Tales of the City: Downtown St. John’s Has a New Walking Tour

There’s a new walking tour in town. Pierre Trowbridge is taking St. John’s visitors to the streets, and regaling them with tales of the city.
Pierre Trowbridge takes a step forward with his new venture, St. John’s Walking Tours. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

Pierre Trowbridge is taking St. John’s visitors to the streets to hear some funny tales.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had! By far,” he told The Independent on a hot morning over cold coffee early last week.

“Don’t get me wrong, I still wake up in the morning sometimes and take that deep breath before I throw my legs over the side of the bed and go ‘ugh, here we go. Gotta go to work,’” he added. “But as soon as I go down those steps by the sculpture at the end of George Street? I’m ready to go. And I love it every time I go out.”

He’s talking about the St. John’s Walking Tours, a company he recently launched in the heart of downtown. He wears many hats in this nascent tourism business as the owner, chief tour guide, and—so far—sole employee.

It isn’t meant to be a strictly historical tour, but St. John’s is brimming with stories that are “jumping out at you,” he said. So he tells interesting tidbits of information along the way.

Trowbridge recounts eclectic tales of the city, including one that involves the bank crash of 1894, the truck system, and how we finally changed what side of the road we drove on a few years before Confederation.

He also hinted at something that sets the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature apart from all others, and it started in the old Colonial Building and carries on to this day.

“I tell them a couple of quirky war stories about how the Canadian military almost blew up the oil tanks up on Southside Hills.” In WWII they were loading a gun in the harbour and accidentally fired it, nearly causing an explosion.

“Real stories like that,” he said.

The research part of the tour came naturally to Trowbridge. He has sources for all the facts he recites. He got them through various books he’s read and some online resources, like the Heritage NL site. Some of it he got from talking to people who knew the history. “It’s kind of coming along in different ways.”

Sometimes the history gets a bit more personal, he shared. His first residence was at 64 Colonial Street, the same home that Prime Minister Richard Squires ducked into to avoid an angry mob during the ransacking of Colonial Buildings on April 5, 1932.

Talking Walking Tours

St. John’s Walking Tours offers two tours; the core tour and the signature tour, which both start at the bronze statue on George Street. The core tour is $35 per adult and $30 for youth (kids under six are free), and takes you 2 km over 90 minutes towards sites like the Supreme Court, the Anglican Cathedral, the LSPU Hall, the War Memorial, and the harbourfront. It takes place Thursday and Sunday at 10 am.

The signature tour—$45 for adults and $35 for youth—is a bit longer. It lasts about two and a half hours for about 3 kms, taking you to some of the same spots as the core tour, as well as the Colonial Building, Bannerman Park, and jellybean row. It takes place Thursday and Saturday at 10 am, and on Wednesday through Sunday the start time is 2 pm.

People can book through the website, so you don’t need to call. “We wanted to be fully modernized. Fully accessible,” he added.

Since he started—which was on July 8—every day has had a booking.

All tours start at the iconic bronze sculpture on George Street (A Time, by Morgan MacDonald).
Photo courtesy of St. John’s Walking Tours.

From Teaching to Touring

Trowbridge has a passion for history and research. He started his university degree in 2002 as a mature student at Memorial University, where he majored in religious studies and minored in history.

He eventually ended up teaching English in China, a job he loved. He would get a month off in the winter and two months in the summer, and he’d use it to go on biking trips. He was on such a trip in January of 2020, biking through Vietnam to reach Cambodia, when he started hearing whispers of a virus.

Eventually, Trowbridge said it caught up with him and soon it was near impossible to get back to China.

To top it all off, on the trip he started having trouble catching his breath. He was told in a Cambodian hospital that his heart looked enlarged in an X-ray, which is not unusual for someone who bikes like he does, but it was still worrying.

Fortunately, there was a clause called “political evacuation” in his insurance plan and it had kicked in because of the pandemic, enabling him to fly anywhere he wanted. He chose to head to his home province, Newfoundland and Labrador. The flight took off from Cambodia, went to Japan and on to Toronto before finally touching down in St. John’s. He arrived a few days after the province announced a public health emergency on March 18, 2020, but before it went into a serious lockdown.

Once here, Trowbridge found out he had two blood clots in his lungs. If he’d known about them earlier, he said, he wouldn’t have flown at all.

His friend Melissa Hogan had already offered her St. John’s home to him while he quarantined. Hogan was also the person who suggested he look into starting a walking tour.

“I’ve done walking tours in different parts of Asia and stuff. But she’s done a lot more than I have in a lot more places. She’s done some in Asia, Central America, Puerto Rico, places in Europe,” explained Trowbridge.

About a year and a half ago, she floated the idea to him and he thought it was interesting.

Launching A Business

The next step was to start planning for it and looking into available grants and programs he could tap into.

“There are a lot more opportunities out there than people realize. But you’ve got to dig for it. Nobody’s going to come along and lay it out on a silver platter for you, right” Trowbridge offered.“I would say to people that if you’ve got an idea, go knock on doors. Find places. There’s things out there that you can find. But people aren’t just going to walk down the street and hand it out.”

In January, he reached out to the City’s Business and Research Officer, Wendy Mugford, to find out what the steps are to start a walking tour, like a permit and such.

“It turns out you don’t need one at all. You could basically just show up on a street corner for people to pay you to take them around. We wanted this to be a professional outfit right from the beginning so we got an office permit for a home office. We’re properly insured, we’re fully insured. And all that sort of stuff.”

Another helpful person along the way was Ted Cadigan, Senior Business Consultant with the YMCA of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Business Planning Program. Trowbridge said this helped him refine his business plan. It also got him connected with Alyssa Maidment at Metro Business Opportunity Corporation, a non-profit business development company that offers support to aspiring entrepreneurs.

From there, he learned about the Self-Employment Assistance program and through it he was ultimately able to get 52 weeks of funding.

“That helps so much. I mean we’re doing pretty well with the income we’ve got coming in but having that base is just so.”

Trowbridge (second from left) poses with a happy group at the end of one of his tours.
Photo courtesy of St. John ‘s Walking Tours.

A Walking Tour With A Future

He confessed seeing the reactions he gets from people visiting the town has given him a renewed and heightened appreciation for this place.

“This is a cool place, man. And I can say honestly I’ve never been more content to be in Newfoundland in my life than I am right now. Taking that 10 years and travelling like I did […] helped with some of that contentment because I don’t feel that urge that I’ve gotta go because I’ve already done some of that. Just the renewed appreciation I get from my guests. It’s remarkable.”

One client now wants to buy a house here.

There isn’t a set date to wrap up the inaugural season yet, he said, and tours are booked into September. 

At the moment he’s the only employee. His friend Melissa Hogan is a contractor who serves as the marketing director. He said he has expansion plans and would like to hire between one and three students next year to operate tours, ideally folks with an interest or background in performance arts.

Without a global pandemic, Trowbridge speculated he might still be teaching English in China, but he’s thrilled with the change of pace.

His enthusiasm for St. John’s Walking Tours was also present in his prior career as a teacher: “One of my students in China once told me I was an actor interrupted by teaching. So I’m very animated.”

Though he’s only been in business a few weeks, he has plans for years to come, including adding a commercial photography branch to the business. 

“I want to offer as many different kinds of walking tours and other tours in St. John’s as I possibly can. I want to cover every possible part of the market,” adding he has no interest in butting heads with the established Haunted Hike.

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