Saint John: city that harbored the Loyalist view

This weatherbeaten, rugged old port city on the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy was founded by United Empire Loyalists -- Britons loyal to King George III who fled north after the American Revolution to seek a new home.

Saint John is immensely proud of is loyalist tradition. A pocket guide issued by the mayor's office proclaims it as "Canada's LOYALIST city."

Actually, the first settlers in the area were French. The great French navigator, Samuel de Champlain, discovered the mouth of the St. John River in 1604. Nearly 30 years later another Frenchman, Charles de la Tour, founded a settlement here.

The Loyalist date the birth of their city from May 18, 1783, when 3,000 refugees from the American colonies landed here and started the job of home building anew.

The refugees chose an excellent site, for the natural harbor where the St. John River enters the Bay of Fundy never freezes. This was an ideal spot for enterprising seafaring folk and merchants to develop a trading center.

Two years after the Loyalists arrived, King George granted the new city of Saint John a royal charter, and it earned the title of "Canada's oldest incorporated city."

Underscoring their pride in their heritage, the people of Saint John never abbreviate their city's name, although the river on which the city lies is shortened to St. John.

Boston, where the American Revolution started, has its Freedom Trail -- a mapped-out walk for tourists linking the historic sites connected with the American colonies' struggle for independence.

Here no one should be surprised to find that Saint John has its Loyalist Trail.

Appropriately the trail begins in King Square, the focal point of downtown Saint John. Among the 20 sites along the route are loyalist House, built by a poineer early in the 19th century and carefully restored by the New Brunswick Historical Society; the old Loyalist burial grounds; the County Court House, whose unique spiral staircase was built of stone specially quarried in Scotland; and the covered market, contructed more than 100 years ago by local shipbuilders , and one of the few farmers' markets still in existence in Canada.

Also on the trail in Queen Square is a monument to Champlain erected in 1904 to mark the third centenary of his discovery of the St. John River. The right arm of the statue points to the river's estuary.

Saint John's museum lays claim to being the oldest public museum in Canada. Naturally enough it focuses special attention of the history of ships and shipbuilding.

The city's most popular attraction is a lookout point where you can watch the Bay of Fundy tides sweep into the St. John River in a phenomenon known as the "reversing falls rapids." In a twice-daily battle the incoming tide gradually halts and then reverses the flow of the river water.

The reversing falls are located in a somewhat shabby industrial quarter of Saint John, but don't let that deter you from making the effort to see them. A small park has been laid out at the lookout point. There also is an observation tower, an exhibition hall with a color film explaining the story of the tides, and a restaurant overlooking the rapids.

Urban renewal is getting under way in Saint John, but weathered old frame buildings still predominate, giving the city a feeling of toughness and endurance befitting its Loyalist past.

Saint John is just over 70 miles east of Calais, Maine, on the US-Canadian border. It is linked by car ferry with Digby, Nova Scotia, a trip of 2 1/2 hours across the Bay of Fundy.

I came to Saint John by the overland route from Nova Scotia, via the 15-mile wide isthmus of Chignecto -- Novia Scotia's only land link with the Canadian mainland. It was a blustery day when I drove across the narrow strip of land, and I had to keep a firm hand on the driving wheel of my small car as crosswinds swept over the motorway running from Amherst, Nova Scotia, to Moncton, New Brunswick.

From Moncton I drove along the coast road, Route 114, which crosses the lovely Fundy National Park.

The 80-square-mile park is a wildlife sanctuary and has a network of wilderness trails for hikers and nature lovers. An arts and crafts school holds classes there in the summer, and a crafts school holds classes there in the summer, and a crafts festival is staged in July.

If you are going from Saint John to Fredericton, the pleasant provincial capital and former British garrison town, I would recommend Route 102, which follows the western bank of the St. John River. This must be one of the finest scenic roads in the Maritimes.

In its lower reaches the St. John widens into a series of beautiful bays and lakes as other rivers feed into it. Several small car ferries are located on Route 102 and will take you across to the river's deeply indented eastern shore. River cruises are available starting from Saint John.

The Sydney Street Information Center in King Square and the tourist office at the reversing falls will help you with any directions you need.

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