New Brunswick·Feature

Ghosts of Fort Dufferin: Saint John's forgotten fort

Abandoned military installations at Fort Dufferin are all that remains of the once-thriving fort. A lot of Saint Johners don't know they exist.

Only concrete ruins remain of what was once a key military site

The cliffs of west Saint John are beautiful in a desolate way. Seagulls soar over Bay Shore Beach. Trains shunt cars from the west side docks at the end of City Line. Old homes have stood up against blasting nor'easters for a century.

But among the weirdest features of the west side are the ruins of Fort Dufferin.

The cliffs were once home to a bustling military fortification that boasted 10 gun platforms, a guard house, offices and store buildings. During the Second World War, the site was staffed round-the-clock, with massive searchlights, quick-firing guns, and barracks capable of holding more than 100 men.

Until it was decommissioned in 1944, it was one of the most important sites in the early history of the Canadian artillery. 

"In both world wars, Saint John became far more important than anyone could have ever imagined," said Roger Sarty, professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University and co-author of the book Saint John Fortifications 1630-1956.

Graffiti-covered shells of buildings are all that remain today.

 "A lot of Saint Johners don't know these exist," said Sarty.

The CBC's Julia Wright explored the remnants of Fort Dufferin and captured these photos.

A painted rock marks the way to the old fortifications, which can be reached via a winding network of paths that open out onto a steep embankment overlooking the sea. Military leaders chose the cliffs for their unique strategic value. From them, troops could defend both the western side of the Saint John harbour and the channel between the headland and Partridge Island.

(Submitted by National Defence Headquarters, Directorate of History and Heritage)

A Second World War-era aerial view shows remnants of the 1860s-era fort. The barracks were built mainly in 1939-40, said Sarty. The fort was a major camp for the 3rd New Brunswick Coast Brigade, Royal Canadian Artillery, now known as the 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, the Loyal Company. Stone magazines can be seen in between gun positions for powerful 32-pounder smoothbore guns, the ruins of which still exist today. The Second World War searchlight position on the shore is also visible. Another gun position — also still standing in 2017 — is pictured under camouflage nets at the east end of the old fort.

An abandoned searchlight building. Installed in late 1940, the state-of-the-art searchlights were connected to a generating station at the top of the cliffs. 'These huge floodlights were capable of brilliantly illuminating the entire channel between west Saint John and Partridge Island,' Sarty said. Men would have worked all night to keep the lights running. 'They had big carbon filaments, just like a huge light bulb, that would burn at high intensity,' said Sarty. 'They guys would be expert at making sure the filament burned properly and the moment it burned out, to shoot in a replacement.'

(Submitted by Roger Sarty)

Troops at gun practice at Fort Dufferin circa 1892. In the 19th century, 'the fort was regularly used by the militia unit in Saint John,' said Sarty. 'In the mid-1870s, the battery was upgraded with modern guns and became one of the central training facilities for all of the artillery in eastern Canada.'

(Submitted by Roger Sarty)

The fort was originally called the Negro Point Battery — a racist name that still survives on contemporary maps in the so-called "Negro Point Breakwater" to Partridge Island.  In 1873, the British renamed the fort in honour of Lord Dufferin, the governor general of Canada who visited Saint John in 1873. The site depicted on the map has been all but destroyed.

When this searchlight building was built in 1940, the breakwater to Partridge Island, pictured, hadn't been built. With the channel between the mainland and the island completely open it was all the more vital to track the vessels entering the harbour.

Isolation and neglect have made the site a target for vandals over the past 78 years. Layers of graffiti cover concrete walls scorched by years of arson attempts. The reinforced concrete, however, has remained largely intact.

Inside this building and others on the site, 'the men were ready 24/7,' said Sarty. 'In super foggy weather, when planes can't fly and ships can't see, the guys are still there, with radar systems to see through the Saint John fog.'

The biggest remaining installations are the two searchlight buildings, which consist of two big, open rooms with a small doorway in the back. The buildings are 'almost identical' to those installed on Partridge Island, said Sarty.

A discarded spray-paint can lies on the ground amid the ruins.

The cavernous, vandalized interior is all that remains of this once-state-of-the-art searchlight building.

After 78 years of exposure to salt sea air, snow, and wind, calthemites are forming on the degrading concrete of the searchlight buildings. The icicle-like deposits are caused by calcium-rich leachate seeping from the old concrete.

Spooky, devil-themed graffiti on a crumbling wall. Without the searchlight housed in this building, Saint John's involvement in the Second World War could have ended tragically. At one point, a German U-boat cruised into Saint John Harbour 'on a hunting mission,' according to Sarty. 'We now know from [U-boat] logs that they could see the coast artillery searchlights flashing on and off. They knew these were protected areas, and they kept the devil away.'

The stairs leading up to the biggest gun position have been sheared off by weather and vandalism. The 4.7-inch gun bolted to the top of this structure would have fired a projectile of 20 kilograms, and from it crews would have been trained to fire five or six rounds a minute, according to Sarty.

The old gun position, pictured left, is surrounded by high mounds of earth overgrown with elder bushes. The mounds are all that remain of the earthworks and magazines constructed as part of the 1860s fort. In September 1944, the battery was closed and part of the property reverted back to a gravel pit.

(New Brunswick Museum)

A New Brunswick Museum archival photo dated 1900 shows three of the earthworks, or stone magazines. The group of children pictured standing in front of the structures gives a sense of the fortification's scale.

From the gun position, the Digby Ferry terminal and the lights of Saint John are visible the distance.

A precariously leaning wall graffitied with the words 'don't fall.' The vandalism is typical of the fate of old batteries across Atlantic Canada, including the large military installations at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. Other historic fortifications at Red Head in east Saint John, which date back to the 19th century, are in danger of falling into the sea because of erosion. Fortifications at Mispec Point in Saint John were lost when Irving Oil and Repsol acquired the land to build the Canaport LNG Terminal, according to Sarty.

But Fort Dufferin is 'one of the most gorgeous sites,' said Sarty. 'It's some of the most gorgeous coastline I've ever seen. I would urge people to take respectful walks there, and try to imagine a time back when there were U-boats hanging out in the distance, just offshore.'