Saint John River | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Saint John River

Saint John River, 673 km long, rises in northern Maine and flows northeast into the forests of Madawaska County to Edmundston, where it is joined by the Madawaska River and turns southeast, forming much of the border between Maine and New Brunswick. Saint John River is known as the Wolastoq by the Wolastoqiyik people, which means “beautiful river” in their language.


Saint John River’s drainage basin covers 55,400 km2, of which some 20,000 km2 is in the United States, and it has a mean discharge of 1,100 m3/s. It receives its chief tributary, the Tobique River, and swings eastward south of Woodstock.

Saint John's River is generally tranquil, except for cataracts at Grand Falls (25 m) and Beechwood (18 m), both of which have been harnessed for hydroelectric power. The river flows east past Fredericton and Oromocto, gradually widening and trending southward through a beautiful valley. On the lower course, numerous long, low islands have been formed by silt and moulded by the current.

Near the city of Saint John, the river enters Long Reach, a narrow lake, and receives the Kennebecasis River from the northeast. At Saint John, the powerful Bay of Fundy tides throw the river back through a narrow gorge called Reversing Falls.


De Monts and Champlain anchored in Saint John harbour and named the river 24 June 1604, the feast day of St. John. La Tour built a fort at the river's mouth in 1630, but it was not until the Loyalists arrived in 1783 that significant settlement came to the valley. In the early 19th century, timber was driven from Madawaska, over Grand Falls, to Saint John, which became one of the most prosperous ports in British North America.

Present Day

The Wolastoqiyik people have requested recognition of Saint John River’s traditional name, Wolastoq, for many years. In June 2021, they filed a formal name-change request to the province of New Brunswick. However, the government has not fulfilled these requests.