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St. Johns Village
Erected in 1979 by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, Ministry of Culture and Recreation, the plaque in front of the St. Johns Outdoor Education Centre reads
ST. JOHNS - A sawmill built in 1792 on nearby Twelve Mile Creek by Benjamin Canby, an early entrepreneur, formed the nucleus of a settlement, which by 1799 was called St. Johns. Other enterprising businessmen, notably John Darling and John Street, developed several mill-sites and the flourishing community soon became the Niagara District's leading mill-centre. A post-office was established in 1831, by which time the village contained numerous operations, including a woollen factory, foundry, tannery, and several saw and grist-mills. The completion of the Welland Canal and the rapid emergence of industries on that waterway hampered the further growth of St. Johns, and the decline was accelerated by the bypassing of the Short Hills area by the Great Western and Welland Railways, completed between 1853 and 1859.
As you look around the placid rural landscape of the St. Johns Valley, it is difficult to imagine that you are in what was once the industrial heartland of Niagara. Nestled in this valley in the early 1800s was a thriving mill community called St. Johns.
St. Johns was initially settled by Benjamin Canby and John Darling around 1790. Canby, a Quaker, came to Canada with other families from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Canboro Township and Canboro Road are named after him. Canby immediately established a saw mill on the site. Others followed, and a small settlement began to take shape. The schoolhouse that we now refer to as the St. Johns Common School was established there in 1804.
In 1817, John Street, a sibling in a well-known Upper Canadian family of mill owners, established a mill of his own. He had the land surveyed by Zenas Fell, another Quaker from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Roads were laid out and town lots were surveyed. The plan included sites for two churches, a school, a cemetery, and a town common. John Street immodestly named the settlement St. Johns, paying tribute to himself. An 1827 British military survey map of the Short Hills refers to the early settlement as “Steel’s Mills (lately called St. John’s)”. Thus was founded the most important industrial centre the peninsula was to know in its early pioneer era.
In 1936, Niagara-based author and journalist Louis Blake Duff wrote about St. Johns in an article for the Canadian Historical Review entitled ‘Vanished Village of the Shorthills’. His writings indicated how vitally important the headwater streams of Twelve Mile Creek were to the settlement patterns and economic activity of the community. Duff wrote,
“St Johns speedily became the most important industrial centre in the Niagara peninsula. The stream made it. There were other streams of course, but for the most part dependable only in the spring and fall. This creek was not large but it had an unfailing constancy that summers, even dry ones, did not affect. Moreover,it sped fast down the valley with ripples and runs and here and there a waterfall. Dams were built a-plenty. Soon the valley was dotted with water wheels and by the middle twenties St. Johns had outstripped its rivals. St Catharines was merely Shipman's Corners; Niagara Falls was a one-mill hamlet; [and] Thorold, Merriton, Welland and Port Colborne were unborn.”
Thanks to these Twelve Mile Creek headwaters, St. Johns became a prominent industrial village complete with grist mills, fulling mill, woolen mills, iron foundry, potashery, tannery, hat factory, brickyard, schools, churches and a post office. It reached its zenith between 1835 and 1840.
NOTE-> Along the right side of Orchard Hill Road you’ll see several wooden book-shaped plaques alongside the stream, commemorating the history of the vanished village.
The fate of the village of St. Johns took a downturn with the development of the Welland Canal. The canal drew away water first, then drew away people and commerce to the growing towns of Welland, Thorold and St. Catharines. By the 1850s, St. Johns’ industries were in decline, and between 1851 and 1857 the population dropped from 250 to 150 people. When the railroad was constructed in the mid- to late 1850s, no lines were built through St. Johns, forever signalling an end to its industrial importance.
Historian Louis Blake Duff reports that by 1926, St. Johns was a deserted village.
“The last flour mill closed 30 years before; the last carding mill, known as Pitts mill,was recently torn down—it had not been working for many years. Both churches were removed long ago. The cemetery was uncared for… Other buildings simply collapsed in the course of time. The landscape [of 1936] has no trace, bar a pit here and there, an earthwork, hollows of a roadway once worn bare by wagons and carts, of an era that is never to come back again".
The situation, of course, was never quite so dire. Over the past 150 years, the area has had an occasionally sparse but continuous human presence, and has been extensively farmed and re-settled.
A granite marker commemorating the 200th anniversary of the founding of St. Johns was dedicated by Ontario Leiutenant Governer Henry Jackman on September 20th, 1992.
Now the village of St. Johns, nestled picturesquely in the Short Hills, is one of the most desirable rural residential locations in the Niagara Greenbelt.
TripClip Audio File
Click to play or download St. Johns Village Historical Plaque TripClip (mp3 format).
Click to play or download St. Johns Village TripClip (mp3 format).
The above destinations are also part of the TripClip tour 'Touring the Twelve.'