I love Saint John, in fact I was born there. But that’s not why I chose it as the primary setting for my novel, Dare To Inherit. I picked Saint John because of its cool factor, and I’m not talking about ocean breezes and the refreshing spontaneity of sea fog. It’s just the vibe of the place in general. With a population of just over 70,000, this stalwart little city has been around for a while, once a major player in the era of tall ships. Located in beautiful southern New Brunswick, the picture province, it also happens to be Canada’s oldest incorporated city (1785).
Founded by British supporters from the American Revolution, Saint John has a distinctly colourful past, including quirky legends about the city itself and indeed the ocean that almost surrounds it. I’m thinking of one legend in particular, and that’s the one about the largest whirlpool that swirls menacingly under the Reversing Falls bridge. That’s where the St. John River passes through a narrow gorge before emptying into the cold deep waters of the Bay of Fundy. It sounds like a simple enough natural event, but catch the twice-daily tidal action that consists of two low tides and two high tides, each cycle being about twelve hours and ten minutes in duration, and that’s when things get really interesting. At some point the Bay of Fundy tide, the highest in the world by the way, actually pushes a powerful 673 kilometre river backward, churning otherwise quiet waters into dangerous rapids. It’s quite a sight, and people travel from all over the world to witness this tidal phenomenon. Incredibly treacherous, it’s been called the world’s greatest example of tidal impact on a river, and is in fact a natural wonder.
The only time it’s safe for a boat to pass through this chasm is during a very tiny, twenty-minute window between tidal extremes called slack tide, although there’s still that whirlpool….
I personally went through these rapids at high tide, a passenger in a jet boat that circled, foolishly in hindsight, that dreaded whirlpool. I felt it was quite a feat for a Saint Johner to do that, having grown up hearing the nasty legend that there was once a man who fell into said whirlpool and came out with his hair turned snow white because of what he’d seen down there. I heard that story many times as a child, and it has never really died away because I still hear it repeated from time to time to this very day. It would be a lot closer to the truth to suggest that if someone went into the whirlpool, they wouldn’t be coming out alive. Like a black hole in space whose energy can suck in objects, a whirlpool operates on the same principle.
My uncle once told me that during the Second World War he watched someone throw an empty oil barrel into that whirlpool and minutes later it popped up to the surface further out in the bay. So whatever is down there, it’s sure not the tunnel of love.
The Reversing Falls bridge spans the approximately 200 metre-wide gorge. It could also be called the suicide bridge because of the countless people over the years who have taken the 135 foot (at high tide) plunge to their death in the icy waters below. I was just a little kid in the family car crossing the bridge one Sunday, when an obviously distraught young man ran toward the railing and tried to jump, but fortunately pedestrians walking nearby managed to get him stopped. I can still see the look on the guy’s face; hear my mother scream, not wanting her children to see such a thing. A very difficult memory about what we came to know as a dangerous place.
Onshore, Saint John is known for the striking brick and stone architecture in its historic district. Two-thirds of the city was destroyed in the Great Saint John fire of 1877. Subsequent to that, an army of architects, masons and carpenters were summoned to Saint John to rebuild from the devastation, on a much grander scale, and they certainly were able to accomplish that. Germain Street, located in that Trinity Royal Heritage Conservation Area,eritage is a pretty, tree-lined thoroughfare, featuring shops, restaurants and heritage buildings. It’s also a popular tourist attraction for those who enjoy a pleasant stroll, and the location of Aunt Feenia’s lawyer’s office in Dare To Inherit.
“The sun made a bold appearance early the next morning, not at all apologetic for its long absence in what so far had been an unnaturally gloomy fall. There was still a bite in the air though, and the wind had refused to subside altogether. Just before the appointed hour Chloe managed to snare the last parking space within two blocks of Ronald Stewart’s downtown office – a fourth floor walk-up in a red brick heritage building on Germain Street.
“Once inside, in single file they climbed the stairs that were varnished a rich coffee brown, and worn bare in a center dip from countless footsteps seeking the upper stories. Suite 401 was easy to find because the name Ronald J. Stewart, Barrister & Solicitor, was boldly arranged in scripted black letters on a frosted half-glass door.”
There are many fascinating points of interest in Saint John, indeed too numerous to mention here, including the Saint John City Market in business since 1876, and narrowly escaping the 1877 fire. Not far away, tucked into a steep hillside, sits the Old Burial Ground, Saint John’s original cemetery where a number of the city’s United Empire Loyalist forefathers lie in, hopefully, peaceful repose. This unique uptown green space is not without its own particular attraction on a chilly autumn day, no matter the reason for passing through it.
“If she hadn’t been so single-minded of purpose she would have appreciated what remained of the glorious canopy of gold, orange and fiery red autumn leaves overhead - and those that crunched and crackled on the brick walkway under her suede boots. But Jocelyn was headed for the bus stop on Sydney Street and the No. 5 that would take her to the west side of the city and a liquor store where she was not likely to run into anyone she knew. Just picturing the deep amber glow of the 40-ounce bottle she would buy there quickened her step.”
While not exactly an attraction beyond its utilitarian purpose, the Saint John Airport on the eastern outskirts of the city greatly increased its size and runway capacity during the 1960’s. Now what’s this you might say? Eden, you’re going to talk about an airport? Sure, because I was onsite as a kid for at least a tiny part of that expansion, accompanying my father (us four kids each had a turn one day when he passed by our house) for a bumpy ride in the cement truck he drove, pouring the concrete for new runways during that sweltering summer. Dad was proud of his significant contribution to what at the time was a major infrastructure improvement, and a pretty big deal. It’s always fun to look back at stuff like that.
As an adult I’ve come and gone from that small airport countless times, and more than once in fog so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, as they say, but never, regrettably, to meet a sexy cowboy. Not like Chloe did in Dare To Inherit, when Ty came to town. Now that turned heads.
“Chloe’s heart had started to sink but then she spied her handsome cowboy filling the doorway. Seeing Chloe he made a beeline across the room. Heads turned at the sight of Ty in his boots, levis, fleece-lined jacket and Stetson, but oblivious to the interest of onlookers they embraced and held on.
‘You’re on my turf now, Cowboy,’ she whispered playfully against his ear.”
Anything is possible in Saint John with its quaint east coast charm and tantalizing eccentricities, the fertile breeding ground for any number of authors. You’ll feel right at home there, the foghorn sounding its eerie warning at the mouth of the harbour on a cold foggy night, or is it a siren call to the sea…. And when you’re crossing the Reversing Falls Bridge, cast a glance or two over the side to a place where two ancient continents once met about 450 million years ago. There’s a lot going on, under the bridge.