The ancient fishing economy gave rise to many small seaside villages in addition to the single seaport town of St. John's. The establishment of the mining and pulp and paper industries, within the first part of the 20th century, has brought about the growth of a number of fair sized towns in various parts of the island. The urban geography of these places is thus an important phase of the geographic study of the island.
St. John's, the capital and most populous settlement in the island, is located on the east coast of the Avalon peninsula. Its name commemorates the discovery of the island by John Cabot on St. John's Day 1497, although his landfall was at Cape Bonavista many miles to the north. The excellence of its sheltered harbour made it a favoured fishing station as early as 1502 although there was no permanent settlement before 1583.
The Harbour and City Site
St. John's harbour is a small enclosed bay about 1 ¼ miles in length, from southwest to northeast, and ½ mile in width but with a depth of more than 15 fathoms. It is connected with the sea by way of the "Narrows", a channel about half a mile in length and about 200 yards in width, between steep rocky slopes 500 feet high. A heavy chain was stretched across this entrance to protect the harbour from attack during the wars with the French. It is an almost perfect haven for all small ships but too constricted for large modern liners. The water's edge is almost completely covered by wharves and quays, while at the head of the harbour is the Newfoundland Drydock, established in 1926 and capable of caring for vessels up to 570 feet in length. The southeast side of the harbour is closely rimmed by the precipitous slopes of the Southside Hills, leaving only a narrow shelf at the bottom for wharves and warehouses.
To the northwest, the land slopes more gently to a low ridge about 300 feet high, about a mile from the shore. To the north a low saddle, not over 125 feet in elevation, gives access to another valley in which lies Quidi Vidi Lake. This body of water empties into a narrow rocky inlet, Quidi Vidi Harbour, which lies north of Signal Hill. The older part of the city, and present business centre, lies along the northwestern shore of the harbour while the residential areas climb the hill to the north and northwest and extend along the lowland stretching southwestward from the head of the harbour.
The Urban Landscape
St. John's has been cited as a city entirely without plan. It "just grew", and its growth has been almost entirely controlled by the topography of its site. Originating as a fishing station, the first buildings were located along the waterfront. Wharves were essential and each merchant built his own with a warehouse above it. In this way the main street, Water Street, developed and it is still the chief business section of the city. In the early days all buildings were of wood but a series of disastrous fires in 1816, 1846 and 1892 practically wiped out all the old buildings. City by-laws now require brick or stone construction in the business area. Apart from this, there are a few scattered public buildings of fireproof materials, but the residential sections are built entirely of wood.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral, with its attendant group of convents, colleges and parish hall, occupies a prominent site on the central part of the ridge. Somewhat lower down the slope stands the Anglican Cathedral, a fine example of Gothic architecture, while near it are the spires of other Protestant churches. Toward the eastern end of the city are the Colonial Building (Legislature), Government House, the Newfoundland Hotel, the Penitentiary and the General Hospital.
The terminus of the Newfoundland Railway lies to the southwest, adjacent to the dockyard at the upper end of the harbour. Here, also, are coal docks, lumber yards and the gas works.
Within the city are two parks, Bannerman's Park, adjoining the Colonial Building in the east, and Victoria Park in the southwest. Two miles outside the city, to the southwest, is Bowring Park, an area of 50 acres, well laid-out to provide all sorts of recreational facilities.
About a mile beyond the city, to the north and overlooking Quidi Vidi Lake, was located the American military camp during the war. Known as Fort Pepperel, it was completely planned and built along modern lines and contrasts strongly with the crowded and unplanned condition of St. John's itself. The airport is located about five miles to the north of the city on the road to Torbay.