What lies beneath

Sewage work allows archeology team to uncover truths about downtown St. Johns

Staff ~ The Telegram editor@thetelegram.com
Published on March 13, 2010
Inkwells that were found in harbour interceptor excavations. Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Re-routing St. John's sewage has unearthed a beer bottle from the 1700s, determined the harbour has shrunk 25 per cent and even dispelled the myth about an elaborate tunnel system under the city.
A team comprised of archeologists and a historian have been following contractors in recent years as they dug up Water Street and Harbour Drive to redirect waste to the Riverhead treatment plant. They were contracted to do so by the City of St. John's.
The excavated area ran from Temperance Street to what's now the Railway Coastal Museum.
It's a mere two-kilometre distance, but archeologist Gerry Penney says the area has a long history that yielded thousands of artifacts and a wealth of historical data.
"Probably the best outcome of this, as far as we're concerned anyway, is the vast amount of information that we've collected on the growth of St. John's itself associated with the harbour," he says.
"How the harbour developed and got smaller over time and the infrastructure along with it got bigger. How Water Street became a street as opposed to a path. How the harbour got to 25 per cent smaller (in acreage) than it was 250 years ago."
Penney elaborates on the shrinkage by explaining St. John's was developed by going out into the harbour, not heading up the hill.
"First, you levelled the ground at the harbour and then everything progressed up the side of the hills," he explains. "We figure the curb on the south side of Water Street is the harbour's edge. The extra 150 or 200 metres (to the current harbour apron) is all made ground."
Interestingly, the team determined the made ground includes a lot of ash and rubble from the great fires of the 1800s.
Penney says it's generally known how the harbour developed, but his team precisely delineated its progress.
To do so, they transferred old photos, paintings and maps - including one dating back to 1675 - to GIS technology. That allowed them to digitally reconstruct the city's natural and man-made features, including landmarks and where specific structures might have been.
Bob Cuff, the historian on the team, says the work was exciting.
"Now when I walk around town … I can see bits of the past everywhere," he says, illustrating his point by saying the shapes of some existing buildings are the results of fishing room boundaries from 300 years ago.
Besides the GIS mapping, the team came across thousands of artifacts. Among them: intact plates from an old crockery shop on Water Street; type and leading from Newfoundland's first newspaper, The Royal Gazette; and a beer bottle from sometime between 1770 and 1790.
"There were brew houses here from Day 1," Penney says. "There were brew houses on the Southside that brewed spruce beer and we had our own local breweries."
Cuff notes the beer bottle was one of many alcohol containers they found. He found the amount of archeological evidence related to smoking and drinking quite interesting.
"I guess I knew all these things were down there, but I had no idea of the volume," he says.
The artifacts worth keeping have been catalogued, conserved and given to The Rooms.
As for the myths dispelled, Penney says they discovered a couple of impressive tunnels, but contrary to popular opinion, no evidence of an elaborate catacomb network or a tunnel under the harbour from the southside to the northside.
"It's one of the things people were always expecting you to find. They talk about the tunnels of St. John's," he says, noting the ground under the harbour would be too hard to dig such a tunnel through.
One of the notable tunnels they did find was at Bennett's Brook. Water from Mundy Pond would be held in a dam where Victoria Park is now and then flow through the now-buried tunnel to power a sawmill on the south side of Water Street, Penney explains.
Another busted myth is the legend of Tommy Toe, an old St. John's character who went missing during a harbour development in the 1960s.
"The legend is he is somehow encased down there in the concrete, but we didn't find him," Penney says.
The team's work also yielded some interesting physical facts and finds. Some examples: they exposed the foundations of the old Custom House, which is located between the Duckworth Street War Memorial and Harbourside Park; and they found that the original interceptor sewer system - put in place in the 1870s - was in remarkable condition.
Penney notes the 140-year-old sewer was an intricate system that impressed him.
"I didn't think there was anything as elaborate as that under the streets," he says.
The team expects to wrap up its work in a few months.
Penney says they've compiled a dozen reports and have a few more to finish. He says their work has given the city and its residents a lot of historical data, plus a mapping system that could come in handy, especially during development discussions.
Cuff says they've collected enough material to develop an archeological master plan for the downtown. A model could be put in place, he adds, where it could predict what's under the surface.
The team's general findings will be outlined on three storyboards that are being erected in conjunction with the Grand Concourse Authority. One has already been put up at Harbourside Park.
There appears to be a lot of interest in what the team has found. Penney gave a talk on the findings in February and people had to be turned away. A pdf version of his presentation can be found at www.thetelegram.com.


To view a virtual slideshow tour of what's under the streets of St. John's click here: http://www.thetelegram.com/documents/Telegram/UndertheStreetsofStJohns2010.pdf