St. John’s at Long Last

On December 26, 2010 · 3 Comments

I made an offer to the kind readers of the Twelve Mile Circle back in September 2010. I said I’d be glad to explore and present geo-oddities for any location based on user suggestions. I took this as a personal challenge and an opportunity to investigate areas that may have escaped my attention previously. "Katy" accepted my offer and requested an article on St. John’s, the provincial capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

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St John’s is a decently-sized place with a city population hovering around a hundred thousand people with a wider metropolitan area about twice that size. The investigation should be quick and easy, I figured. Katy thought St. John’s seemed like a nice little city, and indeed it is but that’s the problem: there is little "odd" about it, geographic or otherwise. I was about to declare St. John’s the most vanilla town in Canada but I gave it one final push. I now have enough material to report a few unusual features.

The closest I’d come previously was my Mt. Pearl Mystery, which wasn’t an article about St. John’s per se but about an adjacent town. That became a recurring theme as I conducted my research. I found lots of almost strange or nearby odd but not much material directly within the city proper.

For example, St. John’s is often called "North America’s Oldest City." That’s a fascinating claim but it comes with a lot of baggage. First, one has to ignore the universe of non-English settlements. Second, one has to discount other English settlements founded prior to St. John’s including nearby Cupids Colony located elsewhere on the Avalon Peninsula. Technically Cupid’s Colony isn’t considered a "city" as defined. See what I mean?

Let’s explore another superlative. St. John’s is also called "the most easterly spot in North America." However, Greenland is generally considered part of North America. So, maybe it’s the most easterly spot on continental North America? That doesn’t work either. St. John’s is located on Newfoundland, an island, which makes it just as tenuous a claimant as Greenland. The best that can be said is that St. John’s is the most easterly spot in Canada. That happens at Cape Spear and I guess that’s a fairly decent geo-oddity.

This geographic placement does put St. John’s a lot closer to Europe than most of North America and that’s allowed it to carved a nice historical niche for itself. Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless message here. Also, Alcock and Brown departed from St. John’s on the first successful non-stop transatlantic airplane flight in 1919 (eight years before Charles Lindbergh did it solo from the U.S.).

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The Trans-Canada Highway ends at St. John’s at the spot shown above. Departing here, a traveller would have to drive another 7,821 kilometres (4,860 miles) before arriving at the opposite end in Victoria, British Columbia. However, can St. John’s be considered part of a single transnational route if a 177 km ferry ride is required to connect Newfoundland to the mainland?

I will grant that a definite oddity exists here although not a logical one. I can’t understand why Vancouver Victoria has a mile zero marker at its terminus but St. John’s refers to their endpoint as mile one. St. John’s even has a sports complex called the Mile One Centre as a tribute. Why don’t the two cities agree?

We can salvage a few other oddities. Let’s talk about the weather. Natural Resources Canada says, "St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador is the foggiest city in Canada with 121 days every year with fog. It is also the windiest city with an average annual wind speed of 24 kilometres per hour and has the most days of freezing precipitation with 38 days per year." Well, maybe we shouldn’t dwell on the weather. Moving right along…

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Why is there a United States flag flying over St. John’s? There are already enough misguided people who seem to believe that portions of Canada fall within U.S. territory — not people who read this blog of course — so an image such as this will feed into their conspiracy theories. Actually, this is the United States Armed Forces Monument at the site of the former Pepperrell Air Force Base, which operated between 1941 and 1960. It began during the earlier days of World War II before the United States entered the conflict. The U.S. traded fifty surplus Navy destroyer ships to the United Kingdom in return for leases at several strategic locations, including this one at St. John’s.

I found one other geo-oddity with a historical twist in St. John’s, the Newman Wine Vaults.

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As the story goes, a ship bound from Portugal to England in the Seventeenth Century ran into repeated troubles. The ship slipped its moorings while at port, got chased by pirates, blew far off-course in a storm, and finally found itself deep within the North Atlantic Ocean as winter approached. The captain decided to seek safety in St. John’s Harbour until the weather improved. He unloaded his cargo of port wine at dockside cellars until he could return to England the following spring. Connoisseurs noticed that aging had significantly improved the wine.

I’m not sure I believe the story entirely (it sounds like the captain and crew might have been sampling their cargo in transit) but it became a successful marketing gimmick. Lots of port wine journeyed from Portugal to England via the St. John’s detour for more than two centuries. I guess people figured out eventually that Port could be aged closer to home, but the Newman company kept the ruse going for multiple generations.

Well Katy, I hope that meets your expectations. You gave me quite the challenge but I finally managed to salvage something in the end! I also learned a lot more about St. John’s than I expected, too.

Readers should feel free to keep suggestions coming.

On December 26, 2010 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “St. John’s at Long Last”

  1. Miguel says:

    Ah, St. John’s, my hometown!

    My wife is Mount Pearl. Here’s another mystery: Why does it even exist? 🙂 It is completely surrounded by St. John’s now, as the Capital city has amalgamated all the communities around it. The cynical “townie” (as St. John’s residents are known) would say it’s just a tax haven.

    St. John’s isn’t the oldest city in North America by any definition, but don’t tell the locals that. I’d venture a guess that communities in Mexico would probably lay claim to that title. St. John’s would probably win if you the criteria was English-speaking, British settlement in Canada & USA. Maybe that would work. But there are so many other settlements that predate St. John’s (which wasn’t a “city” for a significant part of its existance).

    On the Cape Spear being the most Easterly, I agree with you on the Greenland point. But again, I think Newfoundlanders who make up this stuff only include Canada & the USA in North America. Here’s a thought: Attu Island is the furthest point East — at 172°54? East 🙂

    The Alcock and Brown flight did originate in St. John’s — in Lester’s Field. But there’s been a recent rethinking of the Marconi transmission. He probably didn’t hear anything, but gets the credit for it anyway. The site of the alleged reception was Signal Hill — named because of its use for signal flags, not for Marconi. It’s a National Park now, and a popular make-out spot for the locals.

    A couple of points on the “mile one” and “mile zero” thing: First, Canada’s been a metric country for a long time. It should be “Kilometre One.” St. John’s is often overlooked when people make Cross-Canada journeys, starting in Vancouver and ending in Halifax. To be fair, people in Victoria complain about the same thing. For example, why does Vancouver even have a Mile Zero if the Trans-Canada highway continues on to Victoria? Victoria also suffers from the same requirement for a ferry ride as St. John’s does.

    St. John’s was the starting point of Terry Fox’s cross-country run. He dipped his artificial leg in the water before starting his fateful journey.

    Here’s something funny about Pepperell Air Force Base: The section of the base next to Quidi Vidi lake had roads laid out in the shape of a cowboy hat. You can still see the outline in modern maps. Local lore has the designer of the base being from Texas! Check it out for youself:

    Finally, everything you’ve said about Newman’s Port is correct. However, I’ve been told that it is no longer matured in Newfoundland. Apparently it is now aged in Portugal, because of strict definitions about what contitutes “Port” wine — it has to be made with grapes from the Douro Region, and aged in Porto. In much the same way that only whiskey made in Scotland can be called “Scotch,” fortified wine can only be called “Port” wine if it is produced in Porto.

    Port wine is only one of the many connections between St. John’s and Portugal, however. Portuguese explorers were the first to chart the island of Newfoundland, and they gave St. John’s its name. For centuries, the Portuguese fishing fleet used St. John’s as a base for fishing the Grand Banks. And many Portuguese immigrants, including my family, made St. John’s their home.

    Great post! Thanks!

    Miguel in Terrace, BC.

  2. Harry Henshaw says:

    Nice article. However, a small correction is required. The western Trans-Canada Highway Mile 0 marker is in Victoria, not Vancouver. See the photo you linked to.

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