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What to See & Do in St John’s?

This is as east as you can get. Explore all corners of St John’s unique harbour, including Signal Hill. Visit Water Street and its many bars an restaurants. There are lots of attraction close by: Quidi Vidi is a cute fishing village just north of town, Cape Spear to the south has the easternmost point of the continent, and take the ferry to explore Bell Island.

St John's Newfoundland- view from Signal Hill

View from harbour

St. John’s with a population over 100,000 is the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador. St. John’s is the most easterly port and oldest City in North America. The city is progressive and has world-class facilities in marine science and technology and in offshore oil development. St. John’s is the headquarters those companies that are exploiting the underwater offshore resources in the Hibernia and Terra Nova oil fields.

Cape Spear Lighthouse
Cape Spear Lighthouse

The city is surrounded by a mosaic of fishing villages, and hosts several cultural festivals, sports clubs and recreation facilities, to provide big city amenities with “small town” quality of life. Shoppers can stroll the aisles of national retailers or visit charming boutiques along Water Street, the oldest commercial street in North America, with most shops open seven days a week.

The city’s music scene is vibrant and eclectic with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, renowned choral groups and a variety of traditional Irish, jazz, and rock performers. St John’s nightlife scene is one of the most vibrant in Canada, and a history of lively pubs and taverns since the 1600s. Featuring 1920s light fixtures and cobblestones, George Street is said to have more pubs per square foot than anywhere else in North America.

Bowring Park Bridge
Bowring Park Bridge

Whether it’s a visit to a park to commune with nature, an art gallery to absorb some culture, a museum or historical site to the reflect on the area’s 500 years of history, or just an opportunity to wander around on the colourful and storied streets, St John’s offers its visitors and residents lots to do every day of the
week.

St John’s History

St John’s is on the southeast corner of the island province of Newfoundland & Labrador, and is its capital city and economic centre. Its rich history focuses on the early exploration and fishery, the early Portuguese, French, British and Irish settlers, its growth as a British colony, and finally the province’s role in the shaping of Canada as a nation.

Early History

Over the past several millenia, glaciers covered North America during the Ice Ages, eroding rock down to the earliest layers (about 4 billion years old), and some glaciers deeply scoured valleys into what are now steep-walled fjords. Western Newfoundland and Labrador form the eastern end of the Canadian Shield, and today the Tablelands area of Gros Morne National Park is so geologically unique they have been declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation of the Province stretching back more than 9,000 years. Since about 4,000 years ago Palaeo-Eskimo people from the Canadian Arctic settled on the Labrador coast, but they disappeared about 2,000 years ago. The area was then settled by Palaeo-Eskimos (usually called Dorset Eskimos), who disappeared as well. Around 2,000 years ago, Indian peoples appeared during the Dorset Eskimo period. Following the disappearance of the Dorset Eskimos, Indian cultures become much more evident and by A.D. 1,000 the ancestors of the Beothuk Indians had emerged.

View of Terra Nova National Park
At the time of early European settlement in Newfoundland, the Beothuks were the native inhabitants of the Island, who formed linguistic and cultural ties with the Algonkian cultures presently spread across the Canadian Maritimes. The Beothuks were hunters of the abundant food resources along the Island’s sea coast or the interior forests and barrens. Spring and summer were spent on the coast hunting the seals, whales and other sea mammals. In the fall the family groups moved inland following the herds of caribou which provided skins for clothing and shelter, and meat for subsistence.

Although initial contacts between Beothuks and settlers were recorded as “friendly”, misunderstanding and suspicion increased to the point where actual killings occurred on both sides for real or imaginary injustices. Starvation reduced Beothuk populations when the increasing numbers of Europeans unknowingly blocked the Beothuks access to the coast and to their traditional livelihood. By the early 1800’s they had become extinct as a people.

British Colonial Rule

Signal Hill Cannon overlooking St John's
In 1811, Fort Amherst Light House was built at the entrance of St. John’s Harbour, showing the growing British efforts to secure the Colony of Newfoundland. Following the establishment of the first courts in 1793, and a Supreme Court in 1824, Britain established a local parliament in 1833. In 1850, the Colonial Building, today called The House of Assembly, was opened. In 1888, Newfoundland switched its currency from shillings & pence to dollars & cents.

The Colony was beginning to modernize. In 1866, the Atlantic telegraph cable laid by the steamship Great Eastern was successfully landed at Heart’s Content. In 1881, the first sod for railway construction turned, with St John’s railway depot where the Newfoundland Hotel now stands, and the first train (and mail) ran in 1898, all the way to Port-aux-Basques. In 1886, the streets of St. John’s were first lighted by electricity. In 1895, the Wabana Iron Mine (on Bell Island in Conception Bay, 12 miles from St. John’s) opened, shipping a million tons per year to Europe and America. In 1908 the first newsprint mill was established.

In the 1890s the Colony suffered several major setbacks. The Dominion of Canada overruled them on an 1890 reciprocal trade treaty with the United States. A bank failed leaving Newfoundland without a currency, St John’s suffered a major fire. Canada invited Newfoundland to join Confederation, but would not absorb the Colony’s debt, so the offer was rejected.

The 1900s

The first major event for Newfoundland in the new century was the First World War. The Colony of Newfoundland sent a regiment over to Europe during World War I with almost 1,000 men (outfitted and shipped at Newfoundland’s cost). Their first battle was at Gallipoli (Egypt) in 1915. The next year, They fought at the battle of Beaumont Hamel, where 790 men went “over the top” to advance towards the Germans, and 710 of these were killed, wounded, or missing. Today, July 1, the day of the battle, is commemorated as a solemn day across Newfoundland.

Other than that, the First World War brought prosperity based chiefly on rising demand and prices for salt codfish. But this upturn was founded on a pyramiding of credit. In 1920 there was virtually a total collapse, and by 1932 Newfoundland had exhausted her credit.

The isolation of the outport communities lead to a very rugged and independent nature of Newfoundlanders. The west coast had neither a magistrate or station a policeman on its own west coast. The northeast coast was only accessible to St John’s by sea and only from June to November, when the ice blockade lifted. Few communities had doctors, priests or school. Life was primitive.

New technologies started to remove Newfoundland’s isolation. In 1919, Capt. Alcock and his pilot, Lieutenant A. Whitten Brown crossed the Atlantic from St. John’s to Clifden, Ireland, flying 1,800 miles in 15 hours and 57 minutes. In 1921, the first long distance telephone was instituted.

Iceberg off Cape Spear

Newfoundland had great difficulty governing the 220,000 people scattered in 1,300 communities along a 6,000 mile coastal perimeter. A Royal Commission recommended a rest from party politics and a despondent people accepted the proposal and surrendered the democratic privileges for which there had been so fierce a struggle 80 years before. When the Commission of Government took office in 1934, Newfoundland had virtually no public services and not a mile of paved road in the island.

The Second World War brought economic and social revolution. While the demand for all Newfoundland’s basic products increased, the establishment of the American bases (under the Lend-Lease program) was a prime factor in creating change. They had not only full-employment incomes but were exposed to the ways of the outside world. The people moved from credit to a cash economy. The newsprint industry became a major source of employment, European steelmakers could use Bell Island’s iron ore economically, and the fresh fish industry raised production from three million pounds in 1939 to 40 million in 1945.

Recent History
Fishing boats in the harbour

After the War, Newfoundland became a key player on the world stage. Longer range airplanes stopped for refueling at Gander airport on their way from Europe to North America. By the 1960s, new long-range jet planes were able to by-pass Gander, though Soviet and East Bloc countries continued to stop here on their way to & from Cuba (causing many to defect on their stop-overs). Gander airport was back in the limelight on September 11, 2001 when the US closed off its airspace following the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center towers, forcing many trans-oceanic flights to be diverted to Gander.

After the Second World War, Britain’s massive war debt forced it to devalue its currency to rebuild its economy, which cause great turmoil in Newfoundland’s export industries, and especially lumber and fishing. Again, people out of work were looking to their government for a social “safety net”. As Newfoundlanders tried to being themselves up to the standards of living and the level of social services others in North America were so used to receiving, it was quickly realized that there were benefits to joining Canada.

A Newfoundland commission spent four years to discover that bringing social capital to a minimum level would require an outlay of over one hundred million dollars (in 1958 dollars) plus another 40 million for the Trans-Canada Highway. This was more than could reasonably be levied by provincial taxes.

In 1948 a referendum was held (it actually took two referenda to pass), allowing people to choose self-government, remaining a British Colony, or union with Canada. Newfoundland joined Canadian Confederation in 1949, and Joey Smallwood who championed the cause became the new province’s first premier.

Moose sign along the Transportation-Canada Highway

The 1960s were a time of great change in Newfoundland. The Hamilton Falls (renamed Churchill Falls) in Labrador was built, selling its power output to Quebec, The Tran-Canada Highway was built and paved, connecting the many towns and cities around the province. The government also moved many thousands of people from smaller isolated outports to larger centres where health care and education could be cost-effectively provided, causing upheaval for many.

In the 1970s, the offshore fishery began to decline with fish stocks, which suffered greatly from European overfishing. Canada extended its territorial sea to 12 miles in 1970 and unilaterally declared a 200-mile economic zone in 1977. In Newfoundland, the number of registered fishers had increased by 41%, registered vessels by 23%, and the total catch by 27% by 1981. Then, in the 1990s, the government declared a moratorium on fishing some species, to enable stocks to rebuild (though the Europeans continued to fish).

Oil was discovered in the Grand Banks, which could only be explored and extracted using very expensive offshore drilling rigs, built to withstand not only North Atlantic storms but the iceflows that are brought to the area by the Labrador Current.  The huge rigs needed to drill the offshore Grand Banks were assembled in Bay Bulls before being towed to  drilling sites. The royalty income from this is hoped to help the Newfoundland & Labrador government self-sufficient.

Highway Notes

There are two points in St John’s that can be considered the eastern terminuses of the Trans-Canada Highway:

St John’s harbourwhich is best accessed via Highway 2 which loops around the south end of town and past Mount Pearl. You can either access it form the downtown docksides, or take Southside Road which winds along the opposite shore to the mouth of the harbour.

From here there is a view to our other end point: Signal Hill , the place from which Marconi sent his first famous trans-Atlantic radio transmission, marked with a small bastion. This location has a great view of the ocean on one side and St John’s harbour and downtown on the other, but you are a few hundred feed above the water (no dipping your toes in the Atlantic from here). If you follow Highway 1 through St John’s scenic Pippy Park and past the airport to its endpoint, we’ve marked the map with a route via Quidi Vidi Lake to Signal Hill.

St John’s Information and Links

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