New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Shipyard Fire at St. John in 1841

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From the blog at

The following story was written by W.K. Reynolds, and appeared in The New Brunswick Magazine, Volume 1, Saint John, 1898. 

Portland NB

Portland is the area to the left and Saint John is in the distance.

This engraving is from 1841, from just before the fire that broke out on the waterfront at Portland. From archives.gnb

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The Shipyard Fire at St. John in 1841

The shipyard fire of 1841 was the most disastrous known in the history of Portland, up to that period; and it was only surpassed by the great fire of August, 1877, which followed closely on the heels of the destruction of the business part of St. John in June of the year last named.

In 1841 Portland was a village and was a suburb of the city, with a population in the whole parish of some 6,000 people. Many of the now well known streets had then no existence. Douglas Avenue and Harrison streets, for instance, were not laid off as highways, nor was Sheriff street much of a thoroughfare, but Simonds, Portland and Acadia streets, with High street and the Strait Shore road, bounded blocks which were the centre of a busy population. There were houses along Main Street, under the side of Fort Howe, and on the road leading up over Fort Howe hill. Shipbuilding was then a very prominent industry, and there were no less than seven yards in active operation between the Long Wharf and the head of Strait Shore. The first of these was that of Owens & Duncan. Next, at Rankin’s wharf, was that of George Thomson, the builder and occupant of “Thomson’s Ark.” Along the shore, to the westward, were the yards of Messrs. Hawes, Briggs, McLellan, Smith and Ruddock. When these were all in operation they gave employment to hundreds of men. [Thompson’s Ark consisted of the hull of a dismantled ship, on which Mr. Thompson built a commodious and comfortable dwelling for himself and family. It was constructed about the year 1836(?) and was destroyed by fire in 1846.]

The Owens & Duncan yard was situated on the ground south of Main Street and east of Acadia Street, known as Lynch’s yard in later years, the blacksmith shop being at the foot of the narrow thoroughfare known as Chapel Street. When a ship was on the stocks, its bow would be about where are now the steps which go down from the street by the Kelly & Murphy factory. Here, in the summer of 1841, was built a fine copper fastened, iron-kneed ship of 900 tons, which the firm intended to name the “Jane Duncan.” It was to be launched at the full tides which came at the first of September, and by Thursday, August 26th, but little remained to be done to fit the craft to leave the ways. The lower masts and top masts were in place, with much of the standing rigging, and the hull was fully graved and painted. In the work of tarring a bottom, more or less tar was always to be found spattered around among the chips and shavings with which a shipyard was littered, and the Owens & Duncan yard was no exception in this respect. There had been very dry weather for some time at the date named, and as a result the whole surface of the yard in the vicinity of the ship was a bed of most highly inflammable material.

Mr. Owens, whose name is perpetuated today in the Owens Art Institution at Mount Allison University, took an active interest in the details of shipbuilding, and gave his personal supervision to the work. As noon approached on this particular day, the 26th of August, the rigging was being set up. It was found that the lanyards would not pass through the dead-eyes where the standing rigging came down to the ship’s rail, and Mr. Owens decided to have this remedied at once. The dinner hour had arrived and the men were leaving, when he called one or two of them to remain a little while and do the job. One of these men was John Doherty, then quite young and now living in Main Street, North End. Mr. Owens directed Mr. Doherty to go to the blacksmith shop with a boy and get some bolts which were being heated to enlarge the holes in the dead-eyes. Doherty and others bought these bolts as they were needed, carrying them through the yard at a glowing heat.

The work at the forward chain plates was completed and attention was given to the main chains. Whether, in the interval, a red hot bolt was dropped, or whether some of the glowing scales from a bolt fell among the tarry shavings and chips on the ground is not certainly known. It has always been supposed that one of the workmen let a bolt fall. There are others who assert that Mr. Owens himself picked up a partially cooled bolt which lay on the rail, but finding it so much hotter than he expected, laid it down so hastily that it rolled from the rail and fell among the tar and shavings in the yard below. Whatever was the case, while the work was being done at the main chains Mr. Doherty saw a blaze starting among the chips under the bow, where the men had been a few moments before. He at once shouted “fire.” Mr. Owens turned, saw the flame and instantly pulled off his coat, ordering Doherty to throw it on the flames to smother them. Doherty did so, but the blaze burst out more fiercely from under the coat, and he ran to the shipyard well to get a bucket of water. In the few moments required to accomplish this, the fire had spread with amazing rapidity, and when Doherty came back the smoke was so thick that he could not get anywhere near the ship. The flames spread to the bed of chips all over the yard and seized greedily on the newly tarred and painted hull, wrapping the ship in a blaze from end to end, and sending up dense clouds of black smoke which could be seen for many miles outside the city. The wind was south-west, and the fire quickly spread to the houses in the vicinity reaching to and across Portland Street, up the west side of which it made its way to Main Street and Fort Howe. Thence it went up the Fort Howe road, burning the houses on the highway, and extending as far as what was then known as the Jenny Spring Farm, now the Millidge property. It also burned the old gun house at the rear of Fort Howe hill, north of where the present shed of the Militia Department stands. Returning to Portland Street, it burned the whole block to the eastward and fronting on Main Street, and finally destroyed the Methodist chapel. So rapidly did the flames advance, and so dense was the smoke, that it was out of the question to get anything out of the houses, and they were burned just as they were left by the terrified inmates. Many of the buildings were three and four story tenements, and several of them were newly erected. There was scarcely a dollar of insurance on any of them.

In the hold of the ship were no less than forty tons of lignumvitae, put there for broken stowage. This large quantity of highly combustible wood burned like pitch, and with a terrific heat. The danger of the blazing hull falling over and spreading the fire in new directions was imminent and, to avoid this, men were put at the dangerous and arduous work of placing wetted timbers against the sides of the hull, as shoring to keep it in position. At the rear of the ship was a small brig from which the lignumvitae had been taken, and which was aground at that time of the tide. This also took fire and was soon consumed. [Lignumvitae is a durable, resinous wood from either of two tropical American trees.]

The alarm bells were rung when the fire started, but there was little need of them, for the huge volume of smoke and flame could be seen from every part of the city, and vast crowds gathered in the vicinity. The fire engines of that day, such as they were, had no lack of hands to man them, but as it was about low tide when the fire began there was, as usual, a scarcity of water. On the occasions of great fires in those times the military took an active part. Over from the barracks on this day came a detachment of the 36th regiment, headed by Major Cairnes, marching on the double-quick, with a detachment of the Royal Artillery under Lieut. Smith. With the military came the ordnance engine, which was considered an efficient piece of fire apparatus then but which would be a veritable antique if placed beside even a hand engine of more modern construction. It was in the form of an oblong box, much like a large chest, with diminutive wheels which made rapid progress difficult except on very level ground. When those who were hauling it went too fast, the machine would begin to “wobble” around, and in such cases it was not unusual for a number of the soldiers to pick up the engine and carry it bodily until better ground was reached. The whole affair weighed only a few hundred pounds. It was painted a lead color, with the royal arms emblazoned upon it possibly through fear that some light fingered civilian might steal it some dark night. In its principle of action it was a veritable “tub,” and the brakes at each end permitted only a small number of men to do the pumping. A large number of workers would not have added to the efficiency of the machine, however, for there was no suction hose or means of water supply other than that furnished by buckets. These were passed from hand to hand up a line of men, the water of each bucket emptied into the engine and the empty buckets passed down another line of men and boys to the source of supply.

In addition to the soldiers with the engine, a portion of the regiment came in marching order with muskets and bayonets. These were stationed at various points to guard property and keep back the crowds. On this occasion some unpleasantness was caused by the action of Lieut. Thistlethwayte, in charge of a squad, who ordered away a number of members of the Protection Fire Club from the neighborhood of the house of John Pollock, which is still standing on the corner of Portland and High Streets. The members of this body were most of them prominent citizens, and their aims were similar to those of the salvage corps of today. When they were ordered away they remonstrated, whereupon the officer ordered the soldiers to charge, which command was only countermanded through the interference of Mr. Payne, the magistrate. After the fire the occurrence was made the matter of some indignant resolutions, but a little later the difficulty was amicably arranged.

Her Majesty’s Brig “Racer,” was in port at the time, and a portion of the crew came to the rescue in their boats, performing many feats of daring in their efforts to prevent the spread of the flames. Lieut. Elliott was in the midst of his men, and was himself considerably injured by the falling of a piece of timber.

The usefulness of both the soldiers and sailors on occasions of this kind was largely due to their numbers and the fact that they worked under orders. When the fire was over, however, the return to the barracks was not always a striking display, for the soldiers were not averse to accepting stimulating draughts as a reward for their valor, and some extraordinary scenes were at times the result.

At this fire they worked hard and did much good, especially in the work of tearing down buildings to stay the advance of the flames. In the excitement of the occasion one of them, named John Johnston, dropped dead in the ranks. This was the only life lost that day.

The navy also lost some men, but in a different way. Several of the crew of the “Racer,” who were detailed for fire duty, were not to be found when the sailors were recalled to the brig. It was evident that they had taken advantage of the occasion to desert, whereupon the “’Racer” at once made sail down the Bay until Lepreau harbor was reached. At the Lepreau mills inquiries were made and a lookout stationed to intercept the fugitives on their way to the border, but so far as appears, with no result.

The fire burned about five hours, and in that time destroyed 53 houses occupied by 200 families. Some 1,150 people were turned out of house and home, of whom at least 600 were put in a condition of distress by the loss of their worldly possessions. A rough estimate at the time placed the loss at £30,000, or $120,000, made up as follows:53 houses burned or pulled down, $70,000.; Wesleyan chapel, $8,000.; Ship on the stocks, partly rigged, $28,000.; Rigging not in the ship, $4,000.; Furniture, goods, etc., $10,000., for a total of $120,000.

There was an insurance of £600 on the chapel, but nothing on the ship and yard. The loss to Owens & Duncan was therefore very heavy. Taking everything into consideration, in the destruction of buildings, and property in the yard, it is believed they suffered to the extent of over $60,000 The total loss by the fire was undoubtedly much greater than was at first supposed. That evening, while some of the men who had been working in the yard, were looking at the ruins Mr. Owens came along, and they bade him good evening. His reply was, “You are pretty fellows, and you have made a nice job here.” John Doherty, who had been around the ship when the fire started, then asked, “Do you blame me for it, sir?” “No,” was the prompt reply. “I was the cause of it myself. What I am sorry for is that so many people have lost so much.” After a pause he continued: “Fifteen years ago, I had the table taken from before me and the watch taken out of my pocket for debt, but I have built that ship and I am able to build another.”

On the evening following the fire a public meeting was called by Sheriff White, in pursuance of a requisition headed by Chief Justice Chipman, at which the mayor of St. John, Hon. William Black, presided. A subscription list was opened and committees were appointed to collect money and clothing for the relief of the fire sufferers. The circus also gave a benefit performance in aid of the sufferers, and collections were taken in the churches.

After the fire, the Methodist body of Portland held its meetings in the upper room of the Madras school building, near at hand. In due time another church was built, John Owens taking an active interest in the work. This church stood until it was burned in the great Portland fire of October, 1877, which covered the area burned in 1841 and much more territory in that vicinity.


Written by johnwood1946

December 26, 2013 at 9:54 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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