New Brunswick

How did a historic building end up hidden on a Saint John walking trail?

Weirdly, it's not the only historic building stashed in the woods in Saint John.

The stone carvings at Sheldon Point have mystified hikers for years

A carved sandstone grotesque hidden in plain sight alongside the popular Sheldon Point walking trail in west Saint John. (Julia Wright/ CBC)

Sheldon Point, with its scenic trails, rocky cliffs and panoramic views of Saint John Harbour, is a popular stop for hikers on their way to the Irving Nature Park.

But there's something unusual hidden in the tall grass and alder bushes off Sand Cove Road.

Dozens of moss-covered stones, many of them elaborately carved, date back 140 years. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Hiker Sandy Stewart-Giddings, who lives in Quispamsis, first stumbled across the stone carvings at Sheldon Point in 2018.

"As I was walking along the trail, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this big gargoyle head," Stewart-Giddings said.

Hiker Sandy Stewart-Giddings first spotted the strange stones at Sheldon Point in 2018. (Submitted)

"There were all these beautiful stones just tossed around."

Some are elaborately carved with roses, lilies and sunflowers. There are delicately carved arches and bench-like slabs big enough to seat two people.   

A sandstone corbel, carved with stone roses and sunflowers, lies on the ground not far from the barn off Sand Cove Road. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"I was so curious," she said. "What is this all about? What is the history here? It was really intriguing."

"It's just beautiful craftsmanship that you don't see a lot of today."

A carved decorative window arch dating back to 1877. (Julia Wright / CBC)

'I was mesmerized'

The stones are "a piece of our glorious 19th-century Saint John history that has disappeared," according to Saint Johner Keith Dow.

The stones belonged to Customs House, one of the grandest buildings to emerge from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1877.

Keith Dow, a lifelong Saint Johner, spent many afternoons admiring Customs House from the window of his geometry class at Saint John High School. His father-in-law, contractor George Chittick, carried out the demolition of the building and stored the stones in the family property. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Built by architects McKean and Fairweather at a cost of $160,000, it dominated the Saint John harbourfront between Prince William and Water streets.

Saint John hikers have wondered for years what's hidden in this popular trail. What we discovered teaches a hard history lesson, and how we should be doing more to preserve it. 2:02

At a time when Saint John was still a major port, the staff at Customs House were responsible for collecting revenues from customs imports.

A 1890 albumen silver print by Charles F. Givan depicts Customs House about a decade after its construction. It dominated the skyline on Prince William Street until it was demolished. In 2019, the foundation is all that remains. (New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick Accession #: X11260)

The building was decorated with "a group of carved heads, linked with intricate scrollwork," the Saint John Evening Times-Globe reported on May 13, 1960. 

"The sculptor was James McAvity, who carved the figure of Britannia at the Legislative Building and on the coat-of-arms at City Hall, at Fredericton."

'Were the building here today, I don’t think it would have been meeting the wrecking ball,' said New Brunswick Museum curator Gary Hughes. (Julia Wright / CBC)

 

McAvity is the same master stone carver often credited with Saint John's grotesques at Chubb's Corner.

Customs House also featured "corbels and arches from the front elevation in floral patterns, simply decorated, and skilfully carved," according to curator Gary Hughes of the New Brunswick Museum.

An 1898 glass dryplate negative by Frederick Doig shows the view of Customs House looking north down Prince William — complete with the flags, navigational aids, and 'time ball' that helped ships in the harbour set their chronometers. (New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick Accession #: 1989.181.26)

Dow, who attended Saint John High School from 1953 to 1955, recalls "sitting on the row next to the windows, and paying more attention to the Customs House than my geometry class."

"I was mesmerized by that gorgeous, gorgeous 19th-century building."

A description of the demolition of Customs House that appeared in the the Saint John Evening Times-Globe on May 13, 1960. (Saint John Free Public Library)

Reduced to rubble

But by the 1960s, Customs House was falling into disrepair.

A fire in 1893 had left the sandstone porous and prone to crumbling, and traffic in the Port of Saint John itself was in decline.

Rather than maintain the building, the federal Department of Public Works demolished it.

The former site of Customs House is now a parking lot. The building's foundation, pictured, was left intact to function as a retaining wall. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"There was really just a fledgling heritage preservation movement at that time," said Gary Hughes, who included Customs House in his 1992 book Music of the Eye: Architectural Drawings of Canada's First City 1822-1914.

"I think a lot of people just thought, 'We want new.'"

Several of the carvings from Customs House, like this one, are now in the care of the New Brunswick Museum. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The demolition of such an important building, in Dow's view, offers a "hard lesson" about the importance of heritage preservation in Saint John.

"We tear it down and put something new up," he said.

"Change is always part of our culture. But there are some things which in my view should not change — that we should protect, honour and respect."

The collection of mysterious stones in just one of the compelling reasons to visit the Sheldon Point Trail, which offers panoramic views of Partridge Island, the Saint John Harbour and the Bay of Fundy. (Julia Wright / CBC)

'A sacrilege'

It was Dow's father-in-law, well-known Saint John contractor George Chittick, who got the contract for the demolition.

"The masonry will be used as fill along the harbourfront," the Times-Globe reported on May 13, 1960. "The contractor has his own uses for the rest of it."

"I thought it was a sacrilege," Dow said.

It took two months to tear the building down. Some of the rubble was used to shore up the bank of the Chittick family property, where the walking trails are today, against erosion. 

Stones from the Saint John jail and registry office, built in 1865, were dumped off Sandy Point Road when the building was demolished in the 1980s. (Julia Wright / CBC)

But Chittick preserved the stone carvings by storing many of them on his land.

In 2016, several of the larger stone carvings were donated to the New Brunswick Museum, a process that required many hours and the use of a lift truck. Others remain in Saint John in private hands.

"We were so pleased to be able to conserve and keep a few of them," said Hughes.

In 2019, a parking lot occupies the site where Customs House once stood. A plaque near the bottom of Princess Street commemorates its existence.

"Were the building here today," Hughes said, "I don't think it would have been meeting the wrecking ball."

Could be more

Strangely, Customs House isn't the only historic Saint John building to end up stashed in pieces in the woods.

Less that 10 kilometres away from Sheldon Point on Sandy Point Road,  the remains of the old Saint John jail, built in 1865, are still piled in a scrubland that used to be the Howe's Lake Dump. They've been there since the building was demolished in the 1980s.

After nearly 60 years, the massive stones at Sheldon Point likely aren't going anywhere. 

After nearly 60 years, the stones are likely to remain where they are. (Julia Wright / CBC)

In 2018, west Saint John community organizer Cory Richardson pitched transforming the stones into a "storytelling circle." 

Most of the remaining pieces of Customs House are visible on the side of the trail, about a kilometre behind the green-roofed barn at 1379 Sand Cove Road. .

But it's possible that there are more mysteries hidden in the woods. 

"There may be more pieces we don't know about," Hughes said.

 

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