Shabby Streets, Decaying Houses, and Steep Plank Sidewalks. Saint John in 1874
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Shabby Streets, Decaying Houses, and Steep Plank Sidewalks. Saint John in 1874
Market Square and South Market Slip in Flames, 1877
In this story, an American journalist named Charles Warner is traveling from Boston to Baddeck on Cape Breton Island, and we join him as his steamer approaches the Bay of Fundy on its way to Saint John. He had hoped that Saint John would be only a short stop on his way to Baddeck, but he spent more time than he anticipated arranging for transportation.
Mr. Warner was a sarcastic little fellow and he did not have much good to say about Saint John or New Brunswick in general. However, he does give us a picture of a sleepy little provincial city where it was difficult to find anyone who could help him plot his journey. The story is condensed from his book Baddeck and that Sort of Thing, Boston, 1874.
When we looked from our state room window in the morning we saw land. We were passing within a stone’s throw of a pale-green and rather cold looking coast, with few trees or other evidences of fertile soil. Upon going out I found that we were in the harbor of Eastport. I found also the usual tourist who had been up, shivering in his winter overcoat, since four o’clock. He described to me the magnificent sunrise, and the lifting of the fog from islands and capes, in language that made me rejoice that he had seen it. He knew all about the harbor. That wooden town at the foot of it, with the white spire, was Lubec; that wooden town we were approaching was Eastport. The long island stretching clear across the harbour was Campobello. We had been obliged to go round it, a dozen miles out of our way, to get in, because the tide was in such a stage that we could not enter by the Lubec Channel.
We approached Eastport with a great deal of curiosity and considerable respect. It had been one of the cities of the imagination. Lying in the far east of our great territory, a military and even a sort of naval station, a conspicuous name on the map, prominent in boundary disputes and in war operations, frequent in telegraphic despatches,—we had imagined it a solid city, with some Oriental, if decayed, peculiarity, a port of trade and commerce. The tourist informed me that Eastport looked very well at a distance, with the sun shining on its white houses. When we landed at its wooden dock we saw that it consisted of a few piles of lumber, a sprinkling of small cheap houses along a side hill, a big hotel with a flag-staff, and a very peaceful looking arsenal. It is doubtless a very enterprising and deserving city, but its aspect that morning was that of cheapness, newness, and stagnation, with no compensating picturesqueness. White paint always looks chilly under a gray sky and on naked hills. The tourist, who went ashore with a view to breakfast, said that it would be a good place to stay in and go a-fishing and picnicking on Campobello Island. It has another advantage for the wicked over other Maine towns. Owing to the contiguity of British territory, the Maine Law is constantly evaded, in spirit. The thirsty citizen or sailor has only to step into a boat and give it a shove or two across the narrow stream that separates the United States from Deer Island and land, when he can ruin his breath, and return before he is missed. We ought to have war, if war is necessary to possess Campobello and Deer Islands; or else we ought to give the British Eastport. I am not sure but the latter would be the better course.
We sailed away into the British waters of the Bay of Fundy, but keeping all the morning so close to the New Brunswick shore that we could see there was nothing on it; that is, nothing that would make one wish to land. A pretty bay now and then, a rocky cove with scant foliage, a lighthouse, a rude cabin, a level land, monotonous and without noble forests,—this was New Brunswick as we coasted along it under the most favorable circumstances. But we were advancing into the Bay of Fundy; and my comrade, who had been brought up on its high tides in the district school, was on the lookout for this phenomenon. From the Bay of Fundy the rivers run up hill half the time, and the tides are from forty to ninety feet high. For myself, I confess that, in my imagination, I used to see the tides of this bay go stalking into the land like gigantic water-spouts; or, when I was better instructed, I could see them advancing on the coast like a solid wall of masonry eighty feet high. “Where,” we said, as we came easily, and neither uphill nor downhill, into the pleasant harbor of St. John, “where are the tides of our youth?”
They were probably out, for when we came to the land we walked out upon the foot of a sloping platform that ran into the water by the side of the piles of the dock, which stood up naked and blackened high in the air. It is not the purpose of this paper to describe St. John, nor to dwell upon its picturesque situation. As one approaches it from the harbor it gives a promise which its rather shabby streets, decaying houses, and steep plank sidewalks do not keep. A city set on a hill, with flags flying from a roof here and there, and a few shining spires and walls glistening in the sun, always looks well at a distance. St. John is extravagant in the matter of flag staffs; almost every well-to-do citizen seems to have one on his premises, as a sort of vent for his loyalty, I presume. St. John is built on a steep side hill, from which it would be in danger of sliding off, if its houses were not mortised into the solid rock. This makes the house foundations secure, but the labor of blasting out streets is considerable. We note these things complacently as we toil in the sun up the hill to the Victoria Hotel, which stands well up on the backbone of the ridge, and from the upper windows of which we have a fine view of the harbor, and of the hill. Opposite, above Carleton, where there is the brokenly truncated ruin of a round stone tower. This tower was one of the first things that caught our eyes as we entered the harbor. It gave an antique picturesqueness to the landscape which it entirely wanted without this. Round stone towers are not so common in this world that we can afford to be indifferent to them. This is called a Martello Tower, but I could not learn who built it. I could not understand the indifference, almost amounting to contempt, of the citizens of St. John in regard to this their only piece of curious antiquity. “It is nothing but the ruins of an old fort,” they said; “you can see it as well from here as by going there.” It was, however, the one thing at St. John I was determined to see. But we never got any nearer to it than the ferry landing. Want of time and the vis inertia of the place were against us.
But it must not be forgotten that we were on our way to Baddeck; that the whole purpose of the journey was to reach Baddeck. St. John is the sort of a place that if you get into it after eight o’clock on Wednesday morning, you cannot get out of it in any direction until Thursday morning at eight o’clock, unless you want to smuggle goods on the night train to Bangor. It was eleven o’clock Wednesday forenoon when we arrived at St. John. The Inter-Colonial railway train had gone to Shediac; it had gone also on its roundabout Moncton, Missaquat River, Truro, Stewiack, and Shubenacadie way to Halifax; the boat had gone to Digby Gut and Annapolis to catch the train that way for Halifax; the boat had gone up the river to Frederick, the capital. We could go to none of these places till the next day. The people of St. John have this peculiarity: they never start to go anywhere except early in the morning.
The reader to whom time is nothing does not yet appreciate the annoyance of our situation. Our time was strictly limited. The active world is so constituted that it could not spare us more than two weeks. We must reach Baddeck Saturday night or never. To go home without seeing Baddeck was simply intolerable. Now, if we had gone to Shediac in the train that left St. John that morning, we should have taken the steamboat that would have carried us to Port Hawkesbury, whence a stage connected with a steamboat on the Bras d’Or, which would land us at Baddeck on Friday. How many times had we been over this route on the map and the prospectus of travel! And now, what a delusion it seemed!
One seeking Baddeck, as a possession, would not like to be detained a prisoner even in Eden,—much less in St. John, which is unlike Eden in several important respects. The tree of knowledge does not grow there, for one thing; at least St. John’s ignorance of Baddeck amounts to a feature. This encountered us everywhere.
The clerk at the Victoria was not unwilling to help us on our journey, but if he could have had his way, we would have gone to a place on Prince Edward Island which used to be called Bedeque, but is now named Summerside, in the hope of attracting summer visitors. As to Cape Breton, he said the agent of the Inter Colonial could tell us all about that, and put us on the route. We repaired to the agent and he entered at once into our longings and perplexities. He produced his maps and timetables, and showed us clearly what we already knew. The Port Hawksbury steam boat from Shediac for that week had gone, to be sure, but we could take one of another line which would leave us at Pictou, whence we could take another across to Port Hood, on Cape Breton. This looked fair, until we showed the agent that there was no steamer to Port Hood.
“Ah, then you can go another way. You can take the Inter Colonial railway round to Pictou, catch the steamer for Port Hawksbury, connect with the steamer on the Bras d’Or, and you are all right.” It took us half an hour to convince him that the train would reach Pictou half a day too late for the steamer, that no other boat would leave Pictou for Cape Breton that week, and that even if we could reach the Bras d’Or we should have no means of crossing it, except by swimming. The perplexed agent thereupon referred us to Mr. Brown, a shipper on the wharf, who knew all about Cape Breton, and could tell us exactly how to get there.
Mr. Brown was not in. He never is in. His store is a rusty warehouse, low and musty, piled full of boxes of soap and candles and dried fish, with a little glass cubby in one corner, where a thin clerk sits at a high desk, like a spider in his web. The cubby is swarming with flies, and the glass of the window sash has not been washed since it was put in. The clerk is not writing, and has evidently no other use for his steel pen than spearing flies. Brown is out, says this young votary of commerce, and will not be in till half past five. We go out into the street to wait for Brown.
In front of the store is a dray, its horse fast asleep, and waiting for the revival of commerce. The dray is of a peculiar construction, the body being dropped down from the axles so as nearly to touch the ground,—a great convenience in loading and unloading. The dray is probably waiting for the tide to come in. In the deep slip lie a dozen helpless vessels, coasting schooners mostly, tipped on their beam ends in the mud, or propped up by side-pieces as if they were built for land as well as for water. At the end of the wharf is a long English steamboat unloading railroad iron, which will return to the Clyde full of Nova Scotia coal. We sit down on the dock and meditate upon the peacefulness of the drowsy afternoon. One’s feeling of rest is never complete unless he can see somebody else at work,—but the labor must be without haste, as it is in the Provinces.
While waiting for Brown, we had leisure to explore the shops of King’s Street, and to climb up to the grand triumphal arch which stands on top of the hill and guards the entrance to King’s Square. Of the shops for dry-goods I have nothing to say, for they tempt the unwary American to violate the revenue laws of his country; but he may safely go into the book-shops. The literature which is displayed in the windows and on the counters has lost that freshness which it once may have had and is, in fact, if one must use the term, fly-specked, like the cakes in the grocery windows on the side streets. There are old illustrated newspapers from the States, cheap novels from the same, and the flashy covers of the London and Edinburgh sixpenny editions. But this is the dull season for literature, we reflect.
It will always be matter of regret to us that we climbed up to the triumphal arch, which appeared so noble in the distance, with the trees behind it. For when we reached it, we found that it was built of wood, painted and sanded, and in a shocking state of decay; and the grove to which it admitted us was only a scant assemblage of sickly locust-trees, which seemed to be tired of battling with the unfavorable climate, and had, in fact, already retired from the business of ornamental shade-trees. Adjoining this square is an ancient cemetery, the surface of which has decayed in sympathy with the mouldering remains it covers. I have called this cemetery ancient, but it may not be so, for neglect, and not years, appears to have made it the melancholy place of repose it is. Whether it is the fashionable and favorite resort of the dead of the city we did not learn, but there were some old men sitting in its damp shades, and the nurses appeared to make it a rendezvous for their baby carriages, — a cheerful place to bring up children in, and to familiarize their infant minds with the fleeting nature of provincial life.
But Mr. Brown, when found, did not know as much as the agent. He had been in Nova Scotia; he had never been in Cape Breton; but he presumed we would find no difficulty in reaching Baddeck by so and so, and so and so. We consumed valuable time in convincing Brown that his directions to us were impracticable and valueless, and then he referred us to Mr. Cope. An interview with Mr. Cope discouraged us; we found that we were imparting everywhere more geographical information than we were receiving. Returning to the hotel, and taking our destiny into our own hands, we resolved upon a bold stroke.
Our plan of campaign was briefly this: To take the steamboat at eight o’clock, Thursday morning, for Digby Gut and Annapolis; thence to go by rail through the poetical Acadia down to Halifax; to turn north and east by rail from Halifax to New Glasgow, and from thence to push on by stage to the Gut of Canso. This would carry us over the entire length of Nova Scotia, and, with good luck, land us on Cape Breton Island Saturday morning. When we should set foot on that island, we trusted that we should be able to make our way to Baddeck, by walking, swimming, or riding, whichever sort of locomotion should be most popular in that province. Our imaginations were kindled by reading that the most superb line of stages on the continent ran from New Glasgow to the Gut of Canso. If the reader perfectly understands this programme, he has the advantage of the two travellers at the time they made it.