New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Saint John, N.B., in the Early 1840s

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From the blog at

James Buckingham was an Englishman who travelled the world, notably in India, where he became controversial as a writer. He had the unwelcome habit of speaking his mind even when his thoughts dismayed colonial authorities. His writings were eventually recognized as important enough to justify a Civil List pension, however.

This description of Saint John is from Buckingham’s book “Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Other Provinces of British North America…,” published in Paris in 1843. It is a travel book, and I did not expect it to be very in-depth. Indeed, his review of the earlier history of the area does not reveal much new information to a native of the place. The description of the City as it existed in 1843 is better than most, however, and I recommend it.

 Market Slip

Market Slip, Saint John, in about 1863

(From the N.B. Museum, via the McCord Museum)


Saint John, N.B., in the Early 1840s

The City of St. John exhibits more of the American rapidity of growth, than any of the settlements of the British provinces. Fifty years ago, the spot on which it stands was a wilderness, without a single habitation, save the wigwam of the native Indian. Now it is an incorporated City, containing a population of at least 30,000 souls, with a number of large ships belonging to the port, and merchants of considerable opulence, most of whom commenced with no other capital than industry and credit, and many of them began business but a few years since.

Previous to the year 1763, the whole of the territory now called New Brunswick, was considered by the French to be comprehended within the domain of New France; and, with what is now called Nova Scotia, was by then named Acadia. They had then a fort at the mouth of the St. John River, and some fur-trading ports in the interior. At the cession of the Canadas, by the peace with France of 1768, this territory was still claimed by the French, as Acadia, and counterclaimed by the British, as part of Nova Scotia. About this period a little colony from New England settled at a place called Maugerville, about fifty miles above the mouth of the St. John, where they continued to increase till the peace with the United States in 1783, when they numbered nearly a thousand souls; but still there was only a small fur-trading post of the English at the entrance to the river itself.

The cessation of the war with the United States occasioning a great number of sailors and soldiers to be discharged from the public service, in this quarter, large bodies of each were sent here, and settled at Fredericton, higher up the river, about ninety miles from its mouth. It was not until 1786, however, that any town was begun at the entrance of the river; but from that period to this, the city of St. John, and the suburbs of Carleton and Portland, have been gradually attaining to their present size and number of inhabitants.

The situation of St. John is on a rocky promontory and hill on the left of the river, as you look out toward the sea, and on the right of the harbour as you enter. It is so steep in many places, that not withstanding the cutting down of the rock to ease the ascent, it is still a toilsome labour to perambulate it for any length of time. The plan of the town, however, is regular, and the streets are laid out at right angles; the breadth of the principal one, King Street, being 100 feet, and few of the others less than 50 or 60. There is a large open square on the top of the hill, around which are terraces of houses, and no part of the City seems to want space for ventilation.

On the opposite bank of the river, at its entrance, is the little town of Carleton; and on the same side as St. John, are the suburbs of Portland and Indian-Town, the houses of these being almost continuous. Between Carleton and St. John is the inner harbour, and farther out is the anchoring ground for ships ready for sea. The rise and fall of tide here being from 18 to 24 feet, much of the ground is left dry at low water, and it is only at high water that ships of large size can enter or depart. At the entrance of the harbour is a small island, called Partridge Island, on which there is a signal-post, a lighthouse, and a large bell which is rung to warn ships entering in time of fog. The harbour being comparatively open to the sea, is not rendered inaccessible by ice at any time of the year, so that its commerce is uninterrupted.

The river St. John cannot be entered by ships at all, nor even by boats, except at the top of high water; as, just at its mouth, there is such a sudden declivity in its bed, that the stream rushes with immense rapidity over it; there are therefore strong rapids rather than falls, rushing outward with the ebb, and inward with the flood, and the entrance is smooth only at the top of high water. To voyage on the river, therefore, it is necessary to go about a mile from the town above these rapids by land, and there embark in the steamer or other boats to ascend the stream.

The public buildings of St. John include an excellent Court House, facing King Square on the hill, which has a fine architectural front, and an admirably disposed interior, with a Council Chamber, and other necessary offices. At the foot of King Street, is a new Market-house, just finished, with lofty and spacious Halls above, for public meetings. A new Custom House is constructing, with a front of 200 feet, intended, it is said by some, to resemble the facade of the late Carlton House in London, though others give it a front of less pretensions. There are two new Banks also in the street nearest the harbour, which present fine specimens of architectural taste, and are among the principal ornaments of the City.

Of Churches there are fourteen, including two Episcopalian in St. John, and two others in Portland and Carleton; three Presbyterian, three Methodist, two Roman Catholic, one Baptist, and one Independent. As buildings, the Roman Catholic and the Episcopalian are the largest and best; of congregations, the Methodist and the Roman Catholic are the most numerous, and the Episcopalians the most wealthy; but all the churches are well attended, and the different denominations of Christians are said to agree remarkably well with each other.

There are two good hotels, and several smaller ones; the principal of these is the St. John Hotel, at which we lived during our stay here, and nothing could exceed the civility and attention of the proprietors, so that we found ourselves most agreeably situated in this respect. There is a public Theatre, small in size, and but poorly sustained; for here, as elsewhere, theatrical entertainments are on the decline. A fine large Mechanics Institute is building, but not yet completed, and the Society for which it is erecting, receives the cordial support of the principal inhabitants of the town.

Nearly all the new buildings are constructed of brick or stone, instead of wood, and the handsomest of the public edifices are built of a fine grey granite, found in abundance on the banks of the river St. John.

At the extremity of the promontory on which the City stands, extensive ranges of barracks have been recently erected for the military here, and these form a very prominent object in the picture, as you enter the harbour from the sea.

There are two Public Schools, one called the Grammar School, for the higher branches of education and the other, called the Madras Central School, where the Lancasterian mode of teaching is adopted, for the instruction of children in the elements of knowledge only. Each of the congregations has also a Sunday School attached to it, for the gratuitous teaching of the children of the poor.

Among the associations, there are several for the promotion of literature, humanity, and religion; including a Literary Society, a Bible, a Missionary, and a Tract Society, an Orphan and a Female Benevolent Association, a Temperance Society, and several Patriotic and Mutual Relief Associations, under the names of St. George’s, St. Patrick’s, St. Andrew’s, the Albion, the Sons of Erin, and the British American Societies; a Vaccine Establishment, a Marine Hospital, and a Board for the assistance of Emigrants.

The municipal government of the City consists of a mayor, recorder, and six aldermen, with an equal number of assistant aldermen, under the title of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty of the City of St. John. The mayor is a member of the Legislative Council of the Province, and repairs to the seat of government at Fredericton when the Legislature is in session. He is nominated to his office by the Governor, but the aldermen and their assistants are elected annually by the six wards into which the City and Suburbs are divided, and of which, therefore, they are the representatives. There are besides these, a Sheriff, a Coroner, a Common Clerk, a Chamberlain, a High Constable, six inferior Constables, and two Marshals. All these are paid out of the City revenues, which do not at present exceed 5,000l a year, so that there is, as yet at least, no large surplus fund for public improvements; but as the City possesses property which must greatly increase in value with the augmentation of population and commerce, its revenue will, no doubt, before long, be such as to enable it to accomplish many important public objects.

This City, like most others in America, has suffered, at different times, severely by fires. One of these, which occurred in 1837, destroyed about 120 houses and stores, in the business-part of the City, and occasioned a loss of 250,000l. A yet more recent fire, in the last year, 1839, occurring in another part of the City, destroyed property to even a still greater amount. The burnt districts, however, are fast losing all traces of this calamity, by the erection of new and more substantial edifices, in the place of those destroyed; but the loss to the inhabitants, by these two quickly succeeding conflagrations, has been such as it will take them some time to recover.

The principal business of St. John is shipbuilding, which is carried on to a great extent. The timber used for the purpose is chiefly pine or fir, with the occasional use of hackmatack and cedar, all of which are abundantly and cheaply procured from the forests of the surrounding country; but the size of the trees is not sufficient to admit of the building of ships of large scantling. The average burden of vessels constructed here ranges between 300 and 500 tons; though within the last year, two fine ships, of 1,000 tons burden each, have been launched, and are now fitting for sea. In the year 1836, there were built here 81 ships, measuring about 25,000 tons, being more than one-fifth of the number of vessels and tonnage built in the whole of the United States during the same year. There were then belonging to the port of St. John 410 vessels, measuring 69,766 tons, navigated by 2,879 men; while the total number of vessels entered at this port and its outbays, in 1836, amounted to 2,549 vessels, measuring 289,127 tons, and navigated by 13,685 men. The ships built here, do not cost more than 8l per ton, including masts and rigging; while at Quebec, the rate varies from 10l. to 12l, and in London from 15l. to 20l. In appearance, the New Brunswick ships are of fine models, and all the workmanship on them appears to be well executed; they maintain their rank as first-class vessels, from five to seven years, and with occasional repairs will last from twelve to fifteen years. Taking, therefore, cheapness, strength, and durability combined, they appear to be peculiarly eligible for general trading purposes; and in the competition which the English mercantile marine must necessarily encounter from other nations, it is likely that the cheaper vessels of New Brunswick will be in increasing demand.

The commerce of St. John embraces transactions with Europe, Africa, and America; and as its harbour is never closed by ice, there is no interruption to its trade throughout the year. The export of timber, in the various forms of squared logs, sawed plank, and lumber, forms the chief article; and next to this, the fisheries yield their supply. In this must be included the produce of the Southern Whale Fishery, in which several of the larger ships of St. John are engaged. In the last three years, an average of about 150,000 gallons of sperm and whale oil have been exported; while the home-fisheries of the Bay of Fundy furnish cod, hake, pollock, haddock, in large quantities, and seals are also taken on the shores and islands, for their skins and oil. The imports embrace all the varied articles required for the consumption of the Province, or for re-exportation where no other articles can be obtained in exchange for the cargoes sent out. The amount of imports for the year 1837, was 1,185,000l; and of exports, 555,709l sterling. The rapid progress of the Colony may be judged of, by the fact, that in 1786, the largest vessel built at St. John, was only 100 tons; the trade from hence to Bermuda and the West Indies being carried on in vessels of from 30 to 50 tons burden.

A singular custom prevails here, with respect to the privilege of fishing in certain localities. The coast within the jurisdiction of the City is parcelled out into lots, of varying degrees of eligibility, commencing with No. 1, and declining in value to No. 100 and upwards. A sort of lottery is formed of these numbers every year, and in the month of January, the freemen and widows of freemen of the City are entitled to draw in this lottery for the fishing berths thus numbered. The person who draws No. 1, makes his first choice, and so on in succession and as the numbers are often drawn by; persons not actually engaged in the fishery the privilege is sold to fishermen, at various prices, from 50l, the usual value of the first choice, downward to 1l, the value of the last, within 100; but above this number the lots have no saleable value.

Of the suburbs of St. John, Portland appears to be the largest. This is indeed contiguous to St. John itself, and is the principal quarter of the timber sawing and ship-building operations. We visited one of the steam saw-mills here, and were surprised at the rapidity with which large square logs were reduced into planks, and these again planed and trimmed, all by machinery, rendering very little human labour necessary. Some of the largest fortunes made in St. John have been acquired by these saw-mills, and several persons were named to us, who had come to the Colony but a few years since, without capital, but who, by credit, industry, and continually extending operations, had acquired sufficient to retire in opulence from business. Some idea may be formed of the cheapness of timber here, when it is stated that the gentleman who accompanied us in our visit, one of the oldest inhabitants of St. John, assured us he had provided from this saw mill, a complete supply of all the necessary timber for a frame-house, in upright beams, rafters, flooring planks, door and window frames, and every other kind required, for about 6l sterling!

Several of the owners of these saw-mills are natives of the United States; and they are observed, here as elsewhere, to be generally more enterprising, and more speculative, than the native Colonists or the British; sometimes to their own enrichment, but sometimes also it must be admitted, to the impoverishment of others. A memorable example of the last description occurred but a short time since, of which the monument still remains. A speculator from the New England States, having visited St. John, conceived the project of constructing a large wooden suspension-bridge to cross over from Port land to Carleton, at the entrance to the river, and readily prevailed on the inhabitants to form a Company of Shareholders to subscribe the requisite capital for the purpose, while he undertook the contract for its construction. The bridge was intended to be 1,400 feet in extreme length, with a single span, resting on towers, distant from each other 435 feet, and the height of the bridge above the water was to be 80 feet. The capital subscribed was 20,000l, and the work proceeded with great rapidity; but when the structure was sufficiently advanced to admit of foot-passengers crossing it, though before the suspension-chains were securely fastened, the whole of the centre fell in with a terrible crash, while some of the workmen were employed on it; and it has been since ascertained, that the whole pile is so loosely and insecurely put together, as not to be worth completing.

It is from the suburb of Portland that the best view of the City and Harbour of St. John is obtained. On the extreme right of the picture, is just seen a small portion of Partridge Island, on which the telegraph signals are made, to announce the approach of ships in the offing. Between it and the low point of the town is a passage for ships; and beyond this, in the distance, appears the high land of the Bay of St. John, along the coast of which we had come in the steamer from Windsor. The City, rising street after street, slopes upward from the water on all sides, and the principal churches and public buildings are on the most elevated ground. At the foot of the town, near the middle of the picture, is the inner harbour, where the greatest number of ships lie at anchor and at the wharves. On the left is the suburb of Portland, with several ships in frame on the stocks, and a raft of timber approaching its wharf. An Episcopal church, a Dissenting chapel, and a Catholic place of worship, already adorn this suburb, and the high mass of rock near its centre, furnishes quarries of excellent stone for building.

The population of St. John and its suburbs exceeds 30,000, and of these by far the greater number are of British birth and origin. There are no remnants of the old French Acadians, like the habitans of Quebec, nor any coloured people as at Halifax; though there are a very few Indians still lingering about the streets, but these are so poor and feeble, that in a very few years it is probable they will all be extinct. The Irish appear to be most numerous, the Scotch next, and the English least of all. The number of Irish names on the signboards of the groceries and whisky-shops, show that Irish habits have been imported also; and the number of women with coarse woolen cloaks, and large frilled caps without bonnets, that one meets in the city and suburbs, with the strong Irish accent in which they converse, show that they are of very recent immigration.

Among the classes of society that account themselves of the higher orders, there is much less of elegance and refinement than at Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, or Halifax; though the town of St. John is better built than the latter, and the houses and stores are very superior. There is an American air of equality in the conditions and manners of all classes here, with the eager bustle and earnest pursuit of business, which is so characteristic of American towns. Something of the boasting spirit of the New Englanders is also manifest in the conversations one hears, and in the comparisons made between the enterprise and prosperity of St. John and other places. This exhibits itself in the public papers occasionally, by such paragraphs as the following, which is taken from a St. John journal during our stay there:

“BEAT THIS WHO CAN! The following vessels, all owned by the Hon. Alexander Campbell, have been launched at Tatamagouche during the last three weeks: Barque Acadia, built by Mr. James Chambers, burthen about 360 tons: Ship Frances Lawson, built by Mr. John Hewet, burthen about 500 tons; Barque Columbia, built by Mr. John Wallace, burthen about 360 tons: Brig Caledonia, built by Mr. John Pride, burthen about 230 tons.”

There are six newspapers at St. John, published weekly, and two thrice a week; all political, except one, which is devoted to the promotion of Temperance and Religion. They are superior to the average of the American papers, in the talent with which they are conducted, and free from that fierce acrimony of party-spirit, by which the journals of the United States are too often characterized. The disaffection of the Canadians finds no sympathy in their columns; as whatever differences of opinion prevail among them on local affairs, and even these are very slight, an ardent attachment to England, and a strong desire to maintain the connection with her unimpaired, is constantly manifested in all their writings.

An extensive literary taste can hardly be expected to prevail in so young and busy a community, where there are scarcely any persons of independent fortune or leisure, and no public institution of a collegiate or literary character; yet several works of merit have been published at St. John one entitled “Notitiæ of New Brunswick,”; in 8vo., by an inhabitant; with a poem of considerable talent, entitled “Mars Hill,” from the pen of Mr. Lasky; and an historical novel, far above the average standard of such  productions, from the same pen. My Lectures were attended for six successive evenings, by audiences of 500 persons, though the weather was sometimes most inclement; and the interest felt in them, appeared to be quite as great as at Halifax, Quebec, Montreal, or Toronto.


Written by johnwood1946

May 18, 2014 at 10:28 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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