Questions related to the original landscape of the site upon which the Colonial Building was constructed and opened in 1850 in St. John’s have apparently led to seeking the answer from among the earliest existing pictures of the site. That process is bound to fail because none exist.
To find this truth we don’t have to speculate based on pictures taken decades after the building opened. In that period, the original landscape had gone through a major transition. The engineer’s report completed in 1848 when the building’s construction was proposed provides the specific information that appears to be missing.
To illustrate to readers the exact state of that property at the time construction was undertaken, allow me to describe the site as it was described in the 1848 report by Maj. A.W. Robe of the Royal Engineers. It is recorded that the entire area located between Government House and the Roman Catholic Basilica was nothing but a swamp. The part where the Colonial Building was erected was in the middle of the lowest section of the marsh. Robe emphasized, “The swamp never completely dries up, and the springs that supply the south swamp afford the most abundant flow of water.”
The Royal Engineers opposed putting the building there because of its potential threat to the health of the people who would occupy it, as well as the general instability of any building on the site, even if it was drained. Despite this opposition, the building was constructed there and opened on Jan. 28, 1850. Over time the swamp problem was overcome and trees and fence were added.
There are powerful arguments for saving our trees, but to claim they were part of the original terrain is not one of them.
An interesting anecdote regarding the Colonial Building’s history is that 11 months after it was officially opened, Newfoundland’s first bank robbery took place inside it. The target was the Savings Bank housed in the basement of the building. Four months later two men were arrested and about half the money stolen was returned.