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Niagara’s Lost Town of St.John’s

The story of St.John’s vanished village of the Short Hills, has been told by a famous writer, the late Louis Black Duff, who established a summer home on the site. First to spy out the land was Benjamin Canby, from Pennsylvania. He was only interested in water power, so soon disposed of his holding to Hon. Robert Hamilton, whose executors sold it to John Street, who belonged to a well-known family of millers. He put the streams to work in 1817 and laid out a village site, which he called St.John’s. It became the most important industrial centre in the Niagara district. By the middle 1820s, St.John’s had outstripped all rivals. St.Johns was situated in the township of Thorold, two and a half miles north of Fonthill. At that time St.Catharines was merely Shipman’s Corners and Niagara Falls a one-mill hamlet. Thorold, Welland, Merritton and Port Colborne were unborn.

St.John;s was located on a beautiful spring creek. The village reached its peak of prosperity about 1840, when it had a Wesleyan Methodist church and an Episcopal church, a large hotel, several stores, tannery, carriage works, sawmills, grist mills and several woolen mills. At one time the village had five grist mills.

The Welland Canal feeder stimulated the growth of Welland and started the decline of St.John’s. Population dwindled to about twenty or thirty houses. Eventually both churches were torn down, leaving only uncared for cemeteries. Another cause for decline was the introduction of steam engines. The introduction of electricity finished the chaotic ruin of St.John’s. The population of the village at peak in 1849 was 150, not very large for so much business.

Mr.Louis Blake Duff caused a cairn to be erected, with the following inscription:

“This place was called St.John’s, Canada West, and was named after John Street, who founded it in 1817. It was the scene of the Short Hills insurrection, June 1838”

Mr. Duff immortalized the name of this village of Short Hills because he made his summer home in the picturesque pioneer homestead built by John Street. Mr. Duff made it a place of beauty and furnished the house with articles suitable to the pioneer age.

Three miles north of Fonthill there commences a queer formation of deep glens and high hills, called Short Hills. All in all it resembles the glens of old Scotland. Perhaps the streams of clear cold waters attracted wanderers, but at any rate it was a place where mysterious deeds could be done with safety. Following the rebellion of 1837, societies, called Hunters’ Lodges were formed in the states of New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maine. They were supposed to be ready for the time when rebellion would again be the talk of the day. Mackenzie, the rebel leader, was lying in Rochester jail. In June, 1838, the Hunters came to the village of St.John’s. They set up their camp and expected Canadians to join them, but in this they were disappointed. Fourteen British soldiers were sent from Niagara to handle them. The insurgents, under the command of Colonel James Morrow, were in possession of the hotel. They shot through the cracks of the floor at the approaching soldiery and finally they fired the building. Next day reinforcements came, when the hunters broke and fled in confusion, Forty two prisoners were taken to Niagara to be tried. Within a week, Morrow was publicly hanged, many fashionable women attending the ceremony, as an old newspaper records.

A recluse who fled into these hills for immunity from the law was John Easterby. His brother Alexander, growing tired of his wife, killed her, then killed himself. John was under suspicion for the murder of both and saw no way of clearing himself. For seventeen years he hid in the Short hills and neighbours feared to molest him. He lived in the deepest solitude, marking the weeks by strokes on the wall. When he got fifty two strokes, he knew it was a year. Article from the Saturday edition of the Hamilton Spectator 1958.

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