Why the History of St. John’s, Newfoundland, is Really Cool

Discover historic sites in one of Canada’s oldest cities.
 

Cape Spear Lighthouse, photo courtesy Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

Although there’s some debate about whether St. John’s or Quebec City is the oldest city in Canada, there’s no doubt that the streets of St. John’s are teeming with history dating back at least four centuries. Here are seven fun facts about Newfoundland’s capital.

You can go to a bar to see a periscope captured from a German U-Boat.

Established as a hideaway for naval and merchant officers during the Second World War, The Crow’s Nest Officers’ Club welcomes non-members to see its impressive collection of war memorabilia, including photos, documents and gun shield art. One of the most prized artifacts is the periscope seized from a German submarine that surrendered nearby in Bay Bulls toward the end of the war.

The whole east end of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892.

Eleven thousand people were made homeless overnight when fire swept through St. John’s in the late 19th century. Much of the construction in the city had been done with timber. One of the few properties to survive was the brick- and stone-built mercantile building on the corner of Water and George Streets. Today it’s home to YellowBelly Brewery & Public House, a restored five-storey brewery, restaurant, event space and pub.

The first transatlantic wireless signal was received here.

At noon, on the 12th day of the 12th month, in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi stationed himself in an abandoned hospital atop what’s now known as Signal Hill National Historic Site. From there, using an antenna attached to a kite, he picked up the transmission of three dots—Morse code for the letter S—from Cornwall, England.

Newfoundland’s oldest surviving lighthouse still sits at the edge of the city.

Cape Spear Lighthouse was built in 1836 on a cliff at the most easterly point in North America. Today it’s a National Historic Site. The lighthouse is no longer operational (a new one was built nearby in 1955), but you can visit the on-site museum to learn how 19th-century lighthouse keepers lived.

You can dine in one of the oldest Irish-Newfoundland vernacular wooden buildings in North America.

When Top Chef Canada All-Stars contender Todd Perrin helped restore a circa-1790 fisher’s cottage in Quidi Vidi Village, it quickly became one of the country’s most iconic restaurants. Mallard Cottage has been designated a National Historic Site. It has a menu that changes daily and features food sourced from as close as the restaurant’s backyard chicken coops and vegetable plots.

It hosts the longest-running continuous sporting event in North America.

The Royal St. John’s Regatta happens every year on the first Wednesday in August at Quidi Vidi Lake and is a civic holiday in Newfoundland. The earliest incarnation of this rowing race was recorded back in 1816 and today the event includes a garden party.

Its largest public cultural space was modelled after centuries-old fishing sheds.

Overlooking all of St. John’s from its hilly perch, The Rooms houses the province’s biggest art collection as well as government archives and a museum. Visitors come here to discover the story of Newfoundland’s people from the era of its earliest Beothuk inhabitants to modern times. Its architecture is inspired by the fishing rooms where outport Newfoundlanders traditionally processed their catch.­­

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