New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Saint John in 1834, Before it was Forever Changed by the Great Fire

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This story is from A Subaltern’s Furlough, Descriptive of Scenes in Various Parts of the United States, Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia during the Summer of 1834, by E.T. Coke.

Coke had crossed the Tamiscouta Portage from the Saint Lawrence, and had continued to Grand Falls, Woodstock, and Fredericton. For this blog posting he travels from Fredericton to Saint John. He describes Saint John as a rapidly developing place, but still requiring much effort to even-out its rocky surface. The provincial economy is dominated by the timber trade, ship building, and the fishery.

King Street 1870

King Street, St. John, NB, 1870

From the McCord Museum


Saint John in 1834, Before it was Forever Changed by the Great Fire

On the 22d of September I embarked in a small steamboat in company with Captain C, an old Burman friend, whom I was so fortunate as to find stationed at Fredericton, and who kindly offered to accompany me on a short tour through the province of Nova Scotia. We proceeded down the beautiful river St. John, (which received its name from being discovered by De Monts on the 24th of June, 1604, the day of St. John the Baptist), and 30 miles below Fredericton passed embouchure of a small rivulet, which forms an outlet to the waters of the Grand Lake and its numerous tributary streams. At Newcastle, and on the borders of the Salmon Bay, at the upper end of the Lake, coal has been found in abundance; but that hitherto discovered is of an inferior quality, and the works, for want of demand, are on a very limited scale.

After crossing the mouth of the Kennebecasis River and entering Grand Bay, which is interspersed with numerous islands, we were enveloped in a dense fog, and, landing a few miles farther, at the Indian village a mile above the Falls, proceeded on foot into the town of St. John. For three days it had been obscured by fog, while with us all had been sunshine and heat, the fog not extending more than ten miles up the river. During the first day we saw nothing of the town beyond the curbstones of the pavement, or the steps up to the doors of the houses; but a heavy shower of rain, which came on while we were groping our way through the streets in search of the barracks and thoroughly drenched us, dispelled the fog, so that the following morning the sun rose bright and clear.

The town, containing nearly 11,000 inhabitants, is built upon a rocky and irregular promontory, formed by the harbour and the river which here empties itself into the Bay of Fundy. The principal streets are broad, well paved, and neatly laid out, with excellent private dwellings, and some elegant stone public edifices. The corporation in a most spirited manner are laying out large sums of money in beautifying and levelling the streets, though much to the inconvenience of private individuals, whose houses at the bottom of some hills have been blocked up by these improvements to the attic windows, so that a passerby may peep into the first or second story. On the summit of the hill again 20 feet of solid rock have been cut away, leaving the dwellings perched on high, and allowing the occupants a view of little else save sky and the occasional roof of a lofty house. The barracks, a fine extensive range of buildings, with some small batteries overlooking the sea and commanding the entrance to the harbour, occupy an elevated and pleasant situation in front of the town, whence in clear weather the opposite coast of Nova Scotia can be seen across the Bay of Fundy.

Everything about St. John’s presented the air of a flourishing place, and numerous vessels were upon the stocks in the upper part of the bay, where the tide rises to the height of 30 feet. In point of commercial importance it is the capital of New Brunswick, and upwards of 400 square-rigged vessels enter the port annually, exporting more than 100,000 tons of square timber. From Miramichi more than 300 vessels sail with even a greater quantity of timber than from St. John’s; and from St. Andrew’s, which ranks as the third sea-port, from 150 to 170 vessels with 25,000 tons of timber. In addition to these there are several minor ports, and from the whole collectively about 11,000 seamen are employed in the trade of the province. It appears by returns made in the year 1824, when the trade was rather brisker than at present, that 324,260 tons of square timber were exported from the various sea-ports, exclusive of spars, lath wood, and deals. St. John’s possesses most of the lumbering trade from the western coast of Nova Scotia, and, the duties upon English importations being lighter than at Halifax, it absorbs much of the traffic which would otherwise flow to that city. This and the adjoining province of Nova Scotia, under different regulations, might have been still greater nurseries for British seamen than they are; their interests upon several occasions have been neglected by the mother country, who, by the treaty of 1783, granted to the United States participation in the fisheries, and a general permission to take fish at the distance of a cannon-shot from the coast. This permission has been much abused by their frequently running inshore at night, entering the bays to set their nets, in many instances forcibly preventing the British fishermen from carrying on the fishery, and destroying the fish by throwing the offal overboard, while the provincialists carry it ashore. These rights they forfeited by the war of 1812, but the renewal of them at the peace was strangely permitted, with the most injurious effects to the colonies.

The immediate vicinity of the town, and for an extent of some miles up the river, is such a mass of rock, covered only here and there with stunted pine, as almost to deter any emigrants from penetrating into the interior, or at least to give them a very poor opinion of their adopted country. The only rich or fertile tract I saw was a narrow strip of land about a mile in width, running between two ridges of rocks away from the bay, and which had been reclaimed from the bed of a river or large inlet. By some people it is imagined to be the course of the St. John’s previous to its bursting through the ridge of rocks which create the Falls. The opening through which that river passes is in the narrowest part called the “split rock,”’ and not more than 40 yards in width; a quarter of a mile higher up the stream is a second pass, from 150 to 200 yards wide, above which the river expands into a capacious bay. The great rush of the tide is such, and it rises so rapidly, that the water at the flood is some feet higher below the split rock than above it, and renders it impassable, except at high water, for half an hour, and the same fall is formed at the ebb tide, when it is again passable for the same time at low water. Boats frequently venture too far, not aware of the time of tide, and are lost in the whirlpools and eddies; one, containing three men, had been lost the day before we visited them, the most powerful swimmer not being able to gain the shore. The noise from them can be distinctly heard at the distance of some miles, and the harbour, a mile below them, is covered with flouting froth a foot in thickness. A few years since an engineer officer proposed undermining or blasting the rocks, which vary from 50 to 100 feet in length, and thus opening a passage for the free admission of the tide; but the project was opposed by the landholders some miles above the town, who represented that the river would thus be drained and rendered loo shallow for navigation.

Leaving St. John’s in a steamer on the 24th, with the sea as smooth as a lake, but the vessel rolling heavily, we passed out of the beautiful harbour by Partridge Island (the quarantine station at the entrance, which, being high and rocky, is an excellent breakwater and shelter to the harbour in easterly gales,) and steered for the Nova Scotian coast, forty miles distant. The lofty heights in rear of the city, the various Martello towers and lighthouses on Partridge Island and the headlands, the batteries and barracks rising upon a gentle acclivity from the harbour, with the ruins of old Fort Howe frowning from a rocky precipice over the city, which is built upon several eminences, form a picturesque scene when viewed from the Bay of Fundy.

[He here leaves New Brunswick, and this transcription of his travelogue ends.]


Written by johnwood1946

July 29, 2015 at 8:43 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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