New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Not a Metropolis, but the Largest Town in the Province — Saint John in 1832

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Following is a description of Saint John and the neighbouring communities of Carleton and Portland in 1832, from Sketches of British America by John Macgregor, London, 1832. Saint John was not the metropolis, although it was the largest town in the Province of New Brunswick.


Saint John and the Portland Area in 1817

Anonymous, from the Nova Scotia Museum


Not a Metropolis, but the Largest Town in the Province — Saint John in 1832

On approaching St. John’s from the Bay of Fundy, the aspect of the country on each side is bold and rugged. Meogenes Island [Manawagonish Island was once known as Meogenes Island] and several coves open to the left; a bold headland on the right, between which and Partridge Island, on which there is a lighthouse, is the proper entrance to the harbour. The town, with part of Carleton on the opposite side, opens to view at several miles distance; and the wooded mountainous background, and various additional picturesque features, with the masts of ships, wharfs, stores, houses of various sizes and colours, spires of churches, forts, and the beautiful range of new barracks, form altogether a very splendid picture.

The rise of the tide is from twenty-five to thirty feet. When the sea flows so as to cover the shores, the appearance of the harbour of St. John, viewed from Carleton, and all the surrounding objects which fill up the landscape, is beautiful and magnificent; but at low water the aspect of the front of the town, which exhibits muddy shores, high wharfs, and timber booms covered with slime, is exceedingly disagreeable. One of the most beautiful and extensive prospects of scenery is, however, from the heights on which are the ruins of Fort Howe, over that part or division of the town named Portland. The view from this station is really magnificent. The harbour, prairies, mountains, woods, a bird-eye view of the town and shipping, a broad prospect of the, Bay of Fundy, with Nova Scotia high and darkly blue in the distance, are its prominent features.

Fort Howe is now in ruins,—its position is very commanding. On the Carleton side, situated also on a commanding height, there is another fortification, and some guns are also planted on Partridge Island.

St. John’s is not the metropolis, although the largest town in the province. It is about half the size of Halifax but contains nearly two-thirds as many dwelling-houses. The government and public buildings, if not splendid, are certainly handsome structures. The wharfs, with warehouses built either over them or immediately adjoining, and the private houses, closely resemble the buildings in Halifax. The ground on which the town is built is rocky and very irregular, and the forming and levelling of the streets required vast labour. Much improvement is still necessary to level them sufficiently for carriages to drive along agreeably; and the abruptness of some of the streets renders them very dangerous in winter. The public buildings are, a very commodious and handsome stone court-house, built lately on the high ground above the middle of the town, a marine hospital, poor-house, and, of course, a jail. Previous to this period, the courts were held over the market house, a very mean building.

There are two Episcopal churches; the oldest, built of wood, but painted so as to resemble white stone, is a very handsome edifice, with a pretty spire. The interior is arranged nearly in the same manner as most modern English churches of the same size.

The new Episcopal Church is a substantial edifice, built in the Gothic style, of rough stone, and its interior very handsomely planned and finished. Both these churches have good organs.

The Scotch Kirk is a plain neat building, with a tall spire, and handsomely fitted up within. Besides these places of worship, there are a Catholic chapel, two or three Methodist chapels, and one Baptist meeting-house.

There is a respectable grammar school, a central school on the Madras system, and some other institutions, principally Sunday schools, where the rudiments of education are taught.

There are also two or three Bible and religious societies, and the benevolent societies of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick. The poor-house is made to answer also the purposes of a hospital.

The provincial bank, or, in reality, the bank of St. John’s, established under an act of the legislature, with a capital increased since its formation to £50,000, has paid handsome dividends, and has been of great benefit, as well as occasional injury, to those engaged in trade. It facilitates sales by discounting promissory-notes at three months’ date; but this accommodation is apt to tempt men into imprudent transactions. The directors, however, are said to guard with much caution against risks. When its stock was increased in 1824, by legislative enactment, the new shares sold at 175 per cent. There is also a bank for savings; and a marine assurance company, established also by an act of the legislature, seems to prosper, and has hitherto been singularly fortunate in its risks. There are two public libraries, and a respectable news room, where the English, Colonial, and United States papers are taken.

The Chamber of Commerce is formed on much the same plan as that at Halifax. Four or five respectably conducted weekly newspapers are published at St. John’s, one at Fredericton, one at St. Andrew’s, and one at Miramichi.

St. John’s is a corporate town, and styled a city. Its municipal government is lodged in a mayor, recorder, six aldermen, and six assistants, designated, “Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty of the City of St. John.”

The other civil officers are a sheriff, coroner, town clerk, chamberlain, two marshals, a high constable, and six petty constables.

The mayor, recorder, sheriff, coroner, and town or common clerk, hold their appointment of the governor, continuing in office from one year to another. The aldermen are elected annually by the freemen.

The mayor and council appoint the other officers. The mayor and council make laws for the improvement or government of the town, which expire in one year, unless confirmed by the governor and council; they have also an annual revenue at their command for public improvements, &c., and they constitute a Court of Record, or Common Pleas, for the “City and County of St. John.” Small debts are recovered before an alderman’s court, held once a fortnight. The aldermen are all justices of the peace.

On the opposite side of the river to St. John’s, and under its municipal government, stands the pretty little town of Carleton, with a neat English church and a chapel. The saw-mills within the aboiteux, a little above this place, are well worth visiting. On the Point of Carleton several ships have been built.

The upper part of St. John’s is named Portland, and the whole, including Carleton, is divided into six wards. Opposite to the town, in the middle of the stream, is Navy Island, small, low, and muddy; and, as the Indians would have it, carried down at one time by the stream in a body. It is evidently formed by alluvial deposits.

There are always some troops stationed at St. John’s; and the barracks situated above the lower cove, and near the extremity of the peninsula, are spacious, handsome, and commodious.

The country in the vicinity is stubborn, but, when subjected to cultivation, fertile. An extensive prairie, named the marsh, containing about 3000 acres, and occupying a space, which is by some considered to have been once the bed of the River St. John, lies near the town. The tide is shut out by an aboiteux, over which the road to Indian Town passes. The soil of this beautiful alluvial tract is remarkably rich, and neutralized by the application of lime, which is abundant in the neighbourhood. There are several handsome houses along the rising grounds which follow the course of the prairie; and their situation and appearance seem to render them desirable and comfortable residences.

As to the condition of society, I am not able to treat so explicitly as I have done in respect to Halifax, from having less intercourse with the inhabitants than a traveller could have wished. There were no public amusements there at the time, or if there had, these are not the places to draw a just picture of society. At both the churches, and at the Scotch kirk, the general appearance of the congregations was highly respectable; and their dresses were in the fashions prevailing about a year previously in England. Two or three ladies, however, I observed dressed in the full Parisian style of 1828.

Many of the ladies are very pretty, but walk rather stiffly and affectedly. Of their manners or accomplishments I can say nothing. The gentlemen that I have had an opportunity of being acquainted with while there, or that I have met with from St. John’s in other places, were generally intelligent and well bred.

From the information given me by people living in St. John’s, it would appear that a very tolerable share of bickerings and divisions prevails among the inhabitants;—one family arrogating a rank and respect which others will not admit; and some building their pretensions on their families being of the number of the first royalist settlers; others measuring their respectability by the length of their purses. All this, however, is common in larger towns than St. John’s; and the same ease and freedom of manners which have gained the ascendant at Halifax, will likely, as the population increases, and a greater intercourse with the world takes place, distinguish this city. When we also consider the few years which form the age of St. John’s, we must make the most charitable allowance for any defect in the condition of its society. Sir Howard Douglas has done wonders in the way of knitting society together, and the influence of his own family example has been of great benefit.

Assemblies are common during winter, once a month, or oftener. They excite, as elsewhere in America, from the necessity of forming some fixed line of demarcation as to admission, the angry bile of those who are excluded. Carriolling, picnic, and private parties, are also common; and there are races annually near the town.

Fifty years ago, the site of this thriving city was covered with trees, and only a few straggling huts existed within its harbour. This was its condition at the peace of 1783; and when we now view it, with its population of above 12,000, its stately houses, its public buildings, its warehouses, its wharfs, and with the majestic ships which crowd its port, we are more than lost in forming even a conjecture of what it will become in less than a century. Its position will ever command the trade of the vast and fertile country watered by the lakes and streams of the River St. John. All towns through which the bulk of the imports and exports of the country in which these towns are situated necessarily pass have, in consequence, flourished.

We view this in the long and continued prosperity of Hamburg, the boundless commerce of Liverpool, and the amazing prosperity of New York.

The River St. John, called by the Indians Looshtook, or the long river, is, next to the St. Lawrence, the finest river in British America. About a mile above the city of St. John, at rugged narrows, the river is interrupted by huge rocks, over and among which the waters of this great river, and its tributary streams, roll and foam, and render the navigation, except for four short diurnal periods, impracticable. The great rise of tide at St. John’s, however, so far overflows these falls or rapids, that, when the flood rises twelve feet at the fort, sloops and schooners pass in safety for about twenty minutes, and for the same time when the tide ebbs to twelve feet. This cataract, viewed from the high ground on the Carleton side, forms, with the adjoining scenery, a picturesque and, indeed, romantic picture. The foam is frequently carried down in frothy bodies past St. John’s; and the agitated waters, holding the juices of mossy deposits from the interior in solution, and running to the sea, impart to it, in the spring, at St. John’s, and for some miles out at the Bay of Fundy, a dark-brown colour.

A chain-bridge, at the cost probably of not more than £10,000, might be suspended across the River St. John at the Falls, where the breadth is not more than four hundred feet, and the precipices on each side sufficiently high; there are also more than one rock in the centre, on which abutments might be built; but these would not, I think, be found necessary.


Written by johnwood1946

November 16, 2016 at 9:04 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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