Not only did the ‘southern capital’ get electricity first, but the interest of its inhabitants always kept San Fernando neck on neck with Port-of-Spain.
In 1687, Capuchin priests from Spain were sent to the colony of Trinidad with the goal to convert the Amerindian sinners to Catholicism. Among the several missions the priests founded, was one called ‘Puríssima Concepción de Naparima’. The three or four shacks which the priests constructed in the jungle as living quarters, outhouses, school and church were the cradle of what was to become the biggest city in southern Trinidad. Some 100 years later, in 1786, Governor Chacon had named it the settlement ‘San Fernando’ in honour of little Fernando, the infant prince of Asturias.
In those years, San Fernando consisted of a market square, the ‘Plaza de San Carlos’ with adjacent church and ‘Casa Real’ (royal house), a boarding house for travellers and visitors, as well as four main streets: St. Vincent Street, Chacon Street, Penitence Street and Quenca Street.
With the opening of the land by the European and free coloured immigrants and their African slaves around San Fernando, the Naparimas became vast sugar plantations. Its proximity to the Gulf of Paria facilitated the shipping of produce for the Naparima planters.
In 1818, San Fernando, which had by then grown into a multitude of wooden buildings, burnt to the ground. It took more than 12 years to restore it. However as it often occurs in history: the ‘tabula rasa’ that the fire had left, served to be fertile for rapid growth. In 1839, the first wharf was built, and by 1846, the town was made a municipality and got a town council. Four years later, Trinidad’s governor Lord Harris took an interest in San Fernando which was to benefit the townsfolk up to this day.
“San Fernando needs a place where people could enjoy a leisurely walk on an afternoon,” the governor must have thought, when he granted the town a strip of land on a ridge on the southern side of High Street. The Roman Catholic church had completed Notre Dame de Bons Secours (Our Lady of Good Help) already in 1849. The promenade which Lord Harris conceptualised alongside the public buildings on the granted land was named in his honour and memory.
In 1853, still under the governorship of Lord Harris, San Fernando was converted into a borough, with Dr. Robert Johnstone as its first mayor. A year later, its population was diminshed by about half by a terrible cholera epidemic. But the economic life of the planters around San Fernando continued, and the freeport of San Fernando, whose wharf was frequently visited by ships from Venezuela, continued to be busy.
Traffic between San Fernando and Port-of-Spain in the 19th century was mainly - and quite logically - conducted via the Gulf of Paria. The only road to San Fernando from Port-of-Spain was a dirt track, known as the ‘royal road’. The first regular paddlesteamer took up service between the two towns in 1813. While a train service had been in operation between San Fernando and the Cipero Creek since 1859 (first mule-drawn, then with steam locomotives) the rails between San Fernando and Port-of-Spain were completed in 1882, allowing for greater traffic of passengers and goods and a regular mail service.
One year later, in 1883, a part of the town was again reduced to ashes by a great fire. This fire led to the formation of the Volunteer Fire Brigade, and in Stark’s Guide to Trinidad in 1897 the following places are listed on and around Harris Promenade: hospital, market, the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist churches, police barracks, fire-brigade station, town hall and convent. A very Christian city, it seems, even though in those days a large proportion of San Fernando’s inhabitants were East Indians, many of them had been Christianised through the continuous efforts of the misisonaries, and no mosque or mandir were yet to grace the town.
Public Buildings in San Fernando
1857 - First public school
1859 - Hospital at a cost of L 11,093 by Mr. Samuel, architect of the Port-of-Spain Hospital
1869 to 1877 - construction of the Police Barracks at a cost of L 25,000
1875 - St. Paul’s Church