Saint John Port
Review and History

Saint John Port is New Brunswick’s largest city and Canada’s oldest incorporated city. Lying on at the mouth of the St. John River on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, it is just 88 kilometers northeast of the border with the US State of Maine. In 2006, over 68 thousand people lived in the city and more than 122 thousand people called the metropolitan area home.

Port History

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Fund Bay area was inhabited by the indigenous Passamaquoddy peoples for several thousand years before Europeans arrived there. The Maliseet Nation dominated the Saint John River valley when French cartographer Samuel de Champlain discovered Fundy Bay on St. John the Baptist’s Day, giving the port its name.

While the French fortified the site in 1631, the town came under British control in 1758. During the War of 1812, Saint John Port fell victim to many attacks, and several forts were built to protect the locals. Communities dominated by Loyalists sprang up around the forts during the American Revolution, and the town was chartered by the English crown in 1785. Until 1870, “Black Loyalists” fleeing slavery were not allowed to engage in commerce in the city or become freemen.

Immigrants flooded the city during the Irish potato famine of the late 1840s, when the government had to build a quarantine station and hospital to protect residents from sick new arrivals. The Irish-Catholic immigrants changed the city’s character dramatically from its traditional Loyalist-Protestant heritage.

During the 19th Century, Saint John Port emerged as the leading center in the province for industry. A ship-building industry was born that lasted into the early 21st Century. One if its shipyards constructed the famous Marco Polo sailing ship.

Saint John Port’s central location made it a hub for trade between North America, England, and the Caribbean. Poised to become an important urban center, much of the central business district was destroyed by a fire in 1877.

It played an important role for transshipments for the British Empire during World War I, but Saint John Port lost its wartime status during World War II when Halifax became a more important staging point. However, the city’s manufacturing industry continued to grow as it produced veneer wood for bombers.

Today, Saint John Port is an important industrial center for Canada. In the 20th Century, industrialist K.C. Irving built a huge industrial development in the city that processed oil, forest products, and ships. The Irving companies are still a major employer in the area. Saint John Port is home to North America’s first deep-water oil terminal, and it houses a pulp mill, a tissue paper plant, and a newsprint mill.

Saint John Port generates additional economic activity for the city. The 1867 Moosehead Brewery is the only nationally-distributed independent brewery in Canada. The New Brunswick Power Corporation operates three important electrical generating stations for the region. Several companies engaged in information technology and New Brunswick’s biggest health care facility are based there.

Through the first part of the 19th Century, Saint John Port thrived on the lumber trade and shipbuilding. By mid-Century, it was Britain’s fourth biggest shipbuilding city and Canada’s biggest. In the 1850s, a wharf was built to serve passenger steamships moving people across the harbor. With the end of the 1800s came the replacement of wooden ships with steel-hulled vessels, and Saint John Port’s shipbuilding industry fell upon very hard times.

The port was still important, though, for its year-round ice-free port, and the introduction of railroads positioned the city to be an important winter port for Canada. The first grain elevator appeared in 1893, followed soon by a second elevator. The turn of the Century saw Saint John Port becoming less of a regional port for domestic cargoes and more of an international port.

The federal government took over port operations in 1927 when the harbor was in need of financial support. They rebuilt the wharves that had been destroyed in a major fire and modernized facilities. In 1934, the Navy Island Terminal was opened, and a new channel was completed to improve access to the harbor. Through the 1970s, many new facilities were added as the port responded to changes in the shipping industry. Container shipping was introduced in 1975, and facilities for forest products were improved.

Despite the improvements, Saint John Port fell into decline after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s. The development of ice-breaker services in the 1960s added further stress to port operations as other ports became available that were ice-bound before.

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