Its strategic geographical location at the centre of the English migratory fishery on the GRAND BANKS made St John's a rendezvous for European fishermen and, after 1700, the natural focus for imperial administration and defence on the island. As the COD fishery grew during the 18th century, St John's changed from a fishing town into a growing commercial centre for Newfoundland's increasing resident population.
St John's was destroyed by fires in 1816, 1817, 1819, 1846 and 1892. After 1870, small manufacturing industries were established in the capital. A dry dock was opened at the port in 1882, and after 1898 the city became the headquarters for the trans-island railway, which had been completed across Newfoundland by Canadian railway entrepreneur Sir Robert REID the previous year. After 1900 an improved coastal boat service to the outports further enhanced the pre-eminence of St John's.
Poor world markets for Newfoundland fish following World War I led St John's into a recession, which was further worsened by the GREAT DEPRESSION. Prosperity returned during World War II with the arrival in January 1941 of the US armed forces to build Fort Pepperell and other military facilities in the capital. The resultant construction boom continued after 1946 with the building of new suburbs and the large infusion of federal funds after Confederation in 1949. St John's became more dependent after 1949 on public sector employment; at the same time it lost its traditional role as the fish-export centre of Newfoundland with the withdrawal from the salt-fish trade of major city mercantile firms, which chose to concentrate on a growing wholesale consumer trade.
The port of St John's has thus been transformed from an import-export centre into an import-service centre, as much of the port's revenue until the 1980s was generated from supplying and repairing the local and international fishing fleet. The city has excellent air and road connections with both the rest of the province and the Canadian mainland. Close proximity to oil discoveries on the Grand Banks and the development of major oil fields in the 1990s have significantly boosted the city's economic and physical development.
Until 1964, when the federal government completed a 915 m wharf along the north side of the harbour, the major feature of the St John's landscape in the harbourfront business district was the numerous private finger piers that jutted out from the merchants' warehouses on the south side of Water Street. The city's streets ran in an east-west direction and parallel to the harbour. Before Confederation the streets were narrow and winding, reflecting the city's system of land tenure. With much of the land in the main commercial-residential area owned by British absentee landlords, the government was financially unable, following the 1846 and 1892 fires, to acquire land to create straight, wide streets in a gridiron pattern. Thus, St John's has a healthy "helter-skelter" appearance much appreciated by city dwellers from elsewhere.
After the creation of the St John's Housing Corporation in 1944, new planned suburbs were built in the valleys west, north and northeast of the principal settlement. Industry was spread throughout the adjacent harbour area. Since the 1960s new suburban industrial parks have been created to accommodate existing industry and for the economic activity generated by offshore oil development. In 1992 the city expanded its boundaries, increasing its size by over 460%. Most of the area was made up of the 3 large watersheds of the Regional Water Supply System, thereby transferring control of the region's water supply to the city. Also included in the amalgamation were the 2 nearby communities of Wedgewood Park and Goulds.
Early St John's ARCHITECTURE in the 16th and 17th centuries was in the tilt, or log cabin, form. Before the 1846 fire, the Georgian style of the hip or cottage roof predominated among the 2½-storey frame buildings. This style was then gradually replaced by the Gothic revival and the more significant Second Empire, which was especially dominant after the 1892 fire. Notable 19th-century buildings include the COLONIAL BUILDING (classic revival), the Roman Catholic basilica (Romanesque), and the Anglican cathedral (Gothic revival), designed by the English architect Gilbert Scott.
Since the mid 1960s the city's skyline has been gradually undergoing change as several new hotels, banks and office buildings have been completed. Nearby, the city has erected a 6000-seat hockey arena and attached convention facility, which opened in 2001. In 2005 an archives-museum-art gallery complex (The Rooms) opened near the basilica, having a commanding view of the city and its harbour. It has quickly become one of the city's must-see tourism sites. A number of the older buildings in the city's downtown have been redeveloped as private condominiums and other lands in the area have been developed for this purpose, reflecting the city's new wealth generated by offshore oil production.
St John's experienced slow growth until the NAPOLEONIC WARS, when substantial Irish Roman Catholic immigration increased the population from 3742 residents (1796) to 10 018 (1815). After 1832 natural increase and the migration of outport residents to the capital combined to produce steady growth and a compact, ethnically homogeneous community of Irish and British stock. Though Roman Catholics ceased to form a majority of the city's population after 1911, their influence in the social, cultural and political life of St John's was well entrenched.
The steady population increase produced serious social problems of public health, housing and unemployment that were only partly relieved by immigration to the northeast US and elsewhere in Canada. The city's population doubled from 1946 to 1971 as large numbers of people came to St John's to participate in new employment opportunities in the civil service and service sectors. However, since 1971 St John's has experienced a decline (except for the new residents acquired through the 1992 annexation), as many residents moved to MOUNT PEARL and other new suburban communities outside the city boundaries. St John's population is still predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Irish and stood at 100 646 in 2006, an 1.5% increase over that in 2001.
The entry after 1949 of cheaper Canadian manufactured goods into Newfoundland caused the city's industries to collapse and thereby reduced the volume of commercial activity at the port. The completion of a paved highway across the island in 1965 enabled mainland distributors to bypass St John's and use CORNER BROOK and CHANNEL-PORT AUX BASQUES to send their goods to island centres. The growth since 1949 of a large civil service supported by the federal, provincial and municipal governments has been the key to the expansion of the city's labour force and to the stability of its economy, which supports a sizable retail, service and business sector. The provincial government is the largest employer in the city, followed by Memorial University. The growth of the university has also played a large role in the city's becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse.
With a strong offshore oil industry off Newfoundland since 1997, St John's economy has benefited greatly as a major service and supply base, which boosted its service sector overall. Since 2000, tourism has also increased substantially with several major new hotel facilities having been built and with major cruise ship lines regularly visiting the city.
Government and Politics
The city was governed by the colonial government until 1888, when it received a limited form of self-rule with authority over the water supply, streets, sewers, parks and building regulations. The city was governed by different councils or commissions composed of government-appointed members and elected officials until 1916, when a fully elective form of municipal council was settled on.
In 1921 a comprehensive bill, drafted by the commissioners who had administered the city from 1914 to 1916, was passed by the legislature. This 1921 Act and its subsequent amendments by the legislature are the basis of today's St John's city government. In 1969 the number of elected councillors was increased from 6 to 8, and in 1981 a partial ward system was adopted. Since the amalgamation of 1992, St John's elects 4 councillors at large, 5 councillors on the basis of the ward system, a deputy mayor and a mayor. There is no regional government in the St John's metropolitan area but various services such as fire protection and water services are provided and maintained by the city with some surrounding municipalities having both financial and administrative inputs into their operation. In 2009 St John's also put into service a new sewage treatment plant designed to clean up the harbour waters.
St John's has most of Newfoundland's social, educational and religious institutions. The Benevolent Irish Society and the Convent of the Order of Presentation Sisters date from 1806 and 1833, respectively. Until the province undertook a rural high school building program in the 1950s, the city's denominational high schools provided educational instruction for outport residents. The city is also the site of MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY, the College of the North Atlantic and the Marine Institute.
Also found here are the PROVINCIAL MUSEUM OF NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR, the Arts and Culture Centre and the Resource Centre for the Arts. SIGNAL HILL national historic site, which contains Cabot Tower, was conceived in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Newfoundland's discovery and Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Opened in 1900, the tower was the site the following year for Guglielmo Marconi to receive the first transatlantic wireless message. Located on the slope of the hill is the popular Johnson GEO CENTRE, a museum devoted to the geological history of the province. The old railway station on Water Street has been converted into a museum (Railway Coastal Museum) devoted to the history of Newfoundland's railway and coastal boat services. COMMISSARIAT HOUSE and the Colonial Building are provincial historic sites. In 1919 the city was the starting point of the first transatlantic nonstop airplane flight, when Sir John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew to Ireland.
St John's has one daily newspaper, the Telegram, 2 TV stations and several radio stations. St John's InfoNET, the city's freenet, provides access to the provincial and federal governments, numerous community groups and the St John's public and Memorial University library systems.
The city has a long tradition in sports; the annual ROYAL ST JOHN'S REGATTA, held on the first Wednesday in August, dates from about 1818 and is the oldest continuous sporting event in North America. St John's was the site of the 1977 Canada Summer Games, which left the city with improved sporting facilities. A minor league farm team of the TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS, the St John's Maple Leafs, played in St John's until folding in 2005. The St John's Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League briefly replaced the Maple Leafs (2005-08).
Since 1978 the city has celebrated June 24 as a civic holiday (St John's Day; in the rest of the province the holiday is called Discovery Day) in honour of Newfoundland's discovery in 1497. The Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival is one of the largest festivals in the province. The St John's International Women's Film Festival (first held in 1989) holds screenings in various venues throughout St John's.
Author MELVIN BAKER
Melvin Baker, Aspects of Nineteenth Century St. John's Municipal History (1982); P. Copes, St. John's and Newfoundland: An Economic Survey (1961); Jack Fitzgerald, Another Time, Another Place: A Nostalgic and Humorous Look at Life in St. John's During the 1940s and 1950s (1977); Frank Galgay and Michael McCarthy, Olde St. John's: Stories from a Seaport City (2001); Les Harding, Historic St. John's: The City of Legends (1993); Harold Horwood, A Walk in the Dream Time: Growing Up in Old St. John's (1997); G.A. Nader, Cities of Canada, 2 vols (1975-76); S.J.R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland (1971); Shane O'Dea, The Domestic Architecture of St. John's (1974); Paul O'Neill, The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland, 2 vols (1975-76); R.E. Pearson, Atlas of St. John's, Newfoundland (1969); Joan Rusted, Tolerable Good Anchorage: A Capsule History of St. John's, Newfoundland (1995); J.R. Smallwood, ed, The Book of Newfoundland, 6 vols (1937-75).
Links to Other Sites
St. John's Port Authority
This site offers a history of the Port of St. John’s. From the St. John's Port Authority.
Geographical Names of Canada
Search the "Canadian Geographical Names Data Base" for the official name of a city, town, lake (or any other geographical feature) in any province or territory in Canada. See also the real story of how Toronto got its name. A Natural Resources Canada website.
The Magnetic North Theatre Festival
This national arts festival showcases some of Canada's best contemporary English language theatre. Check for current performance schedule and other event news.
This international symposium features a lively program of innovative music, theatre, dance, art, film and more at venues throughout St. John's. Their website features sound clips and information about various performers and events.
Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives
Check out the digitized archival images of Canadian cities and more at this website for the Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives.
Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland
The website for Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, a theatre company based in St John's. Watch the video for an overview of their innovative theatre productions.
Royal St John's Regatta
An interactive website devoted to the history of the Royal St John's Regatta. From Library and Archives Canada.
Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce
The website for the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce (APCC), formerly the Maritime Board of Trade. Formed in 1896, this organization promotes and supports business and economic development in Atlantic Canada. Click on "Chambers" for links to local Chambers of Commerce.
Windows to Our Past: the Stained Glass Windows of the Basilica Cathedral of St.John the Baptist
This site features images of the beautiful stained glass windows which adorn the upper walls of the imposing Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist located in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. From the Virtual Museum of Canada.
The website for Jane’s Walk, a network of free walking tours that explore the quality and livability of local neighbourhoods based on ideas espoused by Jane Jacobs. Click on "The Community" to access the latest news and photos on their blog and more. Also, check out "Find Your Walk" for maps and descriptions of local walks throughout the country.
Battle of the Atlantic marked with wreaths on land, at sea
A CBC News story about the 2013 ceremonies held in St. John's and in nearby waters that mark the Battle of the Atlantic. See also the comments at the end of the story.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...