Fort Howe

Following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, numerous Loyalist refugees from the American Revolutionary War moved to the area surrounding Fort Howe because of the protection it afforded, founding the communities of Parrtown and Carleton. Fort Howe became the military headquarters for the area of the lower Saint John River valley.

In 1784, the British government responded to the wishes of the Loyalists settling in the area by designating the entire portion of the colony of Nova Scotia north of the Bay of Fundy as the new colony of New Brunswick. The cannons of Fort Howe were fired (on a rare occasion) on November 21, 1784 when they offered a 17-gun salute welcoming the colony’s first Governor, Brigadier General Thomas Carleton (officially governor from 1786–1817).

Fort Howe, Saint John NB

In 1785, Parrtown and Carleton were merged by Royal Charter to form the city of Saint John. Fort Howe served as the first civic jail for the municipality. Fort Howe’s cannon batteries were again fired in celebration upon hearing news of Admiral Nelson’s 1805 victory at the Battle of Trafalgar

Carleton Martello Tower overlooking the harbour, Saint John NB
Carleton Martello Tower

A series of defences to guard Saint John Harbour were developed in response to the Napoleonic Wars. Fort Howe became the linchpin in a system consisting of itself (protecting the river narrows), the Carleton Martello Tower, guarding the harbour from another rise on the west side of the River, and Fort Dufferin, guarding the harbour entrance near Partridge Island. Fort Howe’s barracks also housed British Army troops and Royal Navy sailors who participated in raids along the coastline of present-day Washington and Penobscot counties in Maine (then part of Massachusetts), and provided support to an important blockhouse guarding the frontier on the St. Croix River at St. Andrews.

Canon at Fort Howe, Saint John, NB

Fort Howe’s cannons were again fired in celebration upon news of the Duke of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Following the War of 1812, Fort Howe fell into disuse as more modern defence facilities were better able to defend Saint John from attack, notably the Martello Tower on the west side of the harbour.

Blockhouse at Fort Howe, Saint John, NB

It, like Fort Dufferin were allowed to gradually deteriorate over the ensuing century as nature reclaimed the land and buildings. Following Confederation in 1867, most British troops were removed from the city in favour of domestic militia and remaining harbour defences were largely abandoned in place. 

Fort Dufferin
Fort Dufferin

 The Second World War saw the site of Fort Howe host its final military activities when the Canadian 8th Anti-Aircraft Battery placed a 3.7 inch gun atop the hill overlooking the river mouth as part of Canada’s coastal defence plan. The Canadian Army’s Ordnance Corps also built an instrument repair shop nearby. Following the war, the last blockhouse and this repair shop were lost to fire and the site was mostly levelled. 

Fort Howe, Saint John, NB

 Fort Howe has the distinction of being the first historic site in the national park system. The site was designated a National Historic Park, named Fort Howe National Park, on March 30, 1914 partly at the urging of James B. Harkin, first Commissioner of Dominion (National) Parks. It had been federal property already, under the Department of Militia and Defence, making the transition easier. One rationale for its creation was to introduce the national park concept to eastern populations, but its historic resources proved problematic. For one, the Parks Branch had no experience managing a historic site, and its primary concern was to create an urban recreational park. Historic resources were incidental. For another, Fort Howe itself “was not a very important historic site”, and was used to acquire “undistinguished property.

Fort Howe, Saint John, NB

Its tentative creation, along with a recommendation to establish Beaver Dams National Battlefield Park (1914) and the formation of Fort Anne National Park (1917), provided some of the impetus for the Parks Branch to formalize its heritage policy. One significant result of this was the creation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1919, an advisory body which would assess historic sites.

Early on, Harkin was uncomfortable with Fort Howe in the park system, and, with the site deemed inferior to others more worthy of inclusion, and “never very successful”, the fort was eventually given to the city of Saint John in 1930, abolishing the national park. In 1966, Fort Howe was designated a National Historic Site on the advice of the federal historic sites board, but did not rejoin the national park system. Since then, there have been several schemes to rebuild the fortification in its entirety to depict its hey-day during the American Revolutionary War. 

Blockhouse at Fort Howe, Saint John, NB

As part of the city’s commemoration of the centennial of Confederation in 1967, the Saint John chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire and the city erected a full-size replica of one of Fort Howe’s blockhouses upon the site. Several original or replica 18th century cannons, as well as one of the Second World War anti-aircraft batteries, are located on the site, which is a popular lookout for tourists and residents in the hill-top park overlooking the city and harbour. The Fort is affiliated with the Canadian Museums Association, the Canadian Heritage Information Network, and the Virtual Museum of Canada.

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