Perched above St. John’s Harbour, Signal Hill and Cabot Tower are icons within Newfoundland and Labrador history.
Signal Hill is well known as the site where the era of mass communication was born. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi suspended an antenna 500 feet above the hill with a kite and received the first transatlantic wireless signal – the letter S (three short beeps) in Morse code.
Marconi came back to Signal Hill in 1920 to test a long-range transmitter that could send out the human voice. This time, the signal reached a ship, the SS Victorian, that was sailing from England.
The ship picked up the Signal Hill transmission 1,200 miles (1931 kilometres) away. From these early beginnings of the Wireless Age, it has taken us just over a century to advance to radio, television, satellite transmission and WiFi.
Even before those first “beeps,” though, Signal Hill was a place where history happened. In 1762, the Battle of Signal Hill was the last skirmish in the Seven Year’s War, which cemented Britain’s place over France as the dominant European power in North America.
In late June of that year, St. John’s was under attack by French forces commanded by the Comte d’Haussonville. The count based his force of 295 infantry soldiers around Signal Hill, only to suffer a surprise attack by 200 British soldiers under the command of William Amherst.
The British attack worked, and three days later the French surrendered. It turned out to be a decisive blow to France; in the Treaty of Paris that ended the war in 1763, Britain acquired its claim to much of what is now Canada, including Newfoundland and Labrador and its fisheries, several Caribbean islands and a big chunk of what later became the United States.
In 1897, Cabot Tower was commissioned to sit atop Signal Hill. Designed by St. John’s architect William Howe Greene, the tower commemorated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the 400th anniversary of the arrival of explorer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot).
The late-Gothic designed tower was completed in 1900. In keeping with the site’s communications heritage, the 50-foot tower housed a transmission station until 1960, and now is home to a ham radio (amateur radio) operation.
Today, Signal Hill and Cabot Tower are visible from all over St. John’s, and the site is one of the most popular places to visit.
“So many people walk and cycle the trail from the centre of town to the hill,” says Glenn Keough, the site’s manager of visitor experience and national historic sites. “When you’re on top [of the hill], you get a great view of the coastline, and it’s a great place to view icebergs and whales.”
Visitors can also immerse themselves in more history by checking out the visitors’ centre, where they may be surprised to learn that Signal Hill has a long, rich history that extends beyond its early heritage and its significance to modern communications.
During World War II, for example, Signal Hill was the garrison site for 400 U.S. soldiers. The hill was an early-warning post for spotting German U-boats.
Signal Hill is also known for, well, its signal – a gun that is fired each day at noon. (You can set your watch by it.)
The gun is a 19th century cannon that was once aboard the HMS Calypso and was used for training by the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve.
“At one time, the gun was fired in the morning and the evening as well as at noon,” Keough says. “But there were complaints from local citizens, including one of the ministers who said it was going off at the same time as the Sunday service.”
At one time, the gun also had a commercial function, Keough says.
“It would be fired to signal to merchants that a ship was coming into the harbour with goods to be unloaded. Those who got the cargo out fast could get a premium price selling it,” he explains.
A site with a colourful history, Signal Hill is a must-see destination for anyone looking to learn more about Newfoundland and Labrador, or just take in an unforgettable view.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.