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The History of River John

    The area surrounding the mouth of the river, called by the Micmacs, Cajje-Boogwek (flowing through a wilderness) was not permanently settled until 1785 though the Aboriginal people certainly camped in the area and there is a tradition that French traders set up a seasonal trading post about one mile upriver. 
    In the middle of the eighteenth century, two events in Europe led directly to the founding of the village of River John. In France, the Protestant inhabitants (Huguenots) of the Duchy of Wurtemburg were subjected to religious persecution and in England, the government decided to send settlers out to populate the newly acquired colony of Nova Scotia.  An invitation was extended to Protestants living on the continent and a large number of Huguenots responded, landing in Halifax in 1753. From there they went to Lunenburg where they found the land poor and difficult to farm but in 1771, they were offered better farmlands in the area around Tatamagouche. These lands had been granted to Colonel Jean DesBarres, another Huguenot, after the expulsion of the Acadians and he persuaded eleven families to move to his property. However, he would not sell any land and when land grants were available for the asking in Pictou County it is not surprising that in 1785  four families left Tatamagouche to settle on land described as: "Lying on a river and bay known by the name of Deception River, near Cap Jean, beginning about a mile north from the entrance of the said river on the west side." Soon the name of the river was changed and the settlement received its' permanent name, River John. The settlers erected a blockhouse on a point of land and built their first log houses close by. From here they went out each day to clear their lands and sow their first crops. The first white child, a girl Phoebe Patriquin was born the following year. Each passing year brought more families, still of Huguenot origin and speaking a German-accented French dialect. 
    Scottish immigrants now began to take up land grants on the east bank of the River and on Cape John but, as there was no bridge and the first point at which the river could be crossed was over a mile upriver, the two groups remained separate for some time. However, by the end of the century, the settlers had coalesced into a community and in 1797 had appointed Town Officers; an overseer of roads, an overseer of fisheries, a constable, an assessor and an overseer of fences and thistles. 
    The new century saw the Emperor Napoleon establishing himself as a new Julius Caesar and fighting wars throughout the continent. War in Europe meant prosperity in North America with a tremendous demand for lumber and ships. Farmers in Nova Scotia who had scratched out a subsistence from their farms, now found they could get unheard of prices for the timber from their wood lots and ships were needed to convey this wood to the markets. 
    The village of River John partook of this prosperity and grew rapidly. A wooden bridge linked both sides of the river. This made it easier for residents to gather for worship or social occasions.  In 1808 they secured the services of a clergyman and the congregation joined the Presbytery of Pictou the following year. On June 18, 1815, the very day that the Battle of Waterloo marked the end of Napoleon's career, Canada's earliest church of the Disciples of Christ, made its' beginning in River John.  In 1818 the first school was built and children were spared from work in the fields so that they might learn the basic 'three Rs'. 
    A local merchant, Robert Mackay decided to copy his colleagues in other sea- side communities and start a shipyard. He built River John's first ship in 1825 but by this time the boom years had passed and before long he lost his business. The bankrupt's assets were purchased by an up-and-coming young Scot, Alexander Mackenzie ...a cousin and namesake of Alexander Mackenzie, the great explorer who first crossed the continent by land and discovered the mighty river that bears his name. Young Mackenzie prospered as did his brother-in-law, Charles McLennan who had also settled in River John.  By 1835 when the post-war depression was coming to an end, MacKenzie had started a shipyard in River John as had the Hon. George Smith and Kenneth MacLean. All seemed set fair for the village as it approached it's half century mark. The old meeting house was too small for its' congregation and the construction of a new one was begun. A Methodist chapel and a small Anglican church were built. 
    By 1842 hard times had again returned. Smith and MacLean both failed in business. The new Presbyterian church was never finished and the Anglican church was used as a carpenter shop and a cattle shed. The school house was unoccupied. A letter to the newspaper stated baldly, "Times are so bad that we can't afford to pay for preaching and teaching."  As so often in the past, European wars came to the rescue. In 1853 the Crimean war broke out in southeastern Europe and once again ships were needed. Two new ship builders appeared upon the scene, James Kitchen and John Mockler and from this time dated the glory days of River John as a shipbuilding centre.  Prosperity brought expansion to the village. A stagecoach connected it with the town of Pictou and news from abroad arrived via the wires of the Western Union Telegraph Company which established an office in the village. A newspaper started. Two inns were built for the accommodation of visitors.  A foundry, tannery and sawmills were established and their products supplied the needs of the shipyards. When several ships were being built at the same time, there were not enough skilled workers in the village to carry out the work and men used to come from as far as Lunenburg County for the seasonal work. There were no accommodation for these workers and they erected shanties and lean-to from scrap lumber from the shipyard. These shacks were built in a part of the village just west of the shipyard, an area that became known as Slabtown. Some of these itinerant workmen stayed in River John and although the quality of their dwellings improved, the unflattering name stuck. 
    The shipbuilders were canny businessmen and did not depend on shipbuilding alone to make their fortunes. All had stores and paid their workmen, not in money, but in credit notes which were only good at their own mercantile establishments, insuring that monies paid out to the workers came straight back to their own coffers. 
    By 1863 River John was important enough to figure on the itinerary of Edward, Prince of Wales. Queen Victoria's son arrived by stagecoach and was then taken in Charles McLennan's brand new carriage for a drive around the community. The stagecoach would disappear as the railway came to Pictou County. When Charles McLennan heard that the proposed Intercolonial Railway station was to be located seven miles from River John at West Branch, he exercised all of his considerable political influence to ensure that line was rerouted to bring the station closer. This was done despite the fact that it entailed building a large and expensive railway trestle to span the river.. 
    The bustling prosperity of these years brought new building in the village. Three new churches were built, two Presbyterian and one Anglican.  To take advantage of the visitors the new train would bring, McLennan built a large and handsome hotel, the Riverside and another merchant, John MacKenzie constructed the only brick built commercial building outside of the County towns. The social needs of the villagers were accommodated in a Town Hall and several meeting halls for various fraternal organizations. In the winter, a temporary enclosed skating rink sprouted on the riverside and patrons skated to the music of the village brass band. In 1885 the wooden road bridge spanning the river in the village centre was replaced by a double span, steel truss bridge and in that same year the two greatest vessels ever built on the North Shore slipped down the ways of the Kitchen and MacKenzie yards. 
    Despite all this activity, by the end of the century it was obvious that steel and steam were replacing wood and wind and the era of the great square riggers was at an end. Only smaller, fore and aft rigged vessels were economical and the demand for them was sporadic. The old ship yards were abandoned, the wharves deserted and the village again languished. 
    By the beginning of the 20th century the great 'brain drain' from Nova Scotia had begun. As if to facilitate it, in 1902 a fine, new school building was built in the centre of the village and dominated its landscape for the next seventy years. In the nineteen sixties an elderly woman recalled that in the first decade of the century she shared a train coach with seventeen university students, all returning to River John for their Christmas holiday. Of those seventeen, not one returned to River John to pursue a career and only two remained in Nova Scotia. 
    The telephone came to the village at the turn of the century and by 1908 there were 28 telephones in service. By 1917 there were many Maritime Telephone and Telegraph subscribers but a much larger network of small companies fanned out from the village. 
    Charles McLennan was the only shipbuilder constructing ships in the first years of the century and these were schooners of less than 500 tons. He lost his entire fortune in a stock market crash in 1910 and it seemed that shipbuilding in River John was at an end. Then came the great war and an unparalleled destruction of British and allied shipping. Vessels were in desperately short supply and there was even a market for wooden ships. While a great many of the young men of the village were serving in the army overseas, there were still a few aged ship carpenters living in the village and there were still men in the hills who knew how to get out the knees, planking and hardwood timber. Archibald MacKenzie built the "Cambrai," named for one of the great battlefields of the war and Charles McLennan sold one of his few remaining assets, a woodlot and with the proceeds built a small schooner, the "Cyril T" and then the larger "Mary F. Anderson." This was the last wooden ship to be built in River John. 
    After the war, when the men returned, there were a few fairly good years, the country in general was prosperous, and there was work to be had. There were ten lobster factories (canneries) in River John giving seasonal work to local women and providing a market for the local fishermen. In 1921 the first bank opened in the village, a branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia. At the end of this decade the great stock market crash of 1929 plunged the entire continent into the depths of the great depression. In River John matters were not helped by a disastrous fire in November 1930 that wiped out three retail businesses. Prices for lobsters plunged and though no one starved, many families knew what it was to go hungry. It was hard to blame some of the fishermen if they turned to rum running to make a few dollars. 
    Hard times continued throughout the thirties until the outbreak of World War II . Many young men immediately joined the armed forces while the older men and women found work at Ferguson Industries in Pictou, building steel ships. Once again the economy of the village was saved by war and shipbuilding. 
    The second half of this century has seen this village become a bedroom community. Fishing is the now the major industry while the remainder of the citizens work in the neighbouring towns or in the service sector. 

Adapted from: "Historical Research on River John, N.S."
Compiled by Rosalie D. Robison, Historical Research Coordinator Summer of 1998. 

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