Saint John

Saint John NB Sign

Saint John

Saint John is the oldest city in New Brunswick and Canada’s first incorporated city. Located at the mouth of the Saint John River, on the Bay of Fundy.

Saint John Harbour was first entered probably in 1524 by Gomez (A Spaniard) and named Rio De La Buelta. Earlier still Basque, Breton and Norman Fisherman are to believed to have made voyages to the Bay of Fundy in the early 1500s.

Saint John, the oldest city in New Brunswick, holds the distinction of being Canada’s first incorporated city. It sits at the mouth of the Saint John River, on the Bay of Fundy.

It is believed that the Saint John Harbour was first entered around 1524 by a Spaniard named Gomez, who named it Rio De La Buelta. Before that, Basque, Breton, and Norman fishermen are thought to have voyaged to the Bay of Fundy in the early 1500s.

Historical accounts tell us that French explorers Sieur de Monts and Samuel De Champlain reached the mouth of what we now know as the St. John River on June 24, 1604, on the feast day of St. John the Baptist. They named the River in honor of the Saint.

Portland Point, an important historic landmark located near H.M.C.S. Brunswicker on the east side of Saint John Harbour, is the site of the first permanent French settlement in the part of Acadia now referred to as New Brunswick.

Charles La Tour fortified the area, serving as Lieutenant Governor from 1631 to 1635 and conducting trade with the indigenous people. The British took control in 1758, renaming the fortification Fort Frederick. American revolutionaries destroyed it in 1775, but it was subsequently replaced by Fort Howe from 1777 to 1778. The blockhouse of Fort Howe has since been reconstructed.

Loyalist House Saint John
Loyalist House

The settlement began to grow in 1783 when the United Empire Loyalists founded Parr Town and Carleton around the harbour. These two communities merged in 1785 to form Saint John, named after the river, becoming Canada’s first incorporated city.

Fort Howe blockhouse, Saint John
Fort Howe blockhouse

Benedict Arnold, the American revolutionary traitor, lived there in 1787 to 1791.

Martello tower Saint John

During the War of 1812, Martello Tower was built on Lancaster Heights for harbour defense; it is now a national historic site.

Martello Tower Saint John
Martello Tower

A year round ice-free harbour fostered shipping, shipbuilding ( the famous Ship Marco Polo to name one ), and fishing; but economic growth was checked by a disastrous fire of 1877 and a declining lumber trade.


Saint John recovered, absorbed the city of Portland in 1889 the city and parish of Lancaster and part of Simonds parish in 1966, and became the province’s commercial, manufacturing, and transportation center, with shipping facilities and one of the world’s longest (1,050 feet) dry docks.

Port of Saint John. Cranes to lift containers from ships.
Port of Saint John. Cranes to lift containers from ships.

A significant chapter in the city’s history relates to the Irish immigrants who were quarantined on Partridge Island during the Great Famine in Ireland. Many succumbed during the perilous ocean journey, packed into unsanitary cargo vessels. Hundreds more who survived the voyage perished on the overcrowded island due to inadequate shelter, medical care, sanitation, and clean drinking water.

Those strong enough to reach the shore faced ongoing poverty, discrimination, and enormous challenges in finding steady work in the “Loyalist” city. These Irish immigrants established an Irish community in Saint John during the late 19th century. However, the community dwindled over time as immigrants with the means to journey further sought better opportunities westwards and in the United States.

The Great Fire in Saint John

The great fire of 1877 reduced much of the city to ashes, and although foreign nations and cities raised relief funds to help rebuild, the Irish labourers who had arrived en masse only 30 years before and who continued to arrive in droves played no small role in rebuilding the destroyed Loyalist city of Saint John back up again, this time in brick and stone.

Reversing Falls Bridge, Saint John
Reversing Falls Bridge

The St. John River flows into the Bay of Fundy through a narrow gorge several hundred feet wide at the centre of the city. It contains a unique phenomenon called the Reversing Falls where the diurnal tides of the bay reverse the water flow of the river for several kilometres.

Crew building Reversing Falls Bridge Saint John 1915
Back in 1915 these hard working Saint Johner’s built the Reversing Falls Bridge.

A series of underwater ledges at the narrowest point of this gorge also create a series of rapids.

Old Saint John Reversing Falls Bridge

Original New Brunswick Museum on Douglas Avenue in Saint John
The original NB Museum located on Douglas Avenue.

The New Brunswick Museum located in downtown Saint John has an extensive collection of colonial relics, ship model of the shipbuilding era, a variety of galleries and features a 45-foot right whale and mastodon!

Saint John has taken great pride in it’s history and has restored many of the original building and homes of the early settlers, a walk down Prince William Street is like taking a walk in the past.

A few Saint John notable firsts:

  • 1785: First quarantine station in North America, Partridge Island, established by the city’s charter. In the early 19th century, it greeted sick and dying Irish emigrants arriving to the New World with inhospitable conditions.
  • 1830: The first chartered bank in Canada, the Bank of New Brunswick.
  • Canada’s oldest publicly funded high school, Saint John High School.
  • 1838: First penny newspaper in the Empire, the tri-weekly Saint John News, established by George E Fenety.
  • 1842: Canada’s first public museum, originally known as the Gesner Museum, named after its Nova Scotian founder Abraham Gesner, the inventor of kerosene. The museum is now known as the New Brunswick Museum.
  • 1851: Marco Polo ship launched.
  • 1854: The world’s first automated steam foghorn was invented by Robert Foulis.
  • 1870: Canada’s first Y.W.C.A. established by Mrs. Agnes A. Blizzard in a house on Germain Street.
  • 1870: First Knights of Pythias in British Empire.
  • 1872: First monitor top railroad cars in the world invented by James Ferguson. The original model is in the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John.
  • 1880: First clockwork time bomb developed in 1880.
  • 1906: First public playground in Canada which was started by Miss Mabel Peters. This playground is known as the Allison Ground Playground in Rockwood Court. On July 16, 2009, 103 years after its opening, Allison Ground Playground is the first playground, that Mabel Peters encouraged, to be renamed in her honour as Mabel Peters Playground.
  • 1907: First orchestra to accompany a silent moving picture on the North American continent was by Walter Golding in the old nickel theatre, May 1907.
  • 1918: First Minister of Health of the British Empire, W. F. Roberts, M.D.
  • 1918: One of the first police unions in Canada, the Saint John Police Protective Association, was formed in Saint John.
  • 1923: First Miss Canada Mrs. Harold Drummie (née Winnie Blair).

Fir more information on Saint John, click here

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