Explore Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland

St. John’s is the capital of Newfoundland and the oldest community in Canada. In this city, colourful neighbourhoods blend into important historical sites giving the visitor plenty of interesting places to explore.

After driving across Canada on Our Great Canadian Roadtrip we were ready to explore St. John’s, Newfoundland. A city where the people are as vibrant as the neighbourhoods. As we learned, once you’ve visited St. John’s, it will remain in your heart for a long time.

The Narrows

The uniqueness of this city begins on its eastern edge. A small slit of water called The Narrows provides the only access into the large St. John’s Harbour. Both sides of the passage are dominated by rocky hills as if hiding what’s inside.

The waters around St. John’s were once full of cod fish. Local folklore says that you could walk across the water on the backs of the fish. This rich resource resulted in many battles to control the fishing industry and The Narrows became a strategic point to protect the inner harbour. Early fishermen did this by stringing a defensive rope between the two shores at the thinnest part of The Narrows. Copying this idea, after the 7 Years War the British military installed a 174 m defensive chain between Chain Rock in The Battery and Pancake Rock in Fort Amherst. The chain was tightened to prevent enemy ships from entering the harbour. In WWII it was changed to a submarine net and apparently did stop a submarine missile during WWII. You can still see evidence of the chains on the rocks.

Signal Hill

The north side of The Narrows is dominated by Signal Hill which overlooks the passage and St. John’s Harbour. From the top you can even see Cape Spear, Canada’s most eastern point. Today instead of cod, the harbour is filled with large freighters.

Signal Hill was an important spot in defending the harbour from the 17th century until after the Second World War. It has since been designated a National Historic Site. Near the top of the hill we found a few canons from the 1860s. They were likely considered high-tech at the time with iron wheels that ran on a curved track allowing 120° of angle of fire. The last canon could spin all the way toward the harbour in case any ships got through The Narrows.

In 1887 Cabot Tower was built on the highest point of the hill to commemorate 400 years since John Cabot first landed on Newfoundland’s shores. Built of red sandstone, the three story tower can be seen from most parts of downtown St. John’s.

As its name implies Signal Hill has been used to transmit signals for centuries. Long before ship-to-shore radios existed, signalmen on Signal Hill kept track of ships sailing toward The Narrows and the port of St. John’s. They used flag signals to communicate details of arriving ships to people in the harbour below.

As if to further confirm the appropriateness of the hill’s name, in 1901 Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal on Signal Hill. He strung the antenna from a kite flying 500 feet above. Also, 1920 Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic transmission of a human voice on this same spot.

Signal Hill National Historic Site is operated by Parks Canada. There are a few short hikes on the hill and unlike most national parks, the hikes are open to everyone for free. The various trails take you to different lookout points and scenic coves around the hill.

The Battery

At the base of Signal Hill, on one side of The Narrows, is one of St. John’s most charming communities called The Battery. Wooden historic homes seemingly cling to the rock as they climb above the ocean. Viewing it from across The Narrows, it seems as if the homes were built in the most implausible places.

As you can imagine, it’s not possible to drive through The Battery, but you can park your car before it and walk on the winding lanes. The sidewalk seems to come to an end until you realize, in true Newfoundland friendliness, it continues across one home’s front porch! It’s actually the only way to get to the end of town. Their front porch is used quite often as a sidewalk since it connects to North Head Trail, one of the hiking trails in Signal Hill National Historic Site.

Fort Amherst Lighthouse

From the top of Signal Hill you can see down to Fort Amherst Lighthouse on the other side of The Narrows. A defensive fort was built on this site in the 1770s but none of this historic fort remains. The ruins of a WWII military compound are still there. They are below Fort Amherst Lighthouse, but are off limits to visitors. The lighthouse is now automated and is also not accessible. You can stay at lighthouse keeper’s residence though. It operates as a B&B. It would be a great place to see the first sunrise of the day.

Cartography enthusiasts will find this interesting. If you look at a current map of the island of Newfoundland there’s a good chance it’s based on one drawn in 1767. At the end of the 7 Years War the British needed a detailed map of Newfoundland’s coast. James Cook was hired to survey and map the island. With close to 29,000 km (18,000 miles) of convoluted coastline to survey, this was quite the task. Cook was so good at his job as cartographer that his maps are still used today.

James Cook Map of Newfoundland

Coming Next – Colourful Communities in St. John’s, Newfoundland

For more pictures from our travels around the world visit Gallery on monkeystale.ca

To read stories from other parts from Canada click here, or other countries visit Destinations.

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