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Rocks and Water, Magnificence and Squalor; St. John in 1876

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Rocks and Water, Magnificence and Squalor; St. John in 1876

Fred. J. Hamilton was a Special Correspondent for the Montreal Gazette when he travelled on the Intercolonial Railroad from Riviere du Loup to Halifax in 1876. This excerpt describes St. John, and is from the book of his newspaper articles, also published by the Gazette.

Hamilton stressed the positive when describing communities along his way, and he also had many good things to say about St. John. However, he was not afraid to record his negative impressions, and his descriptions of this city are grittier than most. I have no doubt that they were also more accurate than most.

Intercolonial St John

Intercolonial Railway station at St. John, N.B., ca. 1890

From the New Brunswick Museum


Saint John, N.B.

So far as the construction of the Intercolonial Railway is concerned, there is little, if anything, to add to what has already been mentioned. To those who may not be familiar with the official divisions of the line it may be said that St. John is one of the termini of the Western Division, of which Amherst, N.S., is the eastern terminus. The distance from Moncton is eighty-nine miles, and from Riviere du Loup it is four hundred and sixty-three miles. The country between Amherst and St. John is agricultural; passing the stations of Sackville, Dorchester, Moncton, Salisbury. Sussex, Hampton, and Rothesay, in addition to smaller villages, which it is not necessary to describe here.

This division is not a new one, and it would be impossible in the general features of these letters to observe the same completeness of detail which has hitherto been followed out. And for a good reason; the monotony of description would soon weary the reader. However, the more noteworthy places between St. John and Moncton will be dealt with in another form.

With regard to St. John, there is so much to be said and written about it that one is almost at a loss to know where to begin. To go back to 1604, when the first French ship sailed into its harbor on the 24th of June, down to the present date, would require the gift of an historian to present the details in their proper form. I cannot give any better reference to its historical and commercial associations than to advise the reader to peruse an excellent little work entitled “St. John and its Business,” compiled by Mr. G.A. White. It contains everything of general interest from 1604 to 1850, and as a reference book it is handy and reliable.

The St. John of to-day is a strange mixture of rocks and water, of magnificence and squalor. The difficulties of building and improving the city have been and are still enormous, and speak well for the energy and indomitable pluck of the builders. Without intending to be profane, it may be truthfully asserted that St. John is emphatically a “blasted city.” But the hopes of its people are as bright and cheerful as their hearts and manners are warm and hospitable. If you want gas in your house, you must cut through rock to lay your pipe. It will cost you a small fortune to do this. If you want water you must do likewise. In fact, if you want anything in the way of street improvements, you are met with difficulties at almost every turn. The result is that taxes are about as high as they can go. But St. John folk are a patient people. They always murmur inwardly; and never seem to care about knowing on what basis assessments are made. For instance: a clerk with a salary of $600. per year is taxed on his personal income at thirteen dollars; another with the same salary has to pay twenty dollars. Why this difference exists is an enigma which no one can explain with any degree of satisfaction. The people grumble occasionally at mismanagement; but it never amounts to anything. Once in a while a liberal-hearted citizen will pray for an injunction to restrain the payment of salaries to Aldermen, and defray the law costs out of his own pocket. The people let him do it and nobody seems to mind it, except a few of the Aldermen, and even they admire, in spite of themselves, the public spirit which prompts the action. The commercial part of the town occupies about a square mile. The offices along the market square are, with a few exceptions, dingy, wooden structures; but they contain the records of owners of fleets of vessels which carry traffic to all parts of the world. Water street, a thoroughfare running north and south, parallel to the harbor, is full of redbrick blocks, not unlike some of the back streets of Liverpool. But there is a business-like air about the street which possesses a sort of attraction. True, there isn’t much splendor worth speaking of; but then these blocks were not built for ornament, but for use. They have served their purpose, and their owners have grown rich. The wharves in many places sadly need repairing, and they are in general keeping with the offices around them. The forests of masts standing out boldly in the harbor, as seen from Fort Howe, a dismantled fort in the town of Portland, adjoining the city, and northwest of the same, is a sight worth seeing. You have nothing in Montreal to excel it in interest and diversity of landscape. Partridge Island, with its lighthouse, two and a half miles from the city; the Suspension Bridge; Indiantown, a portion of Portland; and the bold, broad sweep of water, on a clear day (which has been rare lately), form one magnificent stretch of scenery, full of attraction and interest to the observer.

The suburbs of St. John, whose interests are identical with the city, are Carleton on the west side of the harbor, which was incorporated with the city a few years ago, and Portland on the east side. The latter is controlled by a town council, whose proceedings are usually characterized by much oracular force, but very little executive ability. The rate-payers have lately reduced the salary of their magistrate owing to the reduction in the receipts of that portion of the municipal revenue derived from police court fines. Whether this is an implied censure on the ability of that excellent official I cannot say; but judging from the report of the proceedings of the Portland Town Council published in the city newspapers one would imagine that because the fines are becoming fewer, the salary of the magistrate should also become reduced in a like ratio. This is one view of justice which will possess the appearance of novelty to Montrealers.

The streets in the city of St. John are built at right angles; but it would be more correct to say they are mostly rectangular curves. Very few of them are level, owing to the rocky nature of the soil and the difficulty of grading. The two principal thoroughfares are Prince William street and King street. The former runs north and south; the latter from west to east. The appearance of the city from the Market Square is very imposing. Both the above streets are broad, well paved and well lighted. The shops are very handsome, and the windows are dressed with taste and skill. The lamplighters of St. John, however, by a strange oversight peculiar to those gentlemen, and not alone confined to St. John, often manage to brilliantly light up the thoroughfares to shame the moon on pleasant evenings, and on dark nights they leave the city in Egyptian gloom. This is supposed to arise from economical principles, but the error may be attributed to incorrect information obtained from old almanacs; however, the facts remain the same. The west side of the harbor has no gas. But it has very bad sidewalks, and between the one and the other the result is a serious accident now and then; a law suit for damages; heavy compensation; and thus the “penny wise and pound foolish policy” works admirably. Carleton people want all the improvements which the eastern part of the city possesses, but do not want to pay for them. There is much human nature in Carleton in this respect. The principal thoroughfares in St. John, other than those already mentioned, are Germain street, running parallel with Prince William street; City road, on the north, and Main street on the south. Charlotte, Waterloo and Brussels streets are also worthy of mention.

One of the sights of St. John is …

King Street on Saturday Night.

Then the excellent asphalt sidewalks are thronged with thousands of pedestrians, of all sizes, shades and colors. At the head of King street is a wooden archway, with a bell tower—more useful than ornamental. The archway is so mellowed by time that at a distance it looks like stone. The design is graceful, but the fraud on the stone is very apparent when you come to examine it. Stretching across the roadway, on both sides of Charlotte street for a distance of 300 or 400 yards, you find a procession of idlers, with their hands in their pockets, helping the policemen to keep the peace. In fact, you can scarcely tell the policemen from the lookers-on. There they stand, gazing on the passing multitude, jesting, laughing, cursing and swearing, with the air of millionaires. This chronic habit of street-corner loafing is peculiar to St. John. A few young men, with nothing to do, appropriate the lease of a street corner, and stay there till midnight. It doesn’t matter whether it rains or shines, you will be almost sure to find the same faces at the same corners; unconsciously trying to rub smooth the lamp posts and store corners with their shoulders. They appear to appropriate their special rendezvous with the same right as a crossing-sweeper appropriates a crossing. No matter to what part of the city you may go, reputable or disreputable, you will invariably find the street lounger at his post. What they do or how they live is a mystery. But they appear to live well, and are kept busy—loafing.

The archway referred to is at the head of King square, which would make a capital garden if a little more attention was paid to it. This is a popular resort for itinerant preachers, where religion becomes a hollow mockery by the jest and gibes of those who go to scoff and remain to ridicule. The Christianizing influences of religion are here a mere burlesque, made so, unwittingly, by amateur theologians whose knowledge of doctrine is as limited as their knowledge of grammar.

King street, East, a continuation of King square, contains some fine private residences. Queen square is also another popular resort. It is a few blocks south of the former. It is by far the superior of the two, but, like the former, could be considerably improved.

But St. John possesses other attractions of a more substantial nature in keeping with its enterprise and thrift.

Principal Buildings

First in point of beauty is the city Post Office on Prince William street, erected at a cost of $200,000. Its dimensions are ninety and fifty feet, built of stone. The style of architecture is modern. The front is really superb, fully equal to any building of the size in Montreal. Each side of, and over the entrance, are sixteen red, polished, Bay of Fundy granite columns, the beauty of which excites general admiration. The roof is a mansard, surmounted by a graceful tower, from which an exquisite view of many miles can be had. This fine office has every facility for the prompt assortment and delivery of the mails.

Next comes the …

New City Market.

This fine brick structure occupies a block nearly four hundred feet long and eighty feet wide. Its western end faces Germain street, and the eastern, Charlotte. There are two streets running parallel with and at each side of the building. This handsome structure cost $150,000, and it is mainly due to the energy of the popular Mayor, Chipman Smith, Esq., that the building was erected. It would pay the City Council of Montreal to send a commissioner here to take a few lessons in the art of building a market. The floor is of asphalt, at a grade of fifteen feet. It has 1,500 feet of stand accommodation. Every stall is thoroughly and neatly fitted with good cellarage and ample water supply. The money was raised in debentures, which have forty years to run. It is expected that after paying the interest on these debentures there will be a surplus left to retire them, so that, eventually, the city will have a market of its own, free of debt, and from which at least $10,000 per year will be realized.

In the western end of the building is a hall eighty by fifty feet, surrounded by a gallery twelve feet wide, the height of the ceiling being twenty-four feet. This hall is admirably suited for a …

Free Public Library,

and I understand the City Council has, at the request of many influential citizens, expressed its willingness to hand it over for that purpose. The immense advantage which this would be to the public is apparent. St. John, a city of so much importance to the Maritime Provinces, will doubtless secure this long-felt want at an early day. I might tell you, if I had time, of the fine Roman Catholic Cathedral on Waterloo street, built of stone, and as perfect a specimen of Gothic architecture as any I have seen. Or I might dilate on the Wiggins’ Male Orphan Asylum, another handsome red brick edifice, four stories high. This is on Brittain street, and was erected at the private cost of the late Stephen Wiggins, Esq., merchant and ship-owner. Then I could ask you to accompany me to the Maritime Bank, about which so much has been said of late; an elegant stone building on the south-east corner of Market square. From there you can take the ferry at Water street, cross over to Carleton and view the Albert School building. We have no public school building to surpass it in Montreal; in fact it is the redeeming feature of Carleton. While here, it would be well to take a look at the suspension bridge, crossing the Falls of the St. John River. It well repays a visit. This elegant bridge, six hundred and four feet long, is one hundred feet above low water. It was built and projected by W. K. Reynolds, Esq., of Lepreaux, and cost $80,000. It was finished in 1853, and on the 1st of July, 1874, the Provincial Government bought it and made it a free highway. Suppose we cross it; take a glance up and down the river, inhale for a moment the fresh sea breeze coming from the south, and look in for a moment on Dr. Sleeves, the physician of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. He will tell you that the fine red brick institution, with the extensive farm, gardens, and shrubberies, is not large enough to accommodate the number of unfortunate creatures who seek a home within its walls. Its ample corridors, neat rooms, and generally clean appearance, do not, however, relieve you of the feeling of sadness which creeps over you at the sight of such mental prostration. Suppose, then, we leave it, not forgetting to contribute our mite towards alleviating the wants of these poor people. Let us retrace our steps, wend our way to Carleton, and take the ferry to St. John. Half an hour will bring us to where we started, and if you feel tired we will take a carriage by the hour and “do” the remaining buildings of note. After glancing at the granite-faced Custom House, a substantial building some 300 feet long, facing on Prince William street, it would not be a bad idea to drive to the Victoria Hotel, at the corner of Duke and Germain streets and partake of a glass of claret with mine host Swett. He will take you over one of the finest hotels in the Dominion, which occupies over 100 feet square. The hall alone is 40 x 20 feet, and the vestibule 20 x 15 feet, the floors of which are inlaid with marble. The dining rooms, 60 x 25 feet, compels your admiration, by its elaborate magnificence. But what shall we say of the ladies’ parlor, 100 feet long, by twenty feet wide?—fitted with all modern acquisitions of hotel luxury. The sleeping apartments include 232 rooms, irrespective of private suites of chambers for the creme de la creme of society. You will be astonished when Mr. Swett tells you that this hotel requires the services of 200 employees during the summer season. Refreshed by our claret we next drive to Trinity Church, built on a rising eminence, and full of historic interest in connection with the growth of the city of St. John. The history dates back to 1797. That building on the other side of the street, a little to the south of where we are standing, is the scene of Manager E.A. McDowell’s many triumphs. It is the Academy of Music, not so large, certainly, but quite as attractive as the Academy of Music at home. Perhaps the decorations of the former are a trifle too elaborate; but its acoustic qualities are excellent. Now let us proceed to the Mechanics’ Institute, a plain, unpretentious looking building on Carleton street, which has a history of its own worthy of the progress of this singular city. Of late years, the Mechanics’ Institute has been a misnomer. You never see any mechanics there, and, so far as I know, I have never heard of its being patronized by artisans generally, except when the upper hall is let for popular entertainments. Suppose we jump in our vehicle once more and drive to the Young Men’s Christian Association building on Charlotte street, a very neat edifice, opposite the market house. The rooms are comfortable and well furnished, and are amply provided with all that is attractive to young men. But it is a query to my mind whether the Association is not somewhat of a failure from a socialistic standpoint. I have been there three times lately, and on any occasion I have never seen above half a dozen persons there. The supply of papers and magazines is not so large as might be wished. The hall, however, is very convenient and roomy, and is usually crowded when free meetings are held. Now let as drive to St. Paul’s Church, Portland, which is undoubtedly, next to the Cathedral and Trinity Church, the prettiest and most tasteful church in the vicinity of St. John. It has a good choir, and an excellent organ, and the general effect of the building on a fine summer afternoon, when the sun is shining through the stained glass windows, is exceedingly handsome and impressive. Returning, suppose we take the Winter-street School-house, Portland, and glance at the excellent arrangements which are here provided for the instruction of the “Blue-noses” of the future. That they are good is but faint praise—they are more than good; they are complete in every particular. Goodness is only comparative, but the educational facilities which St. John and Portland possess are superlative in their degree. The Victoria School-house, a handsome, new four-storey brick building, has accommodation for 1,000 children. It stands on the corner of Duke and Sydney streets, and is almost palatial in its proportions. Boston has nothing to equal it for similar purposes.

Now, let us pay the driver, and take dinner. What! two dollars for one Hour’s drive? Well, of course, we can’t see the elephant for nothing, so We’ll give you one and call it square.


St. John has an excellent fire department, poorly paid, and an inferior police force, which is paid quite as much as it is worth. The former deserves all that can be said about it in the way of praise. The men are quick and reliable, and their fire apparatus is in keeping with the excellent qualities of the firemen.

The police department is mixed. Its Chief is a hard-working official, who has on several occasions demonstrated that his special forte is his aptness for striking a “clue.” During the past year he has had ample opportunities for the exercise of this important faculty; but, unfortunately; his subordinates lack the same perceptive power in following them up. Probably the St. John police force does not contain three men who may be termed professional policemen. They are poorly uniformed and disciplined, and have not arrived at that state of perfection you would expect to find in a city of so much importance. Seriously speaking, the St. John police force is fifty years behind the age. Every criminal here whose offence is above the grade of an ordinary “drunk” comes from Halifax at least the papers say so, and, naturally, the case in Halifax is vice versa. But, unfortunately, recent experience has proved this rule does not always apply. Home criminals are occasionally discovered in their guilt, and. accordingly punished. For such there is excellent accommodation in the city gaol, and not quite so good provision in the Provincial Penitentiary—a building respecting which the least said the better.

Railroad Communication and the Deep Water Terminus

St. John in a short time will be excellently provided for in this respect.

The recent purchase by the Government of the Ballast wharf property at a cost of $40,000, for the purpose of a deep water terminus, has given, general satisfaction. The intention is to run a short branch line from the Intercolonial at Marsh Bridge. This line is partially completed. The road will skirt Courtenay Bay, which extends from the Marsh Bridge, on the north-east side of the city, hugging the shore, and curving towards the south-west, and touching at Ballast wharf. The conditions under which the sale has been effected are that the Government will build the terminus for the receipt of grain and other shipments from all points of Canada; the city simply reserving the right of way for street purposes. The moving spirit in this purchase is said to be Mr. Bois de Veber, M.P. The benefit is of course apparent, and there is no doubt that the work will be speedily pushed through.

By means of the Consolidated European and North American Railway from Bangor, St. John is reached.

The Grand Southern, now under construction, will be seventy-five miles long, and extend from St. Stephen, N. B., to Fairville, three miles from St. John. In all probability, the line will extend to the city.

I was almost forgetting to say something about …

The Water and Gas Works

which are really a credit to the city, considering the miles of rock excavation which had to be blasted. These difficulties cannot be understood by those who have not visited St. John, and it is one of the crowning triumphs to the energy of the St. John people to say that in a short time every street in the city will be well supplied with water and gas. The Corporation deserves all the credit that can be given it in this particular.


This letter would not be complete without some reference to the Fourth estate. St. John has five political papers—three dailies, one tri-weekly and one weekly. The Daily Telegraph, ostensibly a reform paper, is known throughout the Dominion for its enterprise and vigor. I hope I may be pardoned for intruding upon the “impersonality of journalism,” as Mr. Goldwin Smith has it, in crediting those gentlemen connected with the press for their energy in making their journals what they have. W. Elder, Esq., M.P.P., editor and proprietor of the Telegraph, spares no expense in making his journal in every way worthy of its high reputation as a newspaper. He is an accomplished scholar and polished writer; a far-seeing politician, with an eye to the present and future requirements of the age. In making the Telegraph what it is, he has been ably assisted by Mr. James Hannay, sub-editor, a gentleman who has worked for, and knows more of the history and resources of New Brunswick than any One whom I have met. He has the history of St. John at his fingers’ ends. He is not only a clever writer of great research, but also a poet of more than average ability. At present he has in the press a volume upon the “History of Acadia” of some five hundred pages. Mr. Hannay’s services deserve recognition, and it is to him the St. John people are indebted for the vigorous fight the Telegraph made in defence of the Baie Verte Canal scheme The Evening Globe is another spicy paper, partly owned by Mr. J.V. Ellis, recently appointed Postmaster here. The Globe is a reliable paper and you always know what it means, and it is credited with meaning just what it says. In popular parlance, you always know where to find it. The News, the avowed organ of the Orange party (also Reform), owned by Hon. E. Willis, is exceedingly popular with the Orangemen. Mr. J.L. Stewart is sub-editor, a pointed but somewhat reckless writer, whose ability is occasionally marred by sacrificing the truth for the sake of making a point. Mr. Stewart is a genial, well educated gentleman, possessing extensive information, combined with a shrewd, ready aptness for retort. Your correspondent trusts that he will not be massacred for speaking the truth. The Freeman (Roman Catholic, Reform) is owned by Mr. Anglin, Speaker of the House of Commons. Mr. Anglin is a hard foe to fight with on paper. His literary ability is unquestioned. A portly gentleman, courteous and conversational, he administers through his journal literary tonics to those of his contemporaries with whose opinions he may differ. His memory is wonderful, and it is currently stated that in past years he has printed reports solely from memory, without notes. He is a keen writer, unsparing in sarcasm, so roundly polished and carefully worded, that he is hard to beat in a fair, open field for discussion. The Watchman, owned by John Livingstone, Esq., the father of the Maritime Press, is a staunch Conservative weekly. He has already made his journal known far and wide for the series of very clever papers entitled, “Our Rulers in Council,” the authorship of which is, so far, a mystery. Mr. Livingstone is a thorough journalist in the best sense of the word. He is comely in person, ready in conversation, and gentlemanly in tone. Where he gets his information whereon to base his papers referred to, nobody knows. The Watchman enjoys an extensive circulation, and its typographical appearance is second to no other journal in the Dominion. The staff of the Watchman has sustained a severe loss in the recent death of Mr. G.B.P. Fielding, of Cambridge University, a journalist formerly connected with the Grip, the National, and other Toronto papers. Your correspondent, who had the pleasure of his intimate confidence, can bear testimony to the excellent qualities of Mr. Fielding’s head and heart—qualities which entitle him to the respectful admiration of every literary brother who knew him. Poor fellow! he now lies in the rural cemetery of St. John, with no stone to mark his grave—dead to the world’s remembrances; but his loveable traits of disposition will ever live warm and bright in the hearts of those who recognized in him an ability far above the average of journalists. Had Mr. Fielding ever been permitted by health to live to the age usually allotted to mankind, he would have found his level and not have died in obscurity. For the sake of our profession, let us not permit his grave to remain neglected and unmarked. Mr. Geo. Stewart, Jr., also contributes to the Watchman. His name is well known as the former proprietor of Stewart’s Quarterly, a magazine which ought to have lived, but died for want of an educated public to appreciate its bright pages. No other magazine has yet compared with it for clever and sprightly reading. Mr. H.L. Spencer—a name well known to several Canadian journalists—also contributes to the Watchman. Mr. Spencer was formerly proprietor of the Maritime Monthly, which also came to its death from the same cause.

And now I must bring my letter to a close. I might tell you of the charming scenery about St. John; of the triumphs of the Paris crew; of its industries; of its fogs; of its 270,000 tons of shipping; of its lumber resources, but, alas, St. John and I must part company. Its people are warm-hearted, loyal and true British subjects, whose forefathers gave up all they had in defence of the British flag, and whose sons point with pride and reverence to the graveyard which contain the remains of the loyalist fathers. I might tell you with what pride they recount the history of the past; how their eyes kindle with kindly affection for our good Queen across the sea. I can only conclude by adding my humble testimony of their many sterling qualities; and as for their city, it will ever be kindly remembered by your correspondent, notwithstanding what Bayard Taylor and Charles Dudley Warner have written about it. And who shall say, with its railroad connections and winter harbor, that it possesses no interest to the good people of Montreal?


Written by johnwood1946

June 11, 2014 at 9:33 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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