Saint John

Saint John, NB, incorporated as a city in 1785, population 67 575 (2016c), 70 063 (2011c), 68 043 (2006c). The City of Saint John, the second largest city in New Brunswick, is located at the mouth of the SAINT JOHN RIVER on the Bay of FUNDY.

Saint John, NB, incorporated as a city in 1785, population 67 575 (2016c),70 063 (2011c), 68 043 (2006c). The City of Saint John, the second largest city in New Brunswick, is located at the mouth of the SAINT JOHN RIVER on the Bay of FUNDY.


Saint John from the Air
(Corel Professional Photos)
Reversing Falls
Reversing Falls, Saint John, New Brunswick (courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission & Ocean Images).
Ships of Saint John
The West Side and the Portland area just north of the city proper were the shipbuilding centres of the port. By the mid-19th century, the city was one of the great shipbuilding centres of the world, often producing more than 100 vessels a year (courtesy New Brunswick Museum).
Saint John, NB, circa 1870
Photograph taken by James Notman circa 1870 (courtesy National Gallery of Canada).
Saint John, NB, Riverfront
(photo by John Sylvester)
Market Square, Saint John
Market Square preserves a section of waterfront in Saint John, New Brunswick (photo by John Sylvester)
Port of Saint John
Saint John Harbour, around 1900. The city's early economy emerged through the timber trade and shipping (courtesy PANB/00239-1).
Saint John, NB
North Market Square, Saint John, NB (courtesy Masterfile, photo by Barrett & MacKay).
Pulp Mill, Saint John
On the Saint John River, New Brunswick (photo by Al Harvey/Masterfile).

Saint John's earliest known inhabitants were the MI'KMAQ and later the MALISEET. Samuel de CHAMPLAIN arrived at Saint John Harbour on 24 June 1604 - the feast of St John the Baptist - and gave the river its name. No permanent settlement was attempted until 1630 when Charles de LA TOUR constructed a fort (Fort La Tour) at the site of present-day Saint John.

In 1701 the newly appointed French governor of ACADIA, Jacques-François de Brouillan, destroyed the fort and consolidated his forces across the bay at PORT-ROYAL. Not until the 1730s did Acadians from other parts of the Bay of Fundy begin resettling along the river.

By 1749 ownership of the territory surrounding Saint John was in dispute between England and France, and in the ensuing struggle the Acadian deportations were carried out from the mid-1750s to the early 1760s. The old French fort was rebuilt by the English in 1758 and renamed Fort Frederick, but it was destroyed in 1775 by the Americans. Finally, in 1778, the English erected Fort Howe on a hill above Portland Point.

The beginnings of permanent English settlement occurred in the 1760s with the arrival from Boston of James Simonds and James White, each of whom established dwellings at the foot of present-day Fort Howe Hill. These pre-Loyalist 18th-century merchants traded with the native people and the garrison, and formed ties with the British at Halifax.

In 1783 this harbour community greatly expanded when LOYALISTS settled on the east side of the harbour in Parr Town, on the west side in Carleton and on the north side in Portland. In 1785 Carleton and Parr Town were incorporated, taking the name Saint John - the first incorporated city in what is now Canada. NEW BRUNSWICK was made a separate colony in 1784 and Saint John served briefly as the provincial capital before the capital was moved upriver to FREDERICTON.


The city's early economy emerged through the TIMBER TRADE, trading and SHIPBUILDING. Quickly growing in prominence as a port, Saint John's lumberyards supplied square timber, and later sawn lumber, to Great Britain and the West Indies; its shipyards produced vessels (as early as 1770) which transported the forestry products and also became export commodities themselves. Many of the city's shipbuilders and ships, such as the MARCO POLO, became famous. Equally significant, the waterfront produced the city's largest labour union, which by 1911 had affiliated with the International Longshoremen's Association.

From the 1820s through the 1840s thousands of immigrants - Scots and especially Irish - altered the city's ethnic and religious composition. By 1849 tensions between Protestants and Catholics resulted in riot and loss of life. During the 1850s an outbreak of CHOLERA centred largely in the poorer Catholic district prompted the local bishop, Thomas Louis Connolly, to co-found, with Honoria Conway, the first indigenous English-speaking congregation of women religious in Canada, the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception (1854).

By the mid-century, the city's economy of "wood, wind and sail" was challenged from the outside by the newer technology of steam and iron. In addition, it was visited by a host of economic woes. From 1860 to 1880 Saint John began to be deeply affected by the end of the protected British market for colonial timber, the slackening in demand for wooden ships and a general decrease in trade. These conditions were worsened by an international depression that was under way by early 1874 and by a disastrous fire in 1877 that left the city's business district, most of its waterfront and much of its residential area in ashes.

To these calamities were added the adverse consequences of CONFEDERATION, as the arrival of the INTERCOLONIAL RAILWAY (1876) brought Saint John's manufacturers into competition with those from central Canada - to the long-term disadvantage of Saint John.


The city's demographic profile reflected the political and economic shocks of its development. Although in 1871 Saint John remained the largest urban cluster in the Atlantic region, as early as the 1860s population growth had begun to stagnate. During the 1870s and 1880s, local newspapers succinctly captioned the process of out-migration to the "Boston States" as "the exodus." The city was largely bypassed by the huge influx of late-19th-century immigrants who only glimpsed Saint John as they moved from the transatlantic ships to the Canadian Pacific Railway trains en route to a continental destination. However, some of the new arrivals, notably eastern European Jews and Lebanese from the Ottoman Empire, did choose to remain in Saint John, thus enriching the city's cultural profile.

Only in 1901 did there appear to be a modest reversal, an improvement due in part to an influx from the Saint John River communities into the city and the revitalization of the world economy after the mid-1890s. By this time western Canadian wheat fields were poised to replace New Brunswick's forests as a primary export hinterland of the port.

Throughout the 1880s Saint John's civic and business leaders had lobbied Ottawa to secure a niche for their city in the emerging Canadian system of cities. To this end, they invested substantially in the modernization of the waterfront and convinced the CPR to establish a terminus at the port in 1889. The adjacent town of Portland became part of the expanding city that same year. Thus, Saint John's leaders were beginning to find a role within Canada by depending on water-based transport, to which had been added the railway.

Saint John's newly constructed grain elevators became the "winter spout" for Canada's wheat. The traffic generated by the outbreak of World War I contributed to this new prosperity. After the war, however, a severe economic decline continued through the GREAT DEPRESSION.


Following World War II Saint John, a city containing some of the oldest and worst housing in North America, embarked on a process of urban renewal. Efforts to modernize the city's streetscape were accompanied by changes in its administration. With the exception of the period from 1912 to the mid-1930s, when Saint John was administered by a commission government, the city's municipal structure for most of its history consisted of a mayor and council.

Despite its modest size, Saint John as an urban area experienced many of the changes that were under way in larger Canadian municipalities. Its police force, among the oldest in Canada, became unionized in 1918-19 when police unionization was a contentious issue throughout North America. During the Depression the police played an indispensable role in the administration of relief while at the same time dealing with the challenges posed by automobile traffic and the introduction of mechanized traffic signalling systems. The post-WWII era saw the greater professionalization of all civic employees including the police. Contract negotiations with the city became more intense and the police were subject to more scrutiny by the public they served.

In 1963 the city adopted a council-manager form of government, wherein authority and political responsibility continued to rest with mayor and council, but administrative responsibility was centralized through a manager appointed by council. In 1967 the city expanded to include the city of Lancaster, the parish of Lancaster and part of the parish of Simonds. Municipal restructuring helped to foster the massive urban renewal of the 1960s. Greater access from within the city to outlying areas was achieved in the 1970s with the construction of a substantial throughway system incorporating the new Harbour Bridge.


Since WWII Saint John's economic profile has maintained an emphasis on its traditional industries through freight diversification at the port, revitalization of the shipbuilding industry with the assistance of the Canadian Frigate Program and expansion of the pulp and paper mills. The Irving group of companies has played a significant role in the city and province since the 1920s. Currently a $1 billion upgrade of the Irving Oil Refinery, in operation since 1960, is under way.

More recently, service-sector growth has become an important component in Saint John's economic mix. Call centres have been attracted to the city through the co-operative efforts of the provincial and municipal governments and the technical expertise of NBTel, now a part of the newly formed Atlantic Canada telecommunications and information technology company, Aliant. A changing retail pattern began in the mid-1950s with the construction of Lansdowne Place in the North End (formerly the town of Portland), and with newer malls in East Saint John containing several big box stores the city is bidding to become the regional shopping destination in southern New Brunswick. The intense expansion of the tourist industry is a recent development, encouraged by the construction of facilities for the 1985 Canada Summer Games both downtown and on the rapidly expanding Saint John campus of the UNIVERSITY OF NEW BRUNSWICK.


The cityscape is largely dominated by the harbour and the river. The well-known Reversing Falls are located about one kilometre from the centre of town. At high tide the ocean waters surge upstream through a narrow chasm, reversing the rush of river water through the gorge at low tide.

The 1980s witnessed a major city centre renewal pivoting on Market Square, where a preserved section of waterfront was restored and embellished to include indoor and outdoor malls, the exhibition centre of the New Brunswick Museum, a trade and convention centre and a new hotel. An elaborate pedway system connects all of these developments to Saint John's historic City Market. A large section of the revitalized uptown area is also now part of a heritage preservation district called Trinity Royal. This area and others in the city centre are home to many late Victorian edifices which have been restored to their past elegance and which in recent years have contributed to Saint John's growing popularity as a cruise ship destination.

In 1993 the opening of Harbour Station brought the Saint John Flames of the American Hockey League to the city as well as the prospect of hosting a wide range of entertainment events. The long-awaited restoration of the Imperial Theatre was completed in 1994. The Irving Nature Park on the city's west side is a haven for naturalists. Both the theatre and the nature park are evidence of the changing leisure patterns within Saint John, which as recently as the 1960s was dotted with boxing clubs and events underscoring its working-class culture. Thus Saint John welcomes its third century by celebrating its past through the preservation and renewal of its architectural heritage, while anticipating its future through the development of its knowledge-based industries and the enhancement of its cultural and recreational facilities.

Further Reading

  • T.W. Acheson, Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community (1985); Ann Gorman Condon, The Loyalist Dream (1984); D.G. Bell, Early Loyalist Saint John (1983); J. Fingard, Jack in Port (1982); M.A. MacDonald, Rebels and Royalists: The Lives and Material Culture of New Brunswick's Early English-speaking Settlers 1758-1783 (1990); Elizabeth W. McGahan, The Port of Saint John (vol 1, 1982); Gerald R. Wallace, William Higgins and Peter McGahan, The Saint John Police Story (vols 1-6, 1991-96).

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