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Articles Blog

St. John, Canada

Karyn Planett

Many Great Men 

Someone once asked the riveting question, “What was the secret behind all the great men that this tiny, rather backward corner of Canada produced?” Alistair Horne replied, as quoted in the 1961 Canada and the Canadians, “It’s the challenge of having to creep out to the outhouse every winter’s day at 30 degrees below zero!”           

Well, times have changed but New Brunswick in general and St. John in particular has enjoyed its share of great men and great women over the years. A few of their stories follow after a brief introduction to this city found at the mouth of the St. John River on the Bay of Fundy.

A Long and Colorful History 

This region’s first inhabitants were members of the Maritime Archaic Indian civilization then, several thousand years ago, the Passamoquoddy Nations people. Sailors from across the Atlantic found their way here including Basque, Breton and Norman fishermen as well as a Spaniard named Gomez in 1524. Samuel de Champlain also explored the area in 1604. The French established settlements and traded with the tribal people. The British followed and ultimately there were military engagements with the American revolutionaries. In 1785, St. John became British North America’s (currently Canada’s) first incorporated city.           

During the Irish potato famine large numbers of immigrants arrived by the leaking boatload only to be summarily quarantined on Partridge Island. So many perished in their perilous journey or in unsanitary conditions on the island. Theirs is an amazing tale and their brave legacy lives on in the history and character of this fine city.           

Shipbuilding brought prosperity to St. John as it grew into New Brunswick’s leading industrial center during the 19th century. At that time it was the world’s fourth largest shipbuilding center. Wealthy families erected enormous mansions as a display of their success. Then a monstrous fire raged through the city in 1877 swallowing up much of the central business district. Ask someone to tell you the story about the fire wagons that had no horses to pull them. Many feel this oversight led to the fire’s opportunity to get a good hold before much help could arrive. Irish immigrants played an important role in raising this city from the ashes.

Naming Names Of Some “Great” Men 

Benedict Arnold moved to St. John after surrendering West Point to the British. Lived here six years. Some historians call him great while others disagree.           

Lois B. Mayer, Hollywood producer of MGM fame, moved from Minsk to St. John with his parents at the age of three, only leaving at the age of 20.           

Walter Pidgeon, famous movie star, was born in St. John in 1898 and made his debut performance as a singer here at 13.           

Donald Sutherland, famous actor, was born here in1935 and went on to star in a long list of hit films.           

Amelia Earhart, prettier than the others mentioned, landed nearby on her 1932 solo trans-Atlantic flight that catapulted her to fame and some fortune.           

And for your information the movie, Children Of A Lesser God, was filmed in St. John in 1985.

And Speaking Of Big 

The tide in the Bay of Fundy is the largest in the whole wide world. It’s faster than a speeding bullet, higher than a 4-story building, and able to squeeze 100 billion tons of seawater in and out of the bay two times every day come rain or shine. In fact, it’s estimated that every 12 1/2 hours the water that rushes through Fundy is approximately equal to the 24-hour flow of all the other rivers in the entire world combined. Can you imagine? It’s this event that causes the “Reversing Falls” whereby the river actually flows back upstream. Isn’t Mother Nature amazing!           

All this is great news to the 15 species of toothed and baleen whales that migrate here every summer to dine on a tasty array of everything on their particular diets.           

But science aside, know that the local Micmac people believe a massive whale angered an important god named Glooscap and smacked his tale so hard it caused the seawater to slosh in and out, back and forth even to this day. A scientist will tell you it’s more about the underwater terrain and local geography but that’s not nearly as dramatic. 

Out And About 

Put on your tennies because this is an up-and-down town with hills to tackle. A few sights worth the journey include the City Market (the oldest continuous market in the nation); Prince William Street (like a step into the history books); King’s Square, Queen Square, and Market Square (each with its own highlights); plus the Trinity Royal Preservation Area (an architecturally-important 20-block area). Your visit to all the above will be its own reward.