St. John's has a long and colourful history. Europeans began to frequent its harbour during the Italian renaissance period, near the beginning of the sixteenth century. The city's sheltered harbour and proximity to bountiful fishing grounds made it a popular commercial trading outpost for the Basques, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English who had come to fish the rich waters along the western side of the North Atlantic.

The late sixteenth century saw the rise of Britain as a significant world naval power and also their increased presence in the Newfoundland fishery - particularly in the area ranging from Cape Bonavista in the north to Cape Race in the south. St. John's recorded the first permanent settlers in this period with a family named Oxford establishing a plantation probably in the area west of Beck's Cove in the early 1600's.

Old St. John's
Old St. John's
View looking into the harbour.
Along the north side of the harbour, settlers built wharves, fish stores, and warehouses to accommodate the rise in trade as a result of the fishery. A path which crossed the various streams and brooks running down the side of the hill connected these structures. This small path later became known as the "lower path," and eventually became Water Street – the oldest commercial street in North America. It was along this path that fishermen, fishery servants, traders, and their families along with fishing captains, pirates, traders, and naval officers all traversed from storehouse, to warehouse to alehouse to purchase or barter for the supplies necessary to secure a successful voyage at the Newfoundland fishery.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, St. John's continued to function as the major commercial and service centre for the Newfoundland fishery; however, because Newfoundland functioned primarily as a fishery rather than a place of residence, the population of St. John's increased at a slower rate.

The port's importance as a major cog in the fishery made it a prime military target for any nation wishing to gain control over an abundant food supply. The earliest battle records dates back to 1555 when the Basques travelled overland to capture St. John's from the French. Over one hundred years later, in June 1665, the great Dutch naval strategist Admiral De Ruyter captured St. John's from the English. Commencing in the late seventeenth century and running throughout most of the eighteenth century, the English and French engaged in a series of battles over possession of the city. The last of these battles occurred in 1762 when the British recaptured St. John's from the French for the last time.

St. John's After the Great Fire
of 1892.
St. John's after the Great Fire of 1892.
The picture shows the ruins after the Great Fire of 1892.
By the latter part of the eighteenth century, the population of St. John's stood at a few thousand based on its trade in the fishery. The outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1791-2 in Europe saw a growth in the demand for the long shelf life of salt fish. As prices for this commodity increased it attracted a large influx of immigrants, mainly Irish, who came to take advantage of the high fish prices and good wages. This resulted in a substantial increase in the population of St. John's which reached approximately ten thousand by the end of these wars in 1815. When the war in Europe ended, so did the economic boom in the Newfoundland fishery. Fish prices fell and didn't rise again until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

St. John's, now the commercial and political capital of Newfoundland, grew slowly throughout the nineteenth century despite being ravaged by three great fires – one in 1816, another in 1846 and yet another in 1892. In spite of being destroyed by fire on three separate occasions, the town recovered and rebuilt each time.

Though it was originally proposed in 1832, the town of St. John's did not achieve municipal government status until 1888 when it elected its first council consisting of five councillors and two government appointees. At that time, the population of the town was approximately thirty thousand. The residents enjoyed electric street lights on the main roads and a public water supply. Most of the city's downtown as bounded by Cookstown Road, Carters Hill, and Beck's Cove in the West and Harvey Road and Military Road in the North burned in the 1892 fire. By the turn of the century, public transit, in the form of electric street cars, picked up and dropped off passengers along Water Street, Adelaide Street, Queens Road, Rawlins Cross, and Military Road. These remained until replaced by buses in 1948.

In 1921, St. John's became incorporated as a city with the passage of the City of St. John's Act by the Newfoundland government. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century it remained the centre of commercial trade in the Newfoundland fishery.

Today it remains the main financial and commercial centre for Newfoundland and the capital of the province.
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