Signal Hill programs make people a part of history

Josh Pennell
Published on June 21, 2013
Dressed in a period French soldier’s military uniform, Pte. Tom Cromwell loads the new noon day gun at Cabot Tower on Signal Hill Thursday afternoon as Parks Canada officials ensured the canon is in fine working order for today’s firing of the gun by St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe for the 2013 summer tourism season kickoff. The canon is on loan from the Fortress of Louisburg, an 18th-century French fortress on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

At Signal Hill this summer, Parks Canada isn’t just bringing people back through history — it is making people a part of it.

Robin Martin is a visitor experience product development officer with Parks Canada.

“That’s the trend that we’re moving to here at Signal Hill. We’re offering immersive programs,” he says.

That means interested people don’t have to stand on the sidelines and watch the noon day gun be fired. They can be the one to set the cannon blazing.


Noon day gun

The noon day gun has a long history in the city. Martin says the first mention of a timekeeping cannon goes back to 1781, when the gun wasn’t fired at noon, but in the evening to notify soldiers they had to go to their barracks. At one point, there was also a fog gun.

“When heavy fog came into the harbour, the artillery would fire the gun every hour to help mariners navigate,” says Martin.

Likewise, there was a fire alarm gun. The noon day gun is first recorded in 1842.

The gun went through its trials and tribulations and was ceased altogether in 1949 when ammunition ran out for the cannon, says Martin.

In 1959, Parks Canada reinstated the practice of firing the noon day gun and it fired until the mid 1990s. This summer, the noon day gun will fire once again.

“This year we’re doing it to help celebrate and commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht being signed in 1713,” says Martin.

The cannon that will be used this summer came from the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, N.S. It’s set up next to Cabot Tower where the gun used to be. And if anybody wants to be the one to make the cannon ring out over the city, that’s an option.

“If you want to fire the gun in costume, it’s available to you. For $49 we’ll put you in a period costume and we’ll give a safety brief and the training and you will actually touch off the noon day gun,” says Martin.


Other programs

It’s not the only piece of history people can immerse themselves in. Another program puts interested people in a period costume from 1870. After a bit of training, people can fire the first breech-loading rifle of the British army from the observation deck on Cabot Tower.

If such brief brushes with history just aren’t enough, there’s a four-day pilot program and, for this year only, Parks Canada is rolling back prices beyond 1812. It’s free.

The four-day program sees participants “recruited” into the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of 1812. During the days, “enlisted soldiers” will undergo a variety of weapons training that will show the evolution of military technology through the years, Martin says.

One afternoon, there will be a trip to a rifle range for live ammo shooting. There’ll also be an overnight session spent under canvas in a British military-style camp. That event will have historical music provided by Fergus O’Byrne.

The four days culminate with two public performances that participants will be a part of. The program will run from Aug. 1-4, and Martin says the public can apply to be a part of it.


The war of 1812

Besides the programs designed to give people a historic experience, there are also some new uniforms meant to commemorate the War of 1812 and educate people on what Martin says is a part of the province’s military past a lot of people may not be aware of. It has to do with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Fencible Infantry that was raised in 1803.

“They didn’t spend a lot of time here. They were moved around parts of British North America,” says Martin.

When the War of 1812 broke out, the regiment was in Quebec City and was deployed to various parts of Canada to defend against American forces.

Martin says it is one of the most storied regiments from the war. The regiment fought in a lot of larger battles, was used as marines on the Great Lakes and could always be counted on to be a flanking regiment to protect the sides of the army in battles.

“Newfoundland played a huge role in Canada during this war over a century before we became part of it,” Martin says, adding there’s a lineage that runs from that regiment to the current Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

“It’s a story that I think perhaps a lot of Newfoundlanders don’t fully understand.”

To help in that understanding, money was raised from Canadian Heritage and the private sector to get money for the 1812 uniforms the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Fencible Infantry wore.

“The Signal Hill Tattoo, on behalf of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, will animate this regiment from the 1812 period,” says Martin. “People who come to Signal Hill to watch the Tattoo will see War of 1812 uniforms.”