With its summit 167 metres above sea level, Signal Hill offers a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean, St. John’s, and the Narrows, a channel through which all ships must pass when entering St. John’s Harbour. This site was important for communications and defence. Its fortifications defended St. John’s harbour for centuries and it was at the summit of Signal Hill on December 12th, 1901 that Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless transmission ushering in the era of wireless communications.
In the 16th century, ships from European nations travelled to the northeast coast of North America to take part in the harvest of North Atlantic fisheries resources and trade with the region’s Indigenous Peoples. Early international competition for access to the best fishing ports in eastern Newfoundland led to the construction of defensive batteries by English fishermen in the Narrows in the 1660s to protect St. John’s against naval attack. Later, as France and England tried to assert control in North America, England constructed more substantial defences along the Narrows, at the base of Signal Hill, and eventually on the summit. There were brief periods of French occupation of St. John’s in 1696, 1705, 1709, and 1762.
After the 1696 French raids, the English established more regular defences in the Narrows, and Fort William was built at the foot of Signal Hill. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht recognized England’s claim over Newfoundland. Following the Battle of Signal Hill in 1762, the English again strengthened their fortifications by building Fort Amherst and Fort Townshend. In the 1790s, the military began building a citadel-style fortification on the summit of Signal Hill. Harsh weather, however, made it impossible to fully achieve this. In 1870, after the American Civil War, the British garrison withdrew from Newfoundland, completely abandoning all Signal Hill fortifications.
The First World War saw minimal military presence on Signal Hill in support of harbour defences. During the Second World War, however, St. John’s was established as a major defence point and naval convoy base for the Battle of the Atlantic. To strengthen harbour defenses, Canadian and American forces occupied Signal Hill and the Narrows with significant numbers of troops and armaments.
A flag signalling and communications post has existed on Signal Hill since at least 1704. Mercantile ships approaching the Narrows used flags to identify themselves to signalmen on the Hill who in turn notified ship owners awaiting their ship’s arrival in port. Since then, a succession of signalling stations filled the role; the last being Cabot Tower, built in 1897, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This flag signalling system remained in use until 1958.
On December 12th, 1901, Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless transmission atop Signal Hill, a landmark achievement in global communications history. Located in a former military barracks and using a kite to raise a wire antenna, Marconi successfully detected a signal transmitted from Poldhu, Cornwall, England. In 1909, Signal Hill also became the western terminus for two transatlantic cables of the Commercial Cable Company. Decades later, the Canadian Marconi Company used Cabot Tower as a base for a marine wireless station which it relinquished to the Canadian Department of Transport in 1949. The Cabot Tower station ceased operations in 1960, two years after the Signal Hill National Historic Park opened.
Since the 1840s, the firing of guns has provided time keeping and fire alarm signals for St. John’s. Today, the firing of the Noon Day Gun continues to evoke the historical role of Signal Hill in communications and defence.