New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Great Fire at Saint John, June 20, 1877

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The following despatch was received at the Merchants’ Exchange in this city this forenoon:

PORTLAND, June 21. A despatch from St. John, N.B. at nine o’clock this forenoon, says the fire commenced at York Point Slip and burned south through residences to King street, where it spread and burnt all the public buildings, hotels and the business portion, including the wharves.

The greatest dread is starvation, as not a grocery or provision store is left.

Fifteen thousand people are homeless. All the business portion and full one-half of the residences are gone.

The mayor has called a public meeting for the relief of the sufferers. They need all the cooked provisions and bread they can get.


New York, June 21. Consul Warner at St. John telegraphs to the mayor of New York as follows: “St. John is almost totally destroyed. All the public buildings are burned. Few business houses are left. Fully one-half of the residences are in ashes. Send all the aid you can. Fifteen thousand people are homeless.”

(The Boston Evening Telegraph, June 21, 1877)

Wandering in ashes

Wandering Among the Ashes

New Brunswick Museum

From the blog at

The Great Fire at Saint John, June 20, 1877

It had been dry in Saint John when, at 2:30 in the afternoon of Wednesday, June 20, 1877, a spark fell on some hay at Henry Fairweather’s storehouse at York Point Slip, near Market Slip. No one knows whether the spark originated at the storehouse or whether it blew in from a neighbouring establishment, but it soon grew and become the Saint John Great Fire. They say that fire engines responded almost immediately, but with such dry conditions, such crowded timber structures, and the limitations of 19th century firefighting equipment, it was soon out of control. Within half an hour, fires had broken out at several locations and firefighting reinforcements had been brought in from Portland and Carleton.

The flames first moved southward along the harbour until they reached Market slip. They then spread eastward, all of the way to Courtenay Bay, and again southward until nearly the entire city was ablaze. Only the shore line stopped it from going further.

It was a desperate scene. “Children hastened along crying … as they ran barefooted over the hot sidewalk. Men with picture frames and books rushed past, calling and threatening, and moaning. It was a scene terrible in its reality. People were driven from street to street, and hurled forward, till, with horror in their blanched faces, they turned and saw in their rear the wild flames hemming them in.” Men were “trying to save their business property in the marts of commerce. People sent loads of their more valuable goods to places which appeared to be safe, but which turned out in the end to be of only temporary security. Men had their stores burned at four and five o’clock, and their goods burned at seven and eight o’clock.”

Everything on that peninsula south of King Street burned. All of the properties on the harbour from Market Slip northward past Union Street also burned. Two hundred acres and over 1,600 houses were lost. “Nearly all the public buildings were burned,—the Custom House, Post Office, Savings Bank; all the Banks and Banking Houses except the Bank of British North America; the City Hall, Academy of Music, Temperance Hall, St. Malachi’s Hall, Victoria School House, Wiggin’s Male Orphan Institution, Home for the Aged, Dramatic Lyceum; the Victoria, Royal and all the larger hotels. The churches burned, were Trinity, St. Andrews, the Centenary, Germain and Mission Methodist Churches; Germain and Leinster Street Baptist Churches; St. James, St. David’s, Christian and Reformed Presbyterian. The printing offices destroyed were the Globe, News, Freeman, Watchman, Telegraph, Christian Visitor and Religious Intelligencer; only one office escaped, that of the New Dominion. All the Law, Insurance, Exchange, Express and Telegraph offices, and all the Law Libraries in the city were burned. All the business portion of the city lying on the dock and water fronts; all the wholesale stores and warehouses with their contents of flour, grain, beef, pork, tea and sugar, in fact all the larger stocks of groceries and the entire stock of dry goods, hardware, furniture, etc. were swept away. The value of the property consumed has been estimated at $28,000,000—the number of persons left homeless was 15,000.”

The money figures were larger than they at first appear to be. The $28-million loss in 1877 would be more like $620-million today.

The Victoria skating rink was set aside as a relief center, but those first few hours and days must have been desperate. The fire had begun at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and had not run its course until early Thursday morning, when smoke was still rising. Despite everyone’s best efforts, it is easy to imagine that many had no food or shelter on Wednesday, Thursday, or maybe even Friday. Nineteen people died in the fire, and more died later from burns, accidents, heart attacks, or other conditions brought on by the event. It was impossible to keep track of the numbers of injured since medical workers were too busy to keep records. Medical help was hampered by the loss of almost all medical supplies.

People did what they could. Alexander Gibson gathered over $1,300 worth of food from Portland and Indiantown on Thursday morning and delivered it to the rink. This would amount to around $29,000 today. A baker who had escaped the fire also delivered between 700 to 1,000 loaves of bread and a selection of cheeses and other supplies. Some railway sheds were taken over to supplement the space at the rink, and you could say that the response so far had been as quick and efficient as it could be, under the circumstances. Much more than this would be needed, however.

This was 1877, the modern age of rapid communications and, within 24 hours of the fire, messages of sympathy and offers of help started pouring in, and the Relief and Aid Society later compiled these into a book. The cities of Halifax and Boston were the first to offer assistance, asking what was most needed. Halifax called a public meeting, raised $10,000, and shipped railway car loads of relief supplies – all on that same day, June 21, 1879.

Halifax and Boston were not alone, however. There were 42 telegrams offering help on the first day after the fire, and these continued until December. Offers came from all along the eastern seaboard of the United States and from other Provinces. Money and supplies also came from as far away as Cognac, France; London, England; Glasgow, Scotland; Belfast, Ireland; Hamburg, Germany; Winnipeg; Saint Johns, Newfoundland, Quebec City; Montreal; Victoria, B.C., Eureka, California; Memphis, Tennessee; Cleveland Ohio; and towns large and small all over Ontario and Maine.

The authorities were under extreme pressure to deal with the catastrophe. It took over a week to formalize emergency measures, and the situation was so dire that the telegrams piled up. Some of those 42 telegrams of June 21st asked what was needed, or whether the City would prefer goods or cash, or who would act as consignee for shipments. Responses were delayed, and several cities followed up on the same day with demands for answers to their earlier enquiries.

For the first few days to a week, relief supplies were handed out to whoever asked, and without question. This worked out quite well because of the need, and also because supplies of cooked foods were being received, and these had to be got rid of. Soon after that, a system was developed whereby applicants were interviewed, and then visited at wherever they were living. Their needs were assessed and tickets were issued so that they could claim what they needed at the rink or one of the sheds. These procedures could also be short circuited if a person had an emergency need that could not wait. On Monday following the fire, 10,000 people presented tickets for food at the rink.

There were various departments to be navigated at the rink, as the supplies were divided up into food, furniture, and so on.

Some protocols were broken. Halifax, for example, offered to send a militia unit to help with security. They then realized that they first had to ask the New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor whether sending troops was acceptable. The following day they changed their tactic and offered volunteers instead of troops, but must have heard from the Lieutenant Governor since they finally sent two Companies of the 97th Regiment.

People everywhere gave what they could, even if they had little to spare:

“Dear Sir, I am not worth a copper but am a great deal better off than a great number of your citizens at this present moment. I forward to you by boat tonight one tent that it may be of some use to someone with a family of children. Please put it where it will do the most good and oblige. Respectfully yours, F.A. Leavitt, Portland, Maine.”

“I send you herein one dollar for the sufferers. I wish it was one hundred, but I am not rich and am, as it were, out of employment, and have earned but little for the last fourteen months. George S. Nutting, Newton, Massachusetts.”

“A little boy hearing of the St. John fire emptied his money box and sends its contents, $1.08. Halifax, N. S.”

“The little children of the Sunday School belonging to Christ’s Church were most eager to have their mite sent, and made up between them $2.73 which is included in the check. E. Baynes Reed, Secretary-Treasurer of Relief Fund, London, Ontario.”

“Dear Sir, I have sent this day, through kindness of Express Company, a small package of money—sixty-one cents. It is the donation to St. John sufferers from a little girl in this town, who calls herself little Dot. John Hallam, Toronto.”

“Sir, Enclosed please find $3.37. The sum is very small. I regret our people here are not in circumstances to give much. Robert McArthur, Caledonia, Queens, N.S.”

“Please accept for the sufferers of the fire from Boynton High School Pupils, of Eastport, Maine, $2.38.”

“$1.00 to the little sufferers of St. John, from Percy G. Raymond, 12 years old, one year’s saving. Hebron, Yarmouth, N.S.”

This was in 1877, and Percy, Dot and other children might have been able to tell us their story, even in the 1940’s, if only we had asked.

There were also large individual donations of tens of thousands of dollars. Many of these were bundled donations from the citizens of towns and cities, factories and schools. New York, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, and others stand out for their generosity. The goods and money contributed by individuals despite their own unemployment, or recessions in their industries, or simple poverty are the most impressive, however. Small towns with very few citizens sometimes collected extraordinary amounts. And, of course, there were people like Percy and Dot who were not restrained by their limited means.

The cities of Chicago and Boston sent people with experience in handling emergencies to consult. The Boston Journal of Commerce donated one month of free advertising throughout New England for any Saint John business hurt by the fire.

Barrels and sacks of donated supplies arrived by railroad, and by ship. There were potatoes, beef, pork, bread, flour, cornmeal, oatmeal, grain, and biscuits. There were also camp stoves, tents, blankets, and clothing of all kinds and conditions. There were some unusual items such as street-lighting oil, plasterers’ hair, and a bundle of tracts.

Women everywhere were making clothing. One group in Fredericton asked that Saint John send money to cover the cost of materials and supplies, but must have realized that this was not a very appropriate request. They never asked for money again. Thirteen women were busy at the Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto.

The people who were burned out went wherever they could, and many were taken in by luckier citizens, or people from across the harbour in Carleton (West Saint John), or by friends or relatives elsewhere in the Province. People also bunked in railway cars and sheds which had been donated for the purpose. The situation was dire, and that was not sufficient. Railways in New Brunswick and in the States therefore offered free passage to refugees (although they did not use that word). There were also orphans, and the Maine Central Railway gave them free transportation also. Boston took in some orphans.

On the seventh day following the fire, Wednesday, June 27, 1877, there was a meeting at which C.G. Trusdell, an experienced volunteer and General Superintendent of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society presented his plans for organizing relief. The Saint John Relief and Aid Society was established at this meeting, and it only remained for the Mayor to formalize this through a proclamation. Another story unfolded two days later, on June 29th, when the Society took into their possession all of the supplies that were pouring in. At that point, the United States Consul, General Warner, was named General Superintendent of the Society, which sidelined C.G. Trusdell. It appears to me that Trusdell was not very happy with this turn of events. The matter was glossed over in the official record, but “there was for the first few days necessarily some confusion and disorder.”

The donated supplies ran out in the fall except, as always, for a large supply of clothing. The best advice back in June would have been to send money. The lack of stock on-hand afforded the opportunity to scale down the warehousing operation and to move to another building. This freed-up the Victoria skating rink. Thenceforth, supplies were brought in as-needed, on contract.

Reconstruction proceeded quickly due, in part, to many of the major structures belonging to the provincial and federal governments. There was therefore a division of responsibility, and major projects could proceed simultaneously and without interfering with one another. Thirteen hundred new buildings went up within the first year, with further construction taking place for years following.


All of the quotes are from the following, except as noted:

  1. The Saint John Relief and Aid Society, Disbursements of Contributions For the Sufferers of the Fire in Saint John of 20th June, 1877, Saint John, 1879.
  2. Stewart, George, The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877, 1877.

Written by johnwood1946

July 9, 2014 at 9:26 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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