Made Ground: Urban Waterfronts as Anthropocene Relicts

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This is the first post in the Relict Landscapes and the Past in the Present series edited by Paul Hackett.

In 1997, the City of St. John’s began a harbour clean-up project which included massive excavation along Water Street. Archaeologists found a “fire layer” where burnt material had been built over or dumped in the harbour.[1] How did it get there? What did it mean?  

“See what was unearthed as downtown St. John’s streets ripped up,” CBC, 8 August 2018. Photograph by Blair Temple.

Urban waterfronts are both agents and relicts of the Anthropocene: sites transformed to facilitate resource extraction and industrial growth, powered by fossil fuels. These spaces – what nineteenth-century commentators called “made ground”[2] – we continue to use, daily, but with almost no memory of its origins and the fact that it was made at all.  

Edward Pelham Brenton, St. John’s, Newfoundland (1798). British Library.

Situated on the southeastern reach of the island of Newfoundland, St. John’s was a city born of utility and practice more than intention or plan. The waterfront was where the wealth of the sea came ashore: coves along the north shore of harbour supplied landings for small boats while flakes for drying fish were laid out alongside. Water Street emerged as a thin and chaotic corridor of commercial activity … and “a mass of insecurity and danger in respect to fire, hardly to be paralleled.”[3]

J. Walkins, “Saint Johns, Newfoundland after the dreadful conflagrations of the 7th and 21st of November in the year of Our Lord 1817.” Library & Archives Canada.

The jumble of wooden flakes, storehouses, and wharves, laden with vats of fish and seal oil, could light sheets of flame across the harbour. More than any legal or planning regime, fires – especially those in 1846 and 1892 – would remake the city’s waterfront through the nineteenth century. As Peter Pope succinctly observed, “St. John’s has been shaped as much by fire as by water.”[4]

William R. Noad, “The Plan of St. John’s, Newfoundland” (1849), detail. City of St. John’s Archives.

Rebuilding after “conflagrations” was an opportunity for public works, or the more elevated improvements of middle-class expectation, such as the Marine Promenade laid out in the west end in 1847.[5] But the priority was always returning the commercial waterfront to capacity, and more – because that was where the greatest value lay. As one guidebook noted of Newfoundlanders, “They have a saying that an acre of the sea is worth a thousand acres of land.”[6]

Albert Ruger collection, Panoramic view of St. John’s (1879). Public Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Shoveling burnt rubble into the foreshore after a fire was a reasonable solution to clearing the streets and creating new land in the most valuable location. It was not, however, without environmental consequences.

In 1882, the harbour master, George Robinson, issued a “Report and Statistics of the Harbour of St. John’s…with a view to the prevention of any further encroachments on its area”. Robinson wrote flatly that it was “a matter of history, that Water Street has attained its present breadth by encroaching on the harbour; the filling-in process took place after every conflagration.” Some of this was burnt rubble, and some was bedrock from blasting after the fires to widen Water Street with firebreaks. The debris, Robinson noted, “can be plainly seen under the wharves of several of the mercantile premises.”[7]

To underscore his point (literally), Robinson drew the extent of encroachment in red ink, as well as the wharf extensions underway and proposed. Together with the congestion of wharves, litter on the harbour bed, and siltation and sewage, it spelled a “strangulation of the tide.”[8]

Frederick Page, Map of St. John’s, Newfoundland, shewing [sic] all the buildings erected since the fire of the 9th of June 1846 from actual survey (1849), detail. Public Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador. The red line was added by harbour master George Robinson to show the extent of “encroachment” since the turn of the nineteenth century.

Robinson also recorded how far each section of the waterfront had been extended since 1804, from a relatively modest 60 feet at King’s Beach (now Queen’s Wharf), the historic location of the Customs House, to 225 feet at Beck’s Cove. He calculated that 1,662,679 square feet, or 38.1 acres, had been added to the foreshore over the course of the century.[9] If an acre of sea was worth a thousand of land, then 38 acres was a fortune.

Like any resource, the shoreline and the navigable waters of the harbour became more contentious the scarcer they became. Robinson’s characterization of this as encroachment, implying a loss of space, rather than the more positive made ground, indicates the view of a harbour master tasked with managing maritime traffic in unwieldy and congested space. 

Charles E. Goad & Co., Insurance Plan of the City of St. John’s (1893). City of St. John’s. This detail from the head of the harbour shows the “reclaimed land” that supported the heavy infrastructure, in the graving (dry) dock and railway yards.

But despite his concerns over encroachment, Robinson was prepared to allow one very large exception. Shipping lanes were getting more crowded, the ships larger, and fuel (coal) taking up more space on wharfs; but St. John’s harbour was staying the same size.[10] A drydock for ship repair seemed a necessity. A proposal from British engineers Walter Kinipple and William Morris included “reclamation of foreshore” that would create almost ten more acres from dredging, dumping, and excavation. This, they promised, would pay for itself, by creating “valuable building land” with profitable rents.[11] By 1884, St. John’s boasted the largest drydock on the eastern seaboard and a new harbour silhouette. Ironically, for all the interest in a drydock, the key actor occupying the “reclaimed land” would be the Newfoundland Railway.[12]

W.P. Ryan, Map of St. John’s, Newfoundland (1932), detail. Memorial University.

The waterfront remained a contentious subject through the century amid debates over tenants’ rights. The problem was that private land had been made from a public harbour; as Edward Morris, the MP from St. John’s West said, “waters which have been filched from the public and converted into land by the throwing of debris into the harbour … this process of encroachment is still going on, was going on to-day[,] making land for the absentee landlord at the expense of robbing the public.” Morris promised he could find fifty witnesses to attest to the fact that the tide used to wash against Water Street.[13] By the end of the nineteenth century, though, no one could imagine that happening again. 

However, with climate change, storm surge, and sea-level rise, we may. The relict landscape of made shoreline will be lost to rising water. 

Feature Image: William E. Eager, The Town and Harbour of St. John’s (1831). Toronto Public Library.

Many thanks to the archivists at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies and the Archives at Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, especially Linda White and David Mercer, as well as Paula French at the City archives and the staff at the Rooms – all of whom were wonderfully helpful. 

[1] Gerald Penney Associates, and Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Archaeology Office, St. John’s Harbour Interceptor Sewer Archaeological Investigations 2004-2010: Technical Report (St. John’s, N.L.: Gerald Penney Associates, 2011).

[2] For a fuller discussion of “made ground,” see Nancy S. Seasholes, Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003, rev. ed. 2018).

[3] Jenkin Jones, Secretary, the Phoenix Fire [Insurance Co.] Office, London, to Thomas Lack, Office of the Committee of the Privy Council for Trade, 15 December 1817, in Despatches received by the Governor of Newfoundland from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, vol. 2, 1814-1819, 120.

[4] Peter Pope, St. John’s Harbour Area Archaeological Potential, St. John’s Archaeological Inventory and Analysis, Phase I, October 1991 (Torbay, Nfld.: Past Present, Historic Sites and Material Culture Consulting; 1991), 77.   Under Water Street: The Early Waterfront of St. John’s, Newfoundland (Ottawa: ICHAM Publications, 1996).

[5] Governor LeMarchant to Earl Grey, 24 June 1847, in Copies or extracts of the correspondence between the Governor of Newfoundland and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in reference to the appropriation of the subscriptions raised for the relief of the sufferers at St. John’s by the fire in 1846, 79; Journal of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland 1850 (2nd Session) 140-3. 

[6] William Fraser Rae, Newfoundland to Manitoba, through Canada’s maritime, mining, and prairie provinces (New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1881) 50.

[7] “Commander Robinson’s Report,” submitted with the Journal of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland 1883 (First session, fourteenth assembly), 124-207 of the Land Tenure report.  

[8] “Report on the Anchorage in St. John’s Harbour,” p. 151, from “Commander Robinson’s Report,” 151; Robinson, “Report of Harbor Master, 1879,” Journal of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland 1880, 675.

[9] “A table shewing the estimated areas that have been built out into the Harbour” and “Total area of encroachments on Harbour,” Commander Robinson’s Report, 198-207.   

[10] Cyrus Field, “Statement of some of the advantages attendant upon making St. John’ s, Newfoundland a port of call for transatlantic steamers London” (n.p.1856). 

[11] [Walter] Kinipple and [William] Morris, “Report on Proposed Graving Dock and Harbour Improvements, at St. John’s, Newfoundland,” 13 September 1878, Appendix 27, Journal of the Legislative Council, first session of the thirteenth assembly (1879), 405, 408. 

[12] James Hiller, “The Railway and Local Politics in Newfoundland, 1870–1901,” in Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation, eds. James Hiller and Peter Neary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). The operation of the dry dock was folded into the Reid conglomerate’s operation of the railway with the infamous “Reid Contract” of 1898.

[13] House of Assembly from 23-24 August 1892, reprinted in Evening Telegram, 16-22 September 1892. 

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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