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Exploring Water Street in downtown St. John’s

by Dale Dunlop

Google “Oldest street in Canada” and the result will likely be Le Petit Champlain in Quebec City, which dates from the city’s founding in 1608. Don’t tell that to natives of St. John’s, N.L., though. They make a good argument that their Water Street is much older. There are apparently historical records documenting a Lower Path in what is now the Water Street area, as far back as 1527. Fishermen from many countries were stopping in St. John’s Harbour during the summer fishing season off the Grand Banks from early in the 16th century. So why doesn’t Water Street get recognition like Le Petit Champlain? 

The reason Is simple. Le Petit Champlain looks much as it did hundreds of years ago and Water Street doesn’t. St. John’s was a city built of wood for many centuries, and disastrous fires in 1816, 1846, and 1892 resulted in the street straightening and widening from the two-metre-wide path that existed in the 1500s. With the infilling of the harbour, the front part of Water Street is no longer next to the water, but one street up. Yet, it is indisputably the heart of the city.  

With the closure of a four-block stretch to motor vehicle traffic between noon and 10 p.m. during summer, Water Street has become a destination for both tourists and locals. Started as an experiment in 2020 to assist businesses during COVID, the Downtown Pedestrian Mall is now an annual event. The many bars and restaurants on this stretch set up open air patios, businesses hold sidewalk sales, and the city puts out picnic tables for those who just want to sit and take in the lively and festive atmosphere as the buskers and musicians perform. 

Water Street area

Photo Credit: GREG LOCKE

Nothing expresses the spirit of the Water Street area better than Morgan MacDonald’s statue A Time. It features legendary Newfoundland singer/songwriter Ron Hynes, comedian Tommy Sexton, and accordion player Wilf Doyle, who represent the unflagging spirit of the city. Set up at the junction of George and Water streets near YellowBelly Brewery to celebrate the designation by the Canadian government of St. John’s as the Cultural Capital of Canada in 2006, it is now one of the most popular meeting places in St. John’s and the start of many pub crawls. Within a few minutes of here, you’ll find more than two dozen pubs, many offering live music and the chance to get “screeched in,” a Newfoundland tradition involving kissing a cod fish and downing a shot of fiery Screech rum. The late chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain had his screeching in at Christian’s Bar, an institution on George Street. 

If you’re not up for “a time” on Water and George streets, there are plenty of other reasons to visit the area. There are many stores selling authentic local souvenirs, of which the Heritage Shop, with year-round locations on Duckworth and Water streets and a seasonal one on Signal Hill, is perhaps the best known. It is a non-profit where all sales proceeds go to the Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Murray Premises, dating from 1846, is a national historic site preserving the oldest mercantile buildings related to the fishing industry in the province. Today it houses shops and restaurants, along with the city’s first boutique hotel, which has become so popular that it has expanded twice since opening in 2001. 

Perhaps the most unique attraction on Water Street is the Newman Wine Vaults. Dating back to the late 1700s, these are among the oldest structures in St. John’s. As legend has it, in 1679 a vessel travelling from Portugal to London laden with barrels of port for the Newman company was storm-tossed and ended up wintering in St. John’s harbour. When it did reach London the next spring and the owners sampled the cargo, they found its quality had improved dramatically. Shortly after, it became a tradition for Newman’s to age its port in the wine vaults specifically built for that purpose. The vaults served their purpose for almost 200 years, finally shipping the last barrels to London in 1966. 

At the opposite end of Water Street from the Newman Wine Vaults is Harbourside Park, where on Fridays during summer there are free lunchtime concerts. Dog fanciers come to the park to photograph the statues of Newfoundland and Labrador’s two celebrated breeds, the Newfoundland dog and the Labrador Retriever. History buffs will be interested in the plaque marking the spot where Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed in 1583 and claimed Newfoundland for the British crown. 

Chances are when you visit St. John’s, the Water Street area will be the start and finish of your day. 

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