Tuesday, 24 November 2015

St Johns The Impossible Possible

St. John’s:
The Impossible Possible
By W. Lacey Amy (photos by the author)
From The Canadian Magazine, 1912 February.
Digitized November 2015 by Doug Frizzle
This article appeared 37 years before Newfoundland joined Canada./drf

THE man who planted the seeds of St. John’s, Newfoundland, lost sight of the fact that a harbour scarcely meets the total requirements of a city. Perhaps he found it such a task to get out of the harbour once he had found his way in that a city in embryo sprang up while he waited for the pilot. He should go down in history as the original Thoughtless Man. He died without a worry at the struggle of his descendents to make the city possible. Until the visitor gets into training he usually wishes he had died sooner—or lived to climb the hill between his back door and the corner of the house.
St. John’s is one of the most upright cities in the world, every other city to the contrary. Vertically it is a mile deep; horizontally it is about sixteen feet. On the map, if things were drawn to scale, the “oldest place in the oldest colony” would be so thin a line that no portable geography could notice it. Newfoundland will always fight for globes, with the physical features closely followed, to supplant maps on paper. Aviation will never be popular in St. John’s. There is no bird’s eye view of it. But then the air is so rare around this quaint, old city that an aviator would probably drop far enough to get a side view. Then he’d stop at the first station.
If the children of the original Thoughtless Man had their work cut out for them, or rather had to cut out their own work, they have fallen into the humour with a facility that alters every custom known to commerce, transportation and physiology. There are no pavements, except on Water Street; cement would never lie long enough to harden. To utilise cement it would have to be taken down on the harbour where the water is comparatively level, hardened there, placed in position with extension ladders and glue; and then the city council would be forced to provide the people with air brakes, and parachutes in case of accident to the valves. On Water Street, so called because it is the only street in the city on which water would even hesitate, there is a sidewalk. You see it was necessary there because the stores ran down to that line from all parts of the original town site and stopped long enough to be fastened. Elsewhere the sidewalks are that literally and nothing else—distinguished from the roadway by a ditch, cobble-bottomed to prevent the trickling away of the foundations of the houses.
The roadways and sidewalks are made up of the finest gravel known to science; they are gravity-picked, which beats hand-picked roads by several series of the finest screens. They proceed downwards with an impetuosity that would satisfy a temperance audience, but even then they do not meet conditions, having frequently to be terminated by stone walls to get to a lower level that affords fingerhold. Although many of the roads are so steep that they cannot be used, they are never grass-grown. The water rushes down so fast that it discourages into suicide any blade of grass that has discovered sufficient of the horizontal to lie still.
The carts are built like a ladder, and the freight is piled as closely as possible to the front space in going up hill, so that there will be several rungs to act as obstacles before the goods finally drop out at the back. This is true; I’ve seen it. Barrels, which form one of the foremost features of commerce in the city, are built to fit these spaces in the ladder, so that nothing short of a back flip on the part of the horse can dislodge them. Sometimes a lazy driver will turn his horse down hill for a moment, rather than replace the load at the front.
Foolishly I took a carriage from the station to the hotel. Most of the trip I lay across the two seats with my head braced into the suitcase on the seat in front to keep it out of the harbour below. Once we went down a small hill, and I stood on the side of the suitcase while I watched the back springs of the carriage over the back of the seat.
Automobiles are built especially for St. John’s and King George. What the latter demands is not in the encyclopædia, but the other item in the list requires long, low cars, of sufficient power to carry four people up the side of a steeple and down the other without spilling the gasoline and children. If a green chauffeur chances to stop one without a post behind, the occupants either jump out or are fished out of the harbour with salmon nets. To climb a hill the chauffeur throws on the low gear and trusts to Providence. Perhaps it is due to the uprightness of the city that several people have ridden in automobiles and live to tell of it.
The horses are built on a fore-and-aft plan, to speak untechnically. They develop a special set of muscles for pulling up hill and another for holding back while going down. Beyond that no strength is required, and a St. John’s horse becomes “a creature of environment,” as someone has said before about something. The people must develop the same lopsidedness, although it is skilfully covered by prevailing styles. It is reasonable to suppose this, since some of them are able to walk down street and back twice in one day. I couldn’t.
One of the principal dangers of living in St. John’s, if you are more interested in your own family than the one on the block above, is the temporary loss of small children. A little boy falls out of the front door on Bond Street and may be able to stop himself at Gower; if not his mother feels reasonably certain he will pull up at Water. When a mother wants her child she always looks down street instead of into the jam pantry or the cherry tree. It has been suggested that the children of the different streets be branded with a number so that the police will not need to climb any higher than is necessary to return them.
The favourite occupation of the stranger is finding himself. Streets that seem to start all right change their mind and end to the hopeless tangle of one who knows not the short cuts and points of the compass. It is well to have rooms near some landmark that can be seen from the hills. Then one can get one’s bearings every now and then and arrive home in time for the next meal. There should be a bicycle or a trip to Europe for every stranger who finds himself.
Water Street is so crooked that a compass gets dizzy; and Water Street is the soberest thing in town. I tried cutting off the corners of this street to get to the station without covering the whole city. After I had crossed the street thirteen times I had to let myself go down hill to the water-front to see which side I was on. It pays to know St. John’s well before getting too familiar with it.
These are the principal physical features of this fine, old city, in so far as they can be portrayed by one who has for many years considered necessary a certain amount of horizontalness to sustain life. Another characteristic which St. John’s might do without more to its advantage than its steepness, is the accommodation the visitor is forced to endure. In asking for a place to stay at in that city it is sanest to inquire for the least worst, rather than for the best. “Good,” or any of its parts, does not fit in. It is unfortunate that this interesting city can afford no inducement to the visitor in the way of fare, other than to get out as quickly as he can. There are many hotels in St. John’s, as there are many methods of reducing flesh, but they are all equally uncomfortable.
The Reid people, who, by the way, represent progress in Newfoundland in something of a monopolistic manner, attempted to remedy this condition so that St. John’s might appear on the list for tourists other than the callous. The foundations of this attempt remain, the remainder having been put a stop to, it is said, by a government that has always feared the useful ambitions of the Reids. Now the visitor goes out of his way to look at the ruins, and to dream of what might have been. Coffee, in Newfoundland, as in most other places, is a miscalculation somewhere in the process of making; toast, as St. John’s makes it, is indigenous—for which make us truly thankful! All the fruit, the poultry, the fresh vegetables, and most things worth eating come from New York once a week by boat. The day after that boat arrives the newspaper advertisements announce nothing but the arrival of eatables, and for a day or two the visitor may exist. It is a constant struggle to subsist until the next boat arrives. St. John’s people never speak in public of the winter, when the boats do not run.
Had St. John’s a hotel such as any other city of its size is able to maintain, there is no place in America more worth visiting. Fortunately Newfoundland, outside of St. John’s, is endurable in the way of fare, and the railway takes you from one point to another with the maximum of comfort in the way of meals. But St. John’s, so far as genuine interest is concerned, is good for a fortnight of the most blase traveller. As the accommodation stands, he usually cuts it down to three days and passes on, with the result that there are about five points of interest visited by everyone. And the spots really worth while pass unnoticed.
Signal Hill comes first in the formal list. That is reasonable. One cannot look out without seeing the tower on its peak. Everyone goes there. I went. Everyone sees the drydock. I did the same. Everyone must run out to Quidi Vidi, the show fishing village. I followed the crowd. The list is as peremptory as the payment of the Newfoundland fishing license of ten dollars, with an additional fifty cents tacked on at the last to ensure you a tiny bit of paper to show that you paid your ten dollars. But there are other points of interest which are seldom mentioned, such as the Battery, quaint, out-of-the-way streets with odd houses, the wharves with the fishermen, the sealing boats, the walks along the brink of the harbour on both sides, and so on through a list that should make St. John’s proud.
The churches were near the top of the list, especially English and Catholic. Any guide-book will describe them, but one thing I noticed on almost every pillar of the Catholic Church aroused my interest without any explanation yet obtainable. It read: “Notice: All persons intending to leave the country for America or Canada are advised, before going, to secure certificates of baptism and marriage, as without these papers they will find it difficult to obtain employment in those countries. Signed, M. F. Howley.” Canada stands little chance of gaining population from Newfoundland.
It is well for the stranger to understand the ways of St. John’s early in his visit. Like most Canadian villages it observes a Wednesday half-holiday throughout the city. Noon is dinner-time, and the St. John’s woman does not believe in setting the table twice for one meal. Consequently everyone, from the merchant magnate to the sweeper, must be at the table from twelve to one, which means that most of the stores are closed during that hour, and possibly another afterwards. The Club members lunch at the club, saunter down to the Board of Trade Building, and some time afterwards unlock their places of business for the afternoon. A commercial traveller unpacks for at least a fortnight’s stay. There is no such thing as haste; perhaps the hills make it too strenuous for the heart. The traveller who intends to do business in St. John’s leaves his church membership ticket at his last stop and takes it up again after he leaves the city. He simply has to let loose occasionally when he is calmly told by his best customers to come around next week some time.
Also I discovered another feature of some of the stores—prices go up to the tourist. Twice I was asked to pay a higher price for articles than those which were marked on them in plain figures.
“You see, we have to pay forty per cent, duty on these things,” is the sentence that comes most convenient to the clerk. Considering the apparent resentment at this condition, it is surprising that it continues to exist. But then there is no taxation on Newfoundland fishermen, and they make up the majority of the population; and the money has to be obtained somehow.
St. John’s is running over with history. The inhabitants can rave about every landmark in sight from a universal knowledge of historical associations, the equal of which I never before met—the cabby who cannot tell you all about the reason for Signal Hill, the names and fame of all the outlying points, the historical incidents that made St. John’s possible, and a number of other bits of information that vary with his imagination and his estimate of your credulity, is only a substitute for the day. After one had regaled me with enough incident to make me wonder if anything had ever happened elsewhere since the strata cooled, I disentangled myself long enough to ask him where it was Ninevah fell, which was an assumption of a familiarity with certain history I do not possess. He looked around a moment as we climbed Signal Hill, as if to see whether there was any evidence of the dent it made. Then he scratched his head doubtfully and closed his eyes to give his brain a chance to get out of its groove of historical facts.
“Ninny Yah! Ninny Vah!” he muttered reflectively. “Did he fall around here, are ye shure? I’ll ask when I get back to the city.” And thereafter he was gloomily silent as having revealed a lack of information about the city’s important events.
When St. John’s settles down to an understanding of the value of good accommodation for the traveller it will be a sorry day for many places that now have a waiting list.

As it is the visitor to that city leaves after his shortened stay, with the belief that something has robbed him of a great pleasure; for all around him he sees in general what he longs to observe more intimately. Only a small part of what this old-fashioned, absorbing city has to offer him has been possible during the limit of his endurance. And he holds before him the determination that some day he will return to revel in a world of which as yet he has only dreamed.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.