Geography and Governance: The Problem of Saint John, New Brunswick, 1785-1927

by Ged Martin

British historian Ged Martin has e-published an extended essay on 19th-century Saint John, New Brunswick. What follows is a brief introduction to that essay. To read the full paper please click through at the end of this post.

“Geography and Governance: The Problem of Saint John, New Brunswick, 1785-1927” is based on a paradox:  the rocketing success of Saint John, one of British North America’s largest urban communities, also made the city a problem, resulting from interlocking elements of geography, civic government and the wider political culture – provincial and national – within it had to operate.

The essay begins with local topography, focusing on a city whose streets had to be blasted from solid rock – a serious challenge after a devastating cholera epidemic in 1854 showed the necessity for piped water and sewerage. Saint John spread across three peninsulas around the harbour – not necessarily a disadvantage, as New York and Venice can prove – but its lay-out created local rivalries. The St John river was only crossed by a railway bridge in 1885 – remarkably, the two sides of the city were joined by rail in the same year as the Canadian Pacific railway united the east and west of Canada.

Was Saint John a harbour – a natural asset that handily generated revenue for local taxpayers – or a port, a complex transportation facility requiring constant investment? The City tried to keep up with ongoing modernisation, but ultimately could not afford the cost. In 1927, the port was handed over to an Ottawa-controlled Commission.

“Geography and Governance…” looks at Saint John’s relationship with its wider economic zone, defining four hinterlands in which the city sought to dominate trade. These were the Bay of Fundy, the St John valley, the eastern corridor through Moncton to the Gulf, and the western area across to the Maine border. Saint John occupied an anomalous position: around one third of its customers lived in Nova Scotia, where they could not vote to support the city’s projects, while roughly one third of the people of New Brunswick, whose goodwill was needed in the legislature, lived on the North Shore and felt little common interest with the Fundy city. The essay reviews how Saint John failed to expand its economic zone into Prince Edward Island and along the North Shore, while the development of railways enabled Halifax on the one side and St Andrews / St Stephen on the other to tap into areas that it previously controlled.

New questions are asked about basic facts that everybody takes for granted – the Great Fire of 1877, the winter closure of the St John river, the obstacle to shipping at the Reversing Falls.

Institutions and political culture are explored under the heading “governance”. From 1853 to 1889, three municipalities operated within the urban area. Within the core city, Saint John’s West Side was virtually autonomous: basic services lagged behind as residents were reluctant to pay local taxes. In the North End, an independent authority (Portland) briefly operated as a separate city from 1883, but it merged with Saint John in a general in a reform package six years later.

Although its 1785 Charter made Saint John the oldest City in British North America, local government was closely controlled from Fredericton: specific legislation was required even to construct individual streets. The City had to operate within a provincial political culture dominated by localism, a widespread mindset that obstructed the formation of coalitions in support of major schemes, such as Saint John’s project for a railway through Sussex and Moncton to Shediac on the Gulf.

After 1867, the focus shifted to Ottawa. Unlike Nova Scotia, which played hardball, New Brunswick did not adapt easily to Confederation. The essay discusses the province’s relatively weak position in Dominion politics, reviewing its cabinet representation in successive governments to assess how effectively Saint John interests were defended.

A final section takes the story beyond 1889, the year of civic reform and the arrival of the first trains from Montreal over the “Short Line” through Maine. Saint John eventually became Canada’s premier winter port, but underlying problems remained. Its success represented an exercise in running fast to stand still.

“Geography and Governance…” is a wide-ranging study, with more questions than answers, that aims to contribute to debate on the history of an important city in a fascinating province.

To read the essay, please click here.

Ged Martin is Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh.


About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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1 Response to Geography and Governance: The Problem of Saint John, New Brunswick, 1785-1927

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 10, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

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