Signal Hill: The View From the Edge

By Susan Huebert   Trail Canada

Imagine standing at the top of a hill at the eastern edge of Canada. On one side is a city on an island, and beyond that are vast distances of prairies, mountains, cities, and towns. On the other side is a seemingly endless expanse of water, cold and blue. Signal Hill stands near the eastern edge of Newfoundland, overlooking St. Johnís on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, making it ideal as a meeting ground of political, economic, and scientific interests, and in modern times, as a tourist site.

Signal Hill is one of the most recognizable features of St. Johnís, with its steep slopes and large structures. Overlooking the cityís harbour, the hill was often an important part of military strategy in past years; as early as the sixteenth century, soldiers fired cannons from the hill to warn troops of impending attacks, and two hundred years later, fortifications at the site played a part in the Napoleonic wars. St. Johnís officially became a town in 1528 and was a key location for rivalry among the English, Dutch, Spanish, and French explorers, not always to its benefit; the town was captured, burned, and rebuilt several times. Throughout the turbulent years of Newfoundlandís early history, Signal Hill housed fortifications and military personnel, even as the steep natural embankment provided protection from invading forces.

Recent history at Signal Hill has been considerably more peaceful. In 1897, construction began on Cabot Tower, built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabotís landing on the North American continent. Four years later, in 1901, a scientific breakthrough happened when Guglielmo Marconi set up his equipment on Signal Hill to receive the worldís first wireless signal from Poldhu, England, thus starting a new age of communications. The signal itself was an insignificant letter ďsĒ in Morse Code, but Marconi could scarcely have foreseen the revolutionary results of this simple message.

The scientific significance of Signal Hill goes beyond Marconiís famous experiment. A rich geological heritage has brought many researchers to the site to study the many rocks and minerals found in the area. The Johnson GEO CENTRE houses the results of these studies, as well as information about the solar system, gravity, the climate, volcanoes, and vegetation. Built almost entirely underground with only a glass entranceway visible from outside, the centre provides a unique experience for visitors. Its geothermal heating system uses six wells dug deep into the earth to heat or cool the building, and both children and adults will enjoy seeing how this process works. Visitors can see erupting volcanoes and violent rainstorms in the centreís theatre or view the planets and the wonders of outer space in the display area, where sections are devoted to Our Planet, Our Province, Our People, and Our Future. With special programs for children and events for the whole family, the Johnson GEO CENTRE is an essential part of any visit to Signal Hill.

Once geological curiosity is satisfied, visitors may wish to consider Marconi and radio signals. The Interpretive Centre halfway up the hill is a good place to get more information on the inventor and to find out about the ham radio station that operates on the hill in the summer. Beyond the Interpretive Centre is a restored cannon battery, leading to the top of Signal Hill, where Cabot Tower stands. Energetic visitors can climb to the top of the tower for a better view, but the local people warn of fierce winds often blowing at that height. It is said that the winds can even tear a small child out of parental arms, and it is best to ask about weather conditions before climbing the tower.

For many history enthusiasts, Signal Hillís military past will provide a glimpse into the varied fortunes of Canadaís east coast. Although the last army garrisons were withdrawn from St. Johnís in 1871, Signal Hill is still remembered for its strategic importance. As a tribute to that history, the site boasts the Signal Hill Military Tattoo, a display of artillery and military drumming held several days a week in summer. With costumes and cannon fire, the display is an impressive re-enactment of times past, and activities for children of all ages are available as well.

Besides the many activities and sights on Signal Hill, the landmark is a good place just to walk and enjoy the scenery. The inland side gives a good view of St. Johnís with all of its varied landscape, while the seaward side is a wonderful place to see the Atlantic Ocean. On that side is a path where hikers can descend sixty-one metres to the base of the cliff. The 896 steps along a narrow path make this hike quite difficult, and anyone with concerns about heights or about physical fitness should not attempt it. However, the hill has many other opportunities for walking, and most visitors will find easier walks where they can expend their energy and see the sights of Signal Hill and beyond.

Signal Hill, at Canadaís eastern edge, is a place of history and science. With its historical significance, its scenery, and the many activities and sights available, it is a worthwhile place to include in any visit to Newfoundland.

St. John's Features

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