The Great St. John’s Fire

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Fires were an ever-present danger in the early history of communities in Canada. It didn’t matter if a community was large or small, a fire could cause immense destruction.

St. John’s had a history that dated back to the early 1500s, making it the oldest post-Columbian European settlement thanks to the seasonal camps set up by fishermen. Fire has been a part of the history of St. John’s throughout the 19th century. The first major fire would occur in 1816 when a fire broke out in a house in part of the town, and quickly destroyed several buildings. By the time it was out, the fire had destroyed 120 homes and left 1,000 people homeless.

Two fires would erupt in the community in 1817 and were dubbed jointly as The Great Fire of 1817. Two years later, the 1819 fire would destroy 120 homes in St. Johns.

In 1846, the worst fire to that point began in the shop of a cabinetmaker when a gluepot boiled over. This fire spread across the community, destroying many buildings on Water and Duckworth Street. Large quantities of seal oil being stored at the time caused the fire to continue to rage. By the time the fire was out, 2,000 homes were burned, including the largest home in the city. In the Riverhead area, only one warehouse escaped the flames. In all, 12,000 people, over half the population of the city were left homeless. 

Unfortunately, after the huge fire in 1846, the city leaders believed they would never have a great fire and chose to rebuild in the same manner the city had been built for decades previous, with buildings close together and narrow streets.

The city leaders of that time were wrong, and it would come to pass with one of the worst city fires in Canadian history half a century later.

It was on July 8, 1892, at 4:45 p.m. when Timothy Brine was working in his stable on Freshwater Road he dropped either a lit pipe or match into a bundle of hay by accident. Before he could contain the fire, it quickly began to spread, aided by the dry weather that the city had been dealing with for weeks. 

Reverend Moses Harvey, who saw the initial stages of the fire, commented to his friend, quote:

“It is a bad day for a fire.”

By 5 p.m., word had reached the St. John’s Central Fire Hall that the area of Carter’s Hill was on fire. It would take 30 minutes for the firefighters to arrive at the fire and by this point, it was nearly burning out of control.

Due to the dry conditions at the time, there was also a water shortage and even though there was a 113,000-litre water tank located next to the stable, it was nearly empty because firefighters had forgotten to refill it during the last practice drill.

The fire could be seen as a series of decisions that resulted in creating a perfect storm for the blaze. First, there was the dry conditions and low water supply. On the day the fire began, Municipal Council Chairman Thomas Mitchell, without informing any councilors or the city engineer, ordered that the city’s water supply be shut off to lay down pipes.

The supply was turned on at 3 p.m. that day, but it would take hours for the water pressure to build back up strong enough to reach the elevated regions of the city, including Carter’s Hill. As a result, fire hydrants were useless to battle the blaze.

In regard to the dry weather, it had been a month with no rain for the community, along with high temperatures that baked everything to the point the entire city was a tinderbox. Outside the community, forest fires had broken out as well, and the wooden houses that dominated St. John’s were tinder dry.

At the same time, a strong wind was blowing through St. John’s that day, which would fan the flames and send sparks and burning bits of debris across neighborhoods, spreading the fire faster than the fire department could battle it. As well, firefighters forgot to bring their hatchets, and could not create fire breaks by tearing down buildings.

This perfect storm of a fire would essentially blaze through the city, unchecked, with little that could be done to stop it.

By 6 p.m., residents far from the fire initially were now becoming alarmed by how quickly it was progressing. It had burned along Freshwater Road and then split into two at Harvey’s Road and Long’s Hill.

Hoping to save their valuables, residents started to put their items into the Anglican Cathedral, Gower Street Methodist Church and any other stone or brick building they could find in the downtown core.

Prior to the telegraph offices being abandoned, the following information was sent out that would be printed in newspapers the next day, stating quote:

“A big blaze is coming down Fresh Water Valley. The south side contained an oil factory and oil stores.”

Half an hour later, communication with St. John’s ceased as it was cut off from the outside world.

When the fire approached the downtown core, the stone and brick buildings were not safe from the flames and all of the structures with valuables in them were gutted, including the Anglican Cathedral.

Businessman W.J. Kent would state quote:

“With one fearful rush the demonic fire seized upon the doomed cathedral, and sooner than tongue could tell the immense edifice, a gem of Gothic architecture, the masterpiece of Sir Gilbert Scott and the pride of every Newfoundlander, was a seething mass of flame. With a crash, heard even above the din of the elements the roof fell in, and the result of the labours and offerings of thousands for many years vanished in a cloud of smoke and dust.”

At 8 p.m., the fire reached the downtown core and the city descended into panic. Looting of shops and businesses began to occur, and residents who thought they were safe ran from the upper levels of their buildings holding anything they could carry.

Kent would state quote:

“All the arteries which led from the water to the higher portions of the town were crowded with the terrorized mob and the screams and cries of the women mingled with the wailing of children, the shouts intensified by the ever freshening masses of livid fire and the glare of the burning buildings, contributed to make a scene the like of which it is not often given to the lot of many to witness. Few there were who closed their eyes that night.”

The Montreal Gazette would report days later, quote:

“The sea of fire which swept Water Street rendered all attempts at saving property futile. A few hundred people who had the temerity to remain indoors fled to the rear and escaped from the piers aboard boats and schooners that were waiting, swinging to their lines ready to drop off out of danger. The air was terrific with blazing embers.”

Ships in the harbour, where crews initially watched the fire from afar, soon realized they would be in danger because of the wind blowing debris towards them. Before long, the wharves were destroyed, and the ships sailed out of reach of the advancing flames.

At St. Patrick’s Hall, the members attempted to save the building from the flames and at first it seemed as though they would, but their work would save another building. While the hall and the schools within were destroyed, their efforts helped to save the Mercy Convent. The Montreal Gazette reports, quoted:

“The Mercy Convent, which if attacked, would have been the cause of the destruction of Monkston and the fashionable quarters and built of pretty cottages and substantial dwellings.”

Throughout the night, the fire burned unchecked, and many residents slept in Bannerman Park or at the Roman Catholic Cathedral, which was one of the few buildings not to be destroyed by the fire.

Reverend Harvey would state quote:

“The beautiful shops, full of valuable goods, the stores behind, containing thousands of barrels of flour and provisions of all kinds, the fish stores, the wharves, which it had cost immense sums to erect, disappeared one by one into the maw of the destroyer. The whole of Water Street, on both sides, was swept with the besom of destruction.”

The fire finally burned itself out at 5:30 a.m. on July 9.

As residents woke up that day, 66 per cent of St. John’s was completely destroyed, 11,000 people were homeless and had lost everything they owned. In the 12 hours it burned, the fire would kill three people and cause $13 million in damages, amount to about $423 million today. Of that, only about 25 per cent was insured.

Reverend Harvey would state quote:

“The next morning, I took a walk around the awful scene of devastation. It was heart-rending. Nothing visible for a mile from Devon Row but chimneys and fallen and tottering walls. The thick smoke, from the smouldering ruins, still filled the air…It made my heart ache to see the groups of men, women and children, with weary, blood-shot eyes and smoke begrimed faces, standing over their scraps of furniture and clothing, some of them asleep on the ground from utter exhaustion…They filled the park and grounds around the city. Many hundreds escaped with nothing but the clothes they wore.”

Among the buildings destroyed in the fire included several churches, the Orange Hall, the Supreme Court Building, the police headquarters, the government savings bank, hundreds of houses and the presentation convent.

At first, news of what happened was hard to get outside of the city. The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:

“Owing to the telegraph office having to be deserted early in the evening, it is impossible to get full particulars, but it is thought the city will almost completely be wiped out.”

With so many people out of their homes and the damage so extensive, the Newfoundland and Labrador government, then not part of Canada, quickly got to work to help. Temporary accommodations were set up at Bannerman Park, the Railway Depot and several other places. A Fire Relief Committee was organized on July 11 to coordinate the disaster response of the community as well. This committee would help people find employment after losing their businesses, train for new jobs, as well as distribute food, clothes and other items. It also created a School of Industry to train women who wanted to work in Canada or the United States. For construction workers who lost their tools, and who would be in high demand now, the committee provided them with new tools.

Throughout North America and in Britain, donations flooded in to help. T.N. O’Brien, the governor of Newfoundland and Labrador raised $113,705 in public donations, while the British government provided $72,000. A group of Newfoundlanders living in Boston raised $16,000 themselves.

Canada, technically a foreign country to Newfoundland at the time, immediately began helping. Sir John Abbott, the prime minister at the time, having taken over from Sir John A. Macdonald the year before, immediately telegraphed Sir Terence O’Brien, the Administrator of the Government of Newfoundland.

Halifax, a place that would go through its own immense disaster 25 years later in 1917, was one of the first places to help. A committee was quickly formed that purchased $4,000 worth of provisions and lumber. The military and naval authorities then sent tents and canvas.

On July 9, the HMS Blake left Halifax and arrived in St. John’s with tents, food and many other items. Canada would continue to send items for weeks, while also donating $20,000. Another ship, the Portia, would leave on July 10 full of items after an appeal was put forward by the Halifax Herald Editor Charles Cahan. Another steamer, the Ulunda, sailed with 275 barrels of flour, 106 barrels of cornmeal, 20 chests of tea, 150 barrels of biscuits, 50 barrels of pork, five puncheons of molasses, 35,000 spruce boards, 150 tents and four marquees to shelter 1,200 people. The Government of Canada would order the steamer the Newfield to take cargo to St. John’s, which carried 4,000 barrels of potatoes, meal and flour.

The Montreal Gazette would report on July 11, quote:

“The area of the fire is an awful sight of blackened walls and chimneys. The Commercial bank is burned. The Union Bank escaped. Devon row escaped narrowly. About 10,000 people are homeless, standing over the remains of their furniture in the squares and fields. The loss of property is terrible. It is estimated that three to four million Pounds have been wiped out. The city has received an awful blow. It is worse than the fire of 1846. Help is needed for the houseless poor.”

In Montreal, the Board of Trade quickly got together to determine what could be done to help. Several Newfoundlanders, who were in Montreal, were added to the Board of Trade and a telegram was sent to St. John’s stating, quote:

“Council Montreal Board of Trade sincerely sympathizes with your city. Will you suggest how Montreal can best aid you? Brief particulars of disaster desirable.”

They would receive a reply that stated, quote:

“Grateful thanks for kind sympathy. Two-thirds of city burnt, including mercantile premises, churches and schools. Food stuffs such as flour, pork, beef butter and canned stuffs most required for homeless poor. Sufficient supplies for fortnight presently available.”

Individual Canadians helped as much as they could. Two people in Montreal would donate $1,000 each, which was no small amount at the time. By July 13, Montreal had raised $20,000 for St. John’s. Throughout Quebec, the Canadian Express company agreed to receive contributions for the Newfoundland homeless at any point in Quebec and would deliver them free of charge.

In Winnipeg, City Council immediately came together and authorized the donation of $1,000 to sufferers. The Board of Trade in the city also came together to take up subscriptions to help the people of St. John’s. Within one hour, $2,000 was raised by the committee. It was also announced that every town in Manitoba would be holding meetings to determine what could be sent to help. In Toronto, the Board of Trade would raise $2,000 in subscriptions in half an hour. One businessman would state that helping Newfoundland as much as possible would cement the relations of the island colony to the Dominion of Canada more than anything else and could lead to political union. He was right, but it would still take another half century for it to happen.

In New Brunswick, in St. John, the city council donated $5,000 to the people of St. John’s, while a subscription list in the city generated $1,600 almost immediately. In Ottawa, the Independent Order of Foresters donated $50, showing that everyone was doing what they could.

With so much of the city destroyed, the Municipal Council decided to rebuild the city with wider downtown streets that were also straightened to create greater gaps between buildings. That year alone, the city would spend $370,000 in building costs. John Thomas Southcott, the most prominent architect in St. John’s, would design many new buildings in the city. He designed so many that Southcott Style became associated with the architecture from the era of the rebuild in St. John’s. Today, the Southcott Award is presented for excellence in the restoration of heritage structures in Newfoundland by the Newfoundland Historic Trust.

The city that was able to rise from the ashes of the fire became a modern city, with new buildings designed in the style of the era.

At the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, a sandstone medallion stands out from the brick structure. This medallion, which shows a symbol of a burning bush, was not consumed by the fire and was found at the bottom of Cathedral Street. The congregation saw it as a symbol of rising from the ashes, so when the church was rebuilt, the medallion was included on it.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, built in 1847, was heavily damaged when its roof ignited and collapsed into the church. The intense heat of the fire melted the lead in the glass windows, causing the complete destruction of all the windows except two. It would take until 1905 to completely rebuild the church to its former glory. As for the two surviving stained-glass windows, they are still in the church to this day.

As for the Anglican Cathedral, which so many residents put their hopes on for saving their valuables, it would take 10 years for workers to restore it to its former glory.

The fire department was also completely reorganized. Rather than have a volunteer fire department, the city hired 22 paid firefighters, established three new fire stations and established a mixed fire and police force.

Information from Heritage Newfoundland, Wikipedia, CBC, ourcathedral.ca, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Winnipeg Tribune,

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