Saint John, New Brunswick

From Academic Kids

Saint John is the largest city in the province of New Brunswick and the oldest incorporated city in Canada. In 2001 it had a population of 69,661 (metropolitan population/conurbation 122,678). It is situated along the north shore of the Bay of Fundy at the mouth of the St. John River.

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Saint John skyline


Predated by the Maritime Archaeic Indian civilization, the area of the northwestern coastal regions of the Bay of Fundy came to be inhabited by the Passamaquoddy Nation several thousand years ago, while the Saint John River valley north of the bay became the domain of the Maliseet Nation.

The mouth of the Saint John River was first discovered by Europeans in 1604 during a reconnaissance of the Bay of Fundy undertaken by French cartographer Samuel de Champlain. Champlain was assisting an expedition chartered by Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Monts, which resulted in a French settlement 100 kilometres west at Île-Ste-Croix and was subsequently moved across the bay to Port-Royal the following year. The day upon which Champlain sighted the mighty river emptying into Baie François (as the Bay of Fundy was then called) was St. John The Baptist's Day, thus the name for the river (Fleuve Ste-Jean, or St. John River).

A permanent French presence wasn't established at the site until several decades later as the French colony of Acadia was developing. The area of Acadia along the north shore of the Bay of Fundy was largely inhospitable to early French settlers who followed Champlain and de Monts' lead by opting for the Annapolis Valley on the bay's southern shores, however the strategic location at the mouth of the St. John River came to be fortified by Charles LaTour in 1631. The river valley saw limited French commerce as several Acadian communities were established upriver, most notably at Point-Ste-Anne (present-day Fredericton). The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 saw control of the area of Acadia south of the Bay of Fundy (present-day peninsular Nova Scotia) pass from France to Britain, while the area north of the bay, including the St. John River valley and Fort LaTour, remained in a much-smaller Acadia which included Île-Ste-Jean (present-day Prince Edward Island) and Île-Royale (present-day Cape Breton Island).

During the Seven Years War, British troops seized Fort LaTour and the surrounding area in 1758 and renamed the fortification Fort Frederick. The same war which saw Britain seize control of Acadia and New France, merged the remaining portions of Acadia under the existing colony of Nova Scotia. Several decades later, Fort Frederick was destroyed during the American Revolutionary War and Fort Howe was built nearby at the insistence of newly-arriving Loyalist refugees. The large numbers of Loyalists in the area of Nova Scotia north of the Bay of Fundy saw success in 1784 by petitioning the Crown to divide the colony of Nova Scotia, creating the new colony of New Brunswick.

The Loyalist-dominated communities of Parrtown and Carleton with a combined population of 14,000 developed around Fort Howe and both towns were amalgamated by Royal charter to become the City of Saint John the following year in 1785, making it the first incorporated city in British North America (present-day Canada). A reconstruction of Fort Howe sits on the original location overseeing the river and harbour entrance from a hill top.

During the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Saint John's location made it a probable target for American attacks, thus several military forts were constructed, namely Fort Dufferin and one of Canada's six Martello Towers.

The Irish potato famine of the mid-1800s saw Saint John's largest and most influential immigrant influx occur, with the government forced to construct a quarantine station and hospital on Partridge Island at the mouth of the harbour to handle the new arrivals. These immigrants changed the character of the city and surrounding region from its Loyalist-Protestant heritage with their Irish-Catholic tradition. Schools and hospitals soon followed denominational lines.

Saint John became the province's leading industrial centre during the 19th century, fostering a shipbuilding trade that lasted until 2002, in addition to being a major forestry and manufacturing centre. Much of the city's shipbuilding industry was concentrated on the mudflats of Courtney Bay on the city's east side; a Saint John shipyard built and launched the famous sailing ship Marco Polo from Courtney Bay.

As a result of this industrial development and the city's key location for railways and servicing the triangle trade between British North America, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom, Saint John was poised to be one of Canada's leading urban centres. For the majority of the 1800s the region had a greater population than Halifax, Nova Scotia and even Toronto, Ontario, however a disastrous fire in 1877 destroyed a large portion of the central business district; some historians have argued that this fire, coupled with the decline of the "golden age" of sail and the disappearance of wooden sailing ships, conspired in a way that Saint John never fully recovered. It should be noted that the city has expanded continuously throughout the decades since the fire, albeit not at the same rate of growth.

During the First World War, Saint John became an important transshipment point for the British Empire's war effort. The Second World War saw the port decline in importance due to the U-boat threat which saw Halifax's protected harbour offer improved convoy marshalling, however Saint John's manufacturing industries expanded considerably during this time, notably the production of veneer wood for De Havilland Mosquito bomber aircraft. On account of the U-boat threat, additional batteries and search light facilties were installed around the harbour and on Partridge Island on the west side of the harbour and at Red Head on the east side of the harbour.

Saint John's first airport was located north of the central business district at Millidgeville. At the time, this location on a plateau overlooking the Kennebecasis River was predominantly a summer cottage area, which was used by local residents to escape the coastal fog from the Bay of Fundy. On May 19, 1932 Amelia Earheart landed at the Millidgeville airport during her solo trans-Atlantic flight. The next morning she took a copy of the Saint John Telegraph Journal newspaper with her on the next leg of her journey to Harbour Grace, Newfoundland from where she continued flying to Europe. The current Saint John Airport was developed in the post-war and is located in the eastern part of the city, whereas the former airport property at Millidgeville has been redeveloped into a subdivision.


The city is situated in the south-central portion of the province, along the north shore of the Bay of Fundy at the mouth of the St. John River. The city is split by the south-flowing river and the east side is bordered on the north by the Kennebecasis River where it meets the St. John River at Grand Bay.

The St. John River itself flows into the Bay of Fundy through a narrow gorge several hundred feet wide at the centre of the city. It hosts a unique phenomenon called the Reversing Falls where the diurnal tides of the bay reverse the water flow of the river for several kilometres. A series of underwater ledges at the narrowest point of this gorge also create a series of rapids.

The topography surrounding Saint John is hilly; a result of the influence of two coastal mountain ranges which run along the Bay of Fundy - the St. Croix Highlands and the Caledonia Highlands. The soil throughout the region is extremely rocky with frequent granite outcrops. The coastal plain hosts numerous freshwater lakes in the eastern, western and northern parts of the city.

Saint John is a city of neighbourhoods, with many residents closely identifying with their particular locale. The central peninsula on the east side of the harbour hosts the site of the original city from the merger of Parrtown and Carleton. In this area, the central business district (CBD) and the Trinity Royal heritage district have developed, which together are referred to as "Uptown" by residents throughout the city. The south end of the peninsula, south of the CBD, is appropriately called the "South End", whereas the area north of the CBD is called the "North End"; both areas being predominantly urban residential comprised of older housing which is undergoing gentrification.

Further north of the city, along the southern bank of the Kennebecasis River is the suburban neighbourhood of Millidgeville. To the east of the CBD, across Courtney Bay, is the "East Side", where the city has experienced its greatest suburban sprawl in recent decades with commercial retail centres and residential subdivsions. There has been consistent commercial development in the Westmorland Road-McAllister Drive-Consumers Drive-Majors Brook Drive corridor since 1994. It is an area that could also be called "Downtown East". The city's current airport is located further east on the coastal plain among several lakes at the far eastern edge of the municipality.

The area between Millidgeville and the East Side plays host to the city's largest park, and one of Canada's largest urban parks. "Rockwood Park" encompasses hundreds of acres of upland Acadian mixed forest, many hills and several caves, as well as several freshwater lakes with an extensive trail network and the city's zoo.

West of the St. John River, the city is comprised of several neighbourhoods - the lower "West Side" was a former working class neighbourhood which was amalgamated into Saint John in the 1800s. West and north of this "West Side" is the former city of Lancaster, which amalgamated into Saint John in the 1960s. Further north of Lancaster, following the west bank of the St. John River, is the community of South Bay. West of Lancaster, the city hosts its second largest park, and one of the largest coastal urban parks in the country. The privately run "Irving Nature Park" sits on an extensive peninsula extending into the western part of Saint John Harbour into the Bay of Fundy near Lorneville.

The greater metropolitan area includes the following communities: Grand Bay-Westfield, Greenwich, Hampton, Kingston, Lepreau, Musquash, Petersville, Quispamsis, Rothesay, Saint John, St. Martins, and Upham.


Saint John remains the industrial powerhouse of New Brunswick and the Maritimes and currently hosts the greatest concentration of industry on the Atlantic coast north of New York City. Wealthy industrialist K.C. Irving and his family built an industrial conglomerate in the city during the 20th century with interests in oil, forestry, shipbuilding, media, and transportation. Irving companies remain dominant employers in the region with the most important businesses being eastern North America's first deepwater oil terminal, Canada's largest oil refinery, a medium-sized pulp mill, a newsprint mill, and a tissue paper plant.

Until the early 2000s, Canada's largest shipyard, also owned by the Irving conglomerate, had been an important employer in the city. During the 1980s-early 1990s the shipyard was responsible for building 9 of the 12 Halifax class multi-purpose patrol frigates for the Canadian Navy, however the shipyard was left without contracts for almost a decade following the warship construction and the federal government appeared to be intentionally trying to force Canada's shipbuilding industry out of business after signing several international trade agreements preventing subsidization and tax relief (as most shipbuilding nations provide such incentives). There has also been speculation that federal politics through the 1990s played a role in federal policies which have hurt the city, including the closure of the shipyard, the abandonment of VIA Rail passenger train service, changes to social housing policies (Saint John has a large number of older housing stock), and the closure and relocation of numerous federal offices. Several government offices were relocated to Moncton and Fredericton which elected members of parliament who were on the government side - Saint John being represented by former mayor and member of the opposition Elsie Wayne at the time.

Other important economic activity in the city is generated by the Port of Saint John (New Brunswick's largest port), the Moosehead brewery, the New Brunswick Power Corporation which operates three electrical generating stations in the region (Courtney Bay GS, Coleson Cove GS, and the Point Lepreau Nuclear GS), Aliant Telecom which operates out of the former NB Tel headquarters, numerous information technology companies, and the Atlantic Health Sciences Corporation - the regional health authority for southwestern part of the province and operator of New Brunswick's largest health care facility, Saint John Regional Hospital. There are also a number of call centres which were established in the 1990s under provincial government incentives - some of the companies operating (or have operated) call centres in Saint John include Air Canada and Xerox.

Prior to the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s, the Port of Saint John functioned as the winter port for Montreal, Quebec when shipping was unable to traverse the sea ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River. The Canadian Pacific Railway opened a line to Saint John from Montreal in 1889 across the state of Maine and tranferred the majority of its trans-Atlantic passenger and cargo shipping to the port during the winter months. The port fell into decline following the seaway opening and the start of year-round icebreaker services in the 1960s. In 1994 CPR left Saint John when it sold the line to shortline operator New Brunswick Southern Railway. Canadian National Railway still services Saint John with a secondary mainline from Moncton.

Urban Redevelopment

A major urban renewal project in the early 1970s involving a partnership between CPR along with the federal, provincial and municipal governments saw a new harbour bridge and expressway (called the Saint John Throughway) built on former railway lands. The ferry terminal for the service to Digby, Nova Scotia was also relocated from Long Wharf to a new facility on the lower West Side (see Bay Ferries Limited) as the CBD was expanded with new office buildings and downtown retail areas while historic industrial buildings were turned into shops and museums. The effect was that the CBD along the eastern waterfront of Saint John Harbour became quite vibrant with its combination of historical charm and modern character.

Tourism and downtown revitalization of the CBD has become an important consideration in future growth plans. The city has been a leader in heritage preservation following the 1982 designation of a 20-block area of the Uptown (see Trinity Royal ( Historic buildings within this area are covered by heritage bylaws controlling structure aesthetics and streetscapes. This area boasts one of Canada's largest collections of historic commercial architecture, although some developers believe that heritage preservation puts restraints on future developments. A related development in recent years has been waterfront redevelopment for tourist and residential use. This effort increased markedly in the early 2000s following the closure and dismantling of the Lantic Sugar refinery in the South End. An official plan calls for the former sugar refinery site to become home to an integrated urban residential development coupled with parkland and harbourfront walking trails. The eventual masterplan envisions a series of parkland and walking trails surrounding the harbour and Reversing Falls gorge connecting with important cultural heritage sites.

In recent years the Port of Saint John's port authority has been at odds with the vision of the waterfront redevelopment, citing the economic importance of the port lands which would be lost if the redevelopment master plan is implemented on the inner harbour. Ironically, in the 1970s redevelopment of the city and port, most of the port's industrial areas were scheduled to be relocated at a major new deepwater port being considered for the western part of the outer harbour at Lorneville in a major partnership between the Irving conglomerate, NB Power, CPR and the three levels of government, however the plan fell through in favour of concentrating industrial development on the inner harbour along the mouth of the Saint John River - the very area where the waterfront redevelopment is being proposed (see Saint John Waterfront Development Partnership (


In 1964, the University of New Brunswick created UNB Saint John. Initially located in buildings throughout the downtown CBD, in 1968 UNBSJ opened a new campus in the city's Tucker Park neighbourhood, adjacent to Millidgeville. This campus has undergone continuous expansion over the years and is the fastest growing component of the UNB system with many new buildings constructed between the 1970s-2000s. A trend in recent years has been a noticeable growth among numbers of international students. This has allowed for several new apartment buildings being constructed on University Avenue as well as new shops and services being created around the city catering to international students.

The city also hosts a New Brunswick Community College campus in the East End. This is the largest NBCC campus in the province.

Saint John is served by two school boards; District 8 for Anglophone schools and District 1 for Francophone schools. A private school, Rothesay Netherwood School is located in the adjacent town of Rothesay.


Besides being the location of several historical forts, Saint John is the current location of HMCS Brunswicker, which is a Naval Reserve division. The city also hosts several Army Reserve (Militia) units at a facility in the South End known as the Barrack Green Armoury.

Quick Saint John facts:

  • The mayor of Saint John is Norm McFarlane, first elected in 2004.
  • "Saint" in Saint John is never abbreviated - in this way the city cannot be confused with St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • The city has a booming cruise ship industry. An estimated 142,000 passengers visited in 2004.
  • Saint John is the industrial, legal, insurance and financial centre of the province.

Notable Saint John firsts:

Notable people from Saint John:

Although born in Russia, famed Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer (of MGM fame) was raised in Saint John. The burial site of his mother can be found in the small Jewish section of the Fernhill Cemetery on Westmorland Road.

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