St John’s excellent natural harbor, leading out to what were once seething seas of cod, prompted the first European settlement here in 1528. Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed in town 55 years later, and proudly claimed the land for Queen Elizabeth I. The many Spanish, French and Portuguese settlers living around the harbor then were not amused.
During the late 1600s and much of the 1700s, St John’s was razed and taken over several times as the French, English and Dutch fought for it tooth and nail. After Britain’s ultimate victory on Signal Hill in 1762, things finally settled down and St John’s started to take shape throughout the 1800s.
Since then four fires have ripped through the city, the last in 1892. Each time locals rebuilt with their pride and, more importantly, their sense of humor, intact.
Despite the centuries of turmoil, the harbor steadfastly maintained its position as the world trade center for salted cod well into the 20th century. By mid-century, warehouses lined Water St, and the merchants who owned them made a fortune. Come the early 1960s, St John’s had more millionaires per capita than any other city in North America. Many called it the Codfish Republic, a riff on Central America’s Banana Republics, and said these merchants got rich off the backs of the outport fishing communities, which only seemed to get poorer.
Today the city’s wharves still act as service stations to fishing vessels from around the world and the occasional cruise ship, though the cod industry suffered mightily after the 1992 fishing moratorium. The offshore oil industry now drives the economy.