Parks Canada putting the signal back in Signal Hill

Parks Canada is hoisting a piece of St. John's history this summer, with replicas of flags that were flown to notify merchants that their ships were coming in.

Replica merchant flags will be flying from iconic St. John's landmark this summer

Richard Klaas of Parks Canada stands in front of Cabot Tower, which is flying the replica flag for Baird & Co., a wholesaler of groceries, hardware and sealing supplies. (Submitted by Richard Klaas)

Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi put Signal Hill on the map when he received the first transatlantic radio signal there in 1901, but it was actually the flags that were raised on the hill to communicate between sea and shore that gave the iconic landmark its name.

Parks Canada is reviving a piece of that history this summer for a Canada 150 legacy project, by flying replicas of the flags that were used to notify waterfront merchants that their ships were coming in to port.

"Just driving up to the site you can see the history … as it would have looked from 1811 onwards, so it's really a sight to see," said Richard Klaas, a visitor experience team leader with Parks Canada in St. John's.

The signal flag arrangement for a Baird & Co. steamer coming from the south. (Submitted by Richard Klaas)

The use of flags to communicate messages between land and vessels began in the 18th century, when Signal Hill was known as the Lookout.

The name changed after the Battle of Signal Hill in 1762, because of the signalling that took place at the summit.    

Business banners

Mercantile flag usage began on Signal Hill in 1811, and ended in 1958. 

Red, white and blue designs represented the firms and trading companies of the day, including Baine Johnston & Co., Ayre & Sons, Bowring Bros & Co., and R. Templeton. 

Each flag had a marker, such as an anchor, star, cross or other symbol that would identify the firm, and in turn ships would fly the flag of the merchant whose goods they were carrying.

Painting of the signal flags, also called house flags, from the Maritime History Archive at Memorial University of Newfoundland. (MUN Maritime History Archive/Submitted)

When spotters at the lookout on top of Signal Hill saw the vessel approaching, they would hoist the same flag on the hilltop to let the mercantile firms on the St. John's waterfront know their ship was, literally, coming in.

3-mast system  

The mast chosen for the flag, either right or left of the main mast, would indicate which direction the ship was coming from, and a pennant or other indicator would be flown on the main mast in the middle to denote the type of ship, such as a schooner, brig or barque.

Not only did the signalling system let the merchant know the goods were close to port, it was also important for clearing dock space on the busy St. John's waterfront. 

"You can imagine it's quite small compared to some harbours, so it would give merchants a bit of lead-up time as the ship was approaching to clear dock space so they had room for the type of ship that was docking," said Klaas.

The masts on Cabot Tower are dressed for visual impact for the sunrise ceremony held July 1. (Parks Canada)

The seven replica flags, which are manufactured in Ontario, look like the real deal, and are made from a synthetic bunting that has the appearance of the cotton bunting that would have been used at the time.

The replicas won't be raised in extremely wet weather, but you will be able to see them flying from Cabot Tower on fine days until the end of August. 

With files from the St. John's Morning Show