If you wanted to describe Saint John in just one word, I would suggest: pleasant. The city starts at Market Square, down by the harbo(u)r, which has been restored and repurposed à la South Street Seaport in New York or Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and extends up a hill, the spine of which is King Street.
The side streets are lined with pretty Victorian buildings, all in brick, and have their share — but not too many, thankfully — of charming pubs and quirky shops, and as you weave through them, you will find yourself thinking: This is very pleasant. You will have this thought several times before you arrive at King’s Square, at the summit, about as pleasant a little city park as you can imagine. It’s green, it’s clean, there are wooden benches and metal tables and chairs, and a beautiful two-story bandstand in its center, intricate wrought-iron with a bell-shaped roof above and a fountain below.
It draws a lot of people — but again, not too many. The last time I was there, an Alice in Wonderland tea party was taking place on a particularly verdant stretch of lawn. Across one street is the City Market, also brick and Victorian and very large besides; opened in 1876, it is the country’s oldest indoor market, loud, lively, colorful and favored by locals every bit as much as tourists. Across another is the Imperial Theater, a 1913 vaudeville house where Harry Houdini once performed, and which has been restored to its former movie-palace splendor. It is said to be haunted.
Nearby, back in the park, stands a tall marker honoring Charles I. Gorman, a local speed-skater who might well have medaled in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, rather than finish, as he did, in seventh place, had he not taken shrapnel in one of his legs during World War I. Much taller still (it even has a cupola) is a stone-and marble memorial to John Frederick Young, who was just 19 when, on Oct. 30, 1890, he drowned while trying — unsuccessfully — to save a younger boy from drowning in a nearby bay. Gorman’s marker features an engraving of the man skating along, blithely unaware of whether he’s winning or losing. Young’s features one of the teenager cradling the body of his dead friend and seemingly wondering how he’s going to stay afloat. Two monuments to men who tried and failed, but went down nobly.
I’ve never seen even one in America.
Two dates are of paramount importance in the history of Saint John. The second is June 20, 1877. A spark ignited some hay in one of the warehouses of what is now Market Square. That warehouse was wooden. They all were; the whole city was. One of the province’s big industries was timber. So little thought was given to wood that when ships docked in Saint John, they typically just tossed the solid mahogany they used for ballast out onto the docks, there for anyone who wanted to carry it off.
But no one took wood for granted on that day. The fire started around 2:30 in the afternoon, and though firefighters responded quickly, the flames moved even more quickly. In short order it consumed more than 1,600 structures — churches and hotels, banks and docked ships, and a lot of houses. Some 13,000 people were left homeless. Many slept in King’s Square and other parks (and even a skating rink) thereafter; others left Saint John, and even Canada. The city, though, was determined to rebuild quickly, and in brick. And it did. If you walk those side streets, you will note the date 1878 above many of the doors.