harvest was tremendous.

As a rendezvous they used a fine sheltered harbor and they named it St. John’s because Cabot had sighted Newfoundland on St. John’s Day. Soon merchants had stores there, the English and Irish colonists established homes and gardens, and for decades St. John’s was the chief seaport in North America. In 1583 when Queen Elizabeth sent Sir Humphrey Gilbert to reaffirm England’s claim to Newfoundland the first British colony St. John’s was already a (own. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch fishermen called there for fresh food and drinking water, and strolled the winding paths and exchanged news in the grog shops in a babel of tongues.

In this ancient place, which has been sacked by pirates, destroyed by French raiders, ravaged by flames, the leading hotel and the central fire hall both stand on the ruins of forts.

A third fort, on a hill where the French were defeated in 1762 in their last major battle against the English on this continent, is now a green park. In this park, in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi picked up the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal three dots, the letter S, flashed from Cornwall by his associate Poldhu. And not far from this spot is the field from which Alcock and Brown winged into the sky in

1919, in a biplane that looked like a kite, to make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic.

Under the streets of St. John’s are vaults used for three centuries for maturing Portugal’s best wine, and the remains of a tunnel soldiers dug in early days so they would have an escape route.

History has left its mark on the rooftops, too. They bristle with oddly flamboyant clay chimney pots, which the houses wear jauntily, like decorations. And people remember that it was once illegal to have a chimney in Newfoundland. That was during the long night of oppression instigated by greedy West of England merchants in 1633. The merchants, who had a monopoly on the fish trade, feared competition from Newfoundland rivals. They persuaded Britain to regard the island as a “great ship moored near the (Grand) Banks for the convenience of English fishermen” and to persecute

the colonists, probably numbering two thousand for the entire island. The law against chimneys was intended to freeze settlers out. Those who risked their necks by breaking it shared their hearth with others and a chimney pot, in St. John’s, became a badge of courage and a symbol of hospitality.

Britain’s incredible attempt to depopulate Newfoundland failed, but the residents suffered while it lasted. Besides being deprived of the right to heat their homes, they were forbidden to cultivate land. And St. John’s was the seat of a fantastic and tyrannical form of government—rule by “fishing admirals.”

Each spring the captain of the first fishing vessel from England to drop anchor at St. John’s proclaimed himself “admiral” for that season. The skipper of the second was “vice-admiral,” and that of the third was “rear admiral.” Ignorant, often

brutal, these men acted as administrators and judges and were empowered by Whitehall to confiscate property, impose fines and order floggings and hangings. Not until the early 1800s was Newfoundland put on the same basis as other colonies and given a full-time governor.

Meanwhile, the early settlers had scattered to remote coves to escape mistreatment. That’s one reason why the tenth province, with a total population of only three hundred and sixty thousand, now has more than thirteen hundred small communities strung along six thousand miles of coast. Many of these “outports,” as they are called, are so old and isolated that they have preserved an Elizabethan dialect which strikes the modern ear with an unfamiliar ring and which includes forgotten words like fardlea bundle of kindling wood.

As capital and trading Continued on page 24

The Oldest Boomtown

Continued from page 19

cente of the outports St. John’s reflects their character. It has, of course, the polish and dignity which befit its age and prestige, but behind its stone façades and pillared porticoes it’s as naïve and neighborly as a fishing village. ,

For example, when Mrs. Rupert Jackson, wife of a St. John’s journalist, had twins, the birth notice in the Evening Telegram stated that the mother and infants were doing well but that the father would “need a week or so to recuperate.” The town chuckled, the doctor and the hospital reduced their bills, gifts poured in to the Jackson bungalow.

The outports love individuals who are amiably eccentric. So does St. John’s. The biggest funeral in its four and a half centuries was for “Professor” Charles Danielle, who was the owner of Octagon Castle, an eight-sided inn on Topsail Road. Danielle, who was the man who advertised for a carpenter to shingle cows, fashioned his own coffin with eight thousand seashells and slept in it for years before he died.

Like the outports St. John’s enjoys singing the praises of its minor celebrities. It claims, among others, the most prodigious toiler in Canada, Dennis Neville; the youngest locomotive engineer, Archie Courage; and the cop with the hardest punch, Frank Stamp.

Neville, now sixty-six but spry as a hoy, once dug fifty-six tons of ore in a day at the iron mines on Bell Island,, near St. John’s. Nobody has since approached that record. For years, from spring to fall, he labored ten hours a day repairing roads and seven hours a day in his vegetable garden.

Courage, now twenty-seven, was a full-fledged engineer on a passenger train at twenty-two. Moses Courage, his father, was an engineer before him and was killed in a wreck caused by a washout. Archie Courage has four brothers who are railroaders like himself.

St. John’s policemen are said to be North America’s tallest and from the rank of sergeant up they swing walking sticks with a dashing air. Stamp, the one member of the force who doesn’t top six feet, has other qualifications. When he had to deal with a gigantic Norwegian seaman who was hell-bent for a fight the Norwegian woke up in a cell. In court he was asked by the magistrate if he knew what hit him. “It felt,” he replied rubbing his jaw, “like a pile driver.” “Well,” said the magistrate, “it wasn’t a pile driver, but it was Frank Stamp, the heavyweight boxing champion of Newfoundland, so 1 guess you’ve been punished enough. Case dismissed.”

The outports have a poetic streak which finds expression in folk songs and in such wonderful place names as Heart’s Desire, Happy Adventure, Heart’s Content, Sweet Bay and Come By Chance. St. John’s, where solemn businessmen are rumored to bellow sea chanteys in their bathtubs, has a recognized circle of serious poets like Michael Harrington, who has had two volumes of his work published.

Although the people of the outports and those of St. John’s are alike in lots of ways they disagree in politics. The outports are enthusiastic about Confederation and favor the Liberals, but St. John’s grumbles about the union with Canada, blames it on the Liberals and consequently leans toward the Progressive Conservatives.

Its feelings were probably summed up by a pretty girl with an Irish brogue who is on the staff of the city’s principal

hotel, the Newfoundland. A salesman from the mainland, who entered the lobby drenched to the skin by a galedriven rain, informed her that “they ought to give this country back to the Indians.”

“My country,” she snapped, “was given back to the Indians on March 31, 1949.” That was the date on which Newfoundland joined Canada.

Ottawa’s taxes, since then, have jacked up the prices of scores of items, especially cigarettes and liquor. St. John’s resents this. It resents the federal regulation which has reduced the strength of “screech”—the Newfoundland word for rum -and members of the City Council thought out loud that it might be fair to charge the Newfoundland Liquor Control Board a dollar a quart for water, in view of the profit that hody was reaping by adding water to screech.

St. John’s also resents the fact that Canadian tariffs have eliminated from the stores goods previously imported from the United States. You can hear women complain that “it’s impossible to buy smart clothes anymore.” Then, too, Canada’s high income taxes have walloped the rich in St. John’s, where Newfoundland’s wealth is concentrated. And St. John’s, accustomed to being a national capital, the centre of its own little world, isn’t too pleased about being one of ten provincial capitals.

The Blessing of Pepperrell

Yet it has never been more prosperous than in the last three years. Its wages, once notoriously low, are rapidly approaching mainland levels. Family allowances and old-age pensions are making life easier for thousands of its people. It is growing, ridding itself of slums, developing new residential areas, improving schools and hospitals. Its shops, theatres and taverns are constantly crowded.

But, as anti-Confederationists point out, muchof its free-flowing money stems from U. S. military expenditures. St. John’s is one of the most vital spots on the global defense map. In the southeastern corner of Newfoundland, twelve hundred miles from New York and eighteen hundred miles from Liverpool, it straddles air and sea routes between the great cities of North America and Europe, and has a harbor that’s open the year round.

Fort Pepperrell, at St. John’s, is headquarters of the United States Northeast Command, which has jurisdiction over air and naval bases in Labrador, Newfoundland and Greenland and directs the operations of planes and ships that patrol an area larger than the area of the United States. Pepperrell, less than two miles from downtown St. John’s, sprawls over hundreds of acres and has huge office buildings, warehouses, long rows of dwellings, its own power plant, a radio station, a hospital and even a dairy. The dairy’s cattle were flown from New Brunswick to Newfoundland.

In 1951 Pepperrell employed eleven hundred civilians, mostly natives, and paid them two million dollars. Military personnel stationed there spent about a million dollars in St. John’s. This year’s civilian payroll may exceed three million dollars. While Pepperrell has been an economic blessing, it has brought such an influx of outsiders that St. John’s is up against an acute housing shortage and rents are skyrocketing.

Pepperrell’s young men in uniform and residents of St. John’s get on fine together. The Americans, who have it dinned into them by their top brass that one of their duties is to maintain Continued on page 26

Continued from page 24 j friendly relations on foreign soil, go out of their way to be nice. At Christmas they taxi Santa Claus to St. John’s by helicopter; in summer they have a picnic for the orphans; throughout the year their rescue squadron locates lost fishing vessels and provides an air ambulance for emergencies.

Even without the lectures and pamphlets on friendly relations they would do these things because, like other visitors, they find St. John’s a captivating surprise. They go there expecting a grim poverty-stricken place with Eskimos and the sort of climate none but an Eskimo could endure. They find, instead, a gay city that is tolerably well off, hasn’t a single Eskimo—which is slightly disappointing and has a climate that is pleasantly cool in summer and much milder t han that of most mainland centres in winter.

The Yanks are teaching the younger generation American slang hut they themselves unconsciously adopt the St. John’s accent a mixture of Devon, Dublin and Dundee — and borrow localisms like “ta, mate,” meaning good-by. In beverage rooms they drop nickels in II.S. juke boxes, then play darts, the venerable game of England’s pubs, to a jive accompaniment.

Newcomers acquire sore legs from their first enthusiastic burst of sightseeing, because St. John’s has Canada’s hübest streets a fact proved by the ! courthouse, which is perched on a typical slope and is seven floors high on one side and three floors high on the other.

They discover that the objects on corners resembling overgrown fire hydrants are mail boxes; that the Arctic steak in the windows of butcher shops is whale meat; that seal-flipper pie isn’t a tall tale but a real delicacy; and that residents of St. John’s are so courteous that they will often lift their hats and nod when passing complete strangers.

Any Cook’s Tour of St. John’s in-

cludes Government House, the Colonial Building, Canada House and Bowring Park.

Government House, built in 1828 at a cost of twenty-five thousand pounds, is set in spacious lawns and originally had a moat surrounding it. Judge Prowse, Newfoundland’s famed historian, termed it “an unredeemed pile of ugliness,” but to most eyes it’s as charming a piece of Tudor architecture as there is in this country. Its present occupant, Lieutenant - Governor Sir Leonard Outerbridge, was born in the U. S. of Newfoundland parents and educated in England before settling down to a business career in the land of his forebears.

Joe Plays Dorothy Dix

The Colonial Building, with six massive columns supporting the coat of arms over its entrance, was erected in 1849 with stone imported from Ireland and now webbed with cracks. When Newfoundland was a selfgoverning dominion the parliament met there. When Newfoundland tumbled into such financial difficulties in 1933 that it had to revert to the status of a colony, the commissioners appointed to govern deliberated there. And, since 1949, Newfoundland’s provincial legislature has assembled there. The cracks in the stone walls, so the story in St. John’s goes, were caused by the excessive heat of Newfoundland’s politics.

Canada House, once the residence of Canada’s high commissioner to Newfoundland. is now the office and home of Premier Joseph R. Smallwood, the man primarily responsible for leading Newfoundland into Confederation. Brisk and thin, a former journalist and radio commentator, he works at his desk all day with boundless energy while his secretaries keep callers at bay. But he devotes his evenings, when his staff has departed, to meeting anybody who wants to see him. His front door is never locked after dark and people even

bring Joe their matrimonial problems.

Bowring Park, with its lake, picnic grounds and gardens, has a life-sized bronze statue of a caribou, Newfoundland’s emblem. Framed by evergreens and mounted on rocks, this is a memorial to six hundred men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who died in France on July 1, 1916. The park itself was given to the city by Bowrings, a mercantile concern which is a Newfoundland institution.

Bowrings, which owns the biggest department store in St. John’s, was founded in 1811 by Benjamin Bowring, a clockmaker from England. While he dealt in timepieces Charlotte, his wife, branched into dry goods. Merchandise was exchanged for fish, the fish was exported, and the business grew until Bowrings had trawlers on the Grand Banks, sealers in the ice floes, whaling stations in the Arctic, plantations in the tropics. When Newfoundland’s banks failed during a financial panic in 1894 Bowrings printed private currency which served temporarily as Newfoundland’s money. Direct descendants of Ben jamin and Charlotte Bowring still direct the firm’s activities, and the family, which has produced a baronet and three knights, is reputed to have accumulated more than fifty million dollars.

Bowrings long had a virtual monopoly on Newfoundland’s seal trade. One of its sealing skippers, the late Abraham Kean, accounted for more than a million seals and claimed fo be the greatest animal killer in history. Another, Azariah Munden, was celebrated because he paced his bloody deck wearing a dress suit and beaver hat.

Bowrings is the best-known company in St. John’s, but not the oldest. Job Brothers (fish and fishing supplies) dates from 1777. Baine, Johnston, which looks after the port wine sent from Portugal to be matured, dates from 1780. Since Elizabethan days wine connoisseurs have been convinced Continued on page 29

Continued from page 26 that the climate of St. John’s works magcc on port aged there.

Basically, St. John’s is a mercantile city. It revolves around Water Street where Bowrings, Job Brothers, Baine, Johnston and others have warehouses and stores beside their wharves. But it also has dozens of small factories turning »út goods for Newfoundland consumption. The merchandise from St. John’s is carried to the hundreds of outsorts by coastal vessels, many of them schooners. Missionaries and hairdressers often cruise on these vessels, to call at one village after another. At some out ports, when a hairdresser arrives, men as well as v/ornen get their hair waved. The fishermen, like their Elizabethan ancestors, can see no reason why males shouldn’t have their locks curled.

St. John’s, for all its great age and in spite of its forest of chimney pots, has a reasonably modern look and fewer bad slums than the average seaport. One reason for this is that it was swept by fire jn 1816, in 1846 and again in 1892. The fire of 1892, the “Great Fire,”

swept away twenty million dollars’ worth of property and more than two thirds of the city had to be rebuilt. After that, the Newfoundland government stepped in and established a permanent fire department.

The St. John’s firemen are provincial employees, not civic. So are the policemen. Nor does the city control the schools, which are financed by the province and run by the churches. Each major denomination has its schools and the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, United Church and Salvation Army have junior colleges.

Because the Newfoundland government provides services for which municipalities are responsible on the mainland, cit> taxes are low and the duties of the mayor—Harry Mews, an insurance man—and the councilors are lighter than would otherwise he the case. But Mews and his colleagues are now in the midst of a housing program, striving to create dwellings for a rapidly increasing population and to hold rents within reason. They realize that in a town where food costs are high—milk is more than thirty cents a quart— there’s a limit to the rent people can pay, even when things are booming. And everything is booming in St. John’s, including culture.

Memorial University College, Newfoundland’s one nondenominational college, is being raised to degree-giving status. The Department of Education is offering cash prizes for art, music,

poetry, plays, historical essays and radio scripts with a Newfoundland theme. Two young painters, Reginald Sheppard and Helen Parsons, have successfully launched an Academy of Art. The Atlantic Guardian, a monthly magazine which publishes articles about Newfoundland by Newfoundlanders, is flourishing.

The columns of the St. John’s daily newspapers, the Telegram and the News, and of its weekly newspaper, the Sunday Herald, show a lively interest in Newfoundland arts and letters. So do the programs of its radio stations, CBN, VOCM and CJON.

And Newfoundland’s capital, so rich in history, is getting a place to display it; a museum eliminated in the 1930s as an economy move is being reestablished. L. E. F. English, a scholar with an inquiring mind and a photographic memory, who is the provincial archivist, is preparing the exhibits.

English has dug up evidence that Newfoundland’s first tourists were Norsemen, in 1001. He knows that the yellow bricks in the chimneys of the houses at Ferryland, forty miles from St. John’s, were salvaged from Lord Baltimore’s castle, and that Baltimore lived at Ferryland from 1622 until he went south in 1627 to found the commonwealth of Maryland. He knows that Newfoundland dogs, huge, black and gentle, trace their ancestry from St. Bernards and French Shepherds brought to St. John’s in the 1600s by fishermen; that one of these dogs rescued the passengers and crew of a sinking steamship by swimming out and towing a lifeline ashore in a violent storm; that they’ve been pictured on postage stamps, like kings, queens and statesmen; and that the greatest breeder of them in the world is Harold Macpherson, a St. John’s merchant.

English knows the story of the Beothuck Indians, Newfoundland’s extinct tribe, who were terrible thieves but would never rob a house with a cross on the door, although they weren’t Christians. He knows that outside the harbor of St. John’s, a giant squid once wrapped thirty-foot tentacles around a fishing dory and that the fishermen escaped by chopping the tentacles off with an ax.

He knows that Newfoundland’s moose, now abundant, all stem from two pairs introduced from New’ Brunswick in 1904, and that Newfoundland’s frogs were also introduced from the mainland; and that Newfoundland has no snakes, no skunks, no deer, but lots of caribou. He has collected Newfoundland’s folklore, listed its odd words and quaint phrases, and ascertained that there are forty-pound Loch Leven trout in the lake from which St. John’s draws its exceptionally pure water, which doesn’t have to be chlorinated.

He has gathered information about the first Atlantic cable, the western end of which was landed at Trinity Bay, north of St. John’s, in 1858 and which broke after Queen Victoria had sent the president of the United States this message: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will.” He has also rounded up such data as what minerals have been found where in Newfoundland’s fortythree thousand square miles and Labrador’s one hundred and ten thousand square miles.

He doesn’t see how he can cram all this and much more into one museum but he’s trying.

“We have,” he says mildly, “quite a lot of things to show people, quite a lot of things to tell them about, here in this ancient capital of this new province. Some of the mainlanders who visit us are surprised.”

They certainly are. iç