New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Fire of 1837 in Saint John

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The following story of the fire of 1837 in Saint John was written by W.K. Reynolds, and appeared in The New Brunswick Magazine, Volume 2, Number 1, Saint John, N.B., 1899. It is a story of devastation and loss, second only to that of the Great Fire of 1877.

Market Slip North Wharf

Market Slip, North Wharf, Saint John, 1899

New Brunswick Museum


The Fire of 1837

The 14th of January, 1837, fell on a Saturday, as it does in 1899, sixty-two years later, when those who have even a faint recollection of the eventful night of that day are now among our very oldest inhabitants. That Saturday night was one of the coldest which had been known for many years, and it was the occasion of what would have come down in history as the great fire of St. John, had it not been for the still more memorable calamity of the 20th of June, 1877.

Three-score years ago, nearly all the mercantile houses of St. John were near the harbor front, and most of them in the limited area between and including Prince William Street and the wharves to the westward. There were, indeed, some prominent houses in King Street, on Market square, the North wharf, Nelson and Dock streets, etc., but the wealth of the community was largely represented in the district first named. It did not look like a wealthy place, however, for nearly all the buildings were of wood, and most of them dated back to the early years of the city, yet they held vast stores of merchandize, much of it brought hither from foreign countries in the vessels of the more prosperous of these merchants. On the morning of the 14th of January, 1837, a million dollars would not have sufficed to buy these old wooden structures and their contents. Twenty-four hours later the whole of this busy district was a smoking ruin. In a few hours many were deprived of all they had possessed, and some who had been prosperous merchants remained broken in fortune to the end of their days.

The fire started shortly after nine o’clock in the evening, in the store of Robertson & Hatton, Peters wharf, nearly opposite the end of Ward Street. It began in the second story of the wooden building and the cause of it is not known, though there were several theories at the time. In a very few moments the flames were bursting through the roof and the citizens were hurrying to the spot in response to the clanging of the bell at the head of the Market Slip. There was a fire department in those days, but it was of a very primitive kind, the engine being the old fashioned machines which pumped the water poured into them from lines of buckets. When an alarm was given the citizens went to the place where the fire was, the blaze being generally large enough to guide them, and each citizen was supposed to carry the two leather buckets which the city by-law compelled him to provide. The line of buckets was formed to the nearest wells, or to the harbor when the fire was near the water front and the tide was in, and a short time sufficed to show whether the fire or fire department was to conquer. In this particular instance, the problem was solved almost as soon as it was propounded. With a vigorous headway to the blaze, a bitterly cold night and an insufficient supply of water, the firemen were soon compelled to retreat, and the question was simply one of trying to save the goods and effects from the other buildings in the vicinity. There was no hope of extinguishing the fire. The tide was going out, but even had it been high it could not have availed. The thermometer was below zero, and a keen north-west wind froze everything before it. The engines, clogged with ice, were soon rendered useless, and in dismay at the prospect, men lost their heads and worked with an utter lack of method or system. Large quantities of goods were thrown on and over the wharves or taken to the Market square for safety, but still larger quantities were left to burn. In other instances boats were at hand to take goods, but so far as the owners were concerned little was saved in this way. As the flames advanced, numbers of boats came across from Strait Shore and Carleton, loaded whatever could be picked up and went back, the boatmen appropriating their finds for their own use. From the amount of thieving that was done that night, some of the Carleton people were compared to Algerine pirates, and the term “Algerine” was for many years a nick-name for the dwellers on the west side of the harbor.

The military, however, were of great service that night in preventing still greater depredations. The men of the 43rd Regiment and of the artillery were early on hand with the ordnance engine, but while the apparatus was of limited usefulness, the men, working coolly and with system, were of material aid, both in rescuing goods from the flames and in guarding them.

Sweeping easterly up Peters wharf, the flames seized the building owned by John Walker, which stood at the corner of Water Street and what is now known as Jardine’s alley, where the present Jardine building stands. Then the fire went south along Water Street, as far as the present Magee building on the west and to the Disbrow brick building, adjoining the present post office, on the east side. The Disbrow building was burned and the house of Mr. Brint, adjoining it on the south was badly damaged.

All this time the fire was advancing rapidly in other directions. To the north it burned everything before it on Ward and Water Streets and the South wharf. Extending to Prince William Street, it made a clean sweep of that thoroughfare from Market square to the Bank of New Brunswick, on one side, and from Miss Farley’s, the second building north of Church Street, to Miss Boyd’s, on the lot south of the present city hall, where the Jarvis building now stands. The buildings between Miss Farley’s and the corner of King Street were not destroyed, but within the bounds previously mentioned—Prince William Street, Dock Street, South wharf, Ward Street, Peters and Johnston wharves—every building but one was burned. That exception was the brick building on the south side of Market square which stood on the site now occupied by the telephone office, and its preservation was ascribed to the fact that it had iron shutters on the rear windows. The building was occupied by C.R. Jarvis, merchant, and by Neville Parker and John H. Gray, attorneys.

During the progress of the fire the sight was a terrible one. The wooden buildings, some of which were four stories high, burned with a blaze that lighted up the city and its surroundings, and the reflection could be seen over the whole country for a distance of many miles. It was noticed at Fredericton, for instance, and for a long distance in various other directions. The streets in the vicinity of the fire were littered with all kinds of moveable property, and here and there were shivering wretches striving to guard what in many cases was all that remained of their earthly possessions. Daylight added to the horror of the scene when it revealed the extent of the desolation over what had been the business centre of the city.

The number of buildings destroyed in this fire was 115, and the loss was estimated at about a million dollars. Not a third of this was covered by insurance.

The advertisements which appeared in the newspapers of the following week show various moods on the part of the advertisers. Some are new business announcements, others are expressions of thanks to Providence and the public, while a few are in the nature of inquiries for lost articles. Here is an extract from one that is of special interest at this day, in view of the recent fire experience of what is now the firm of J. & A. McMillan:

JOHN MCMILLAN begs to acquaint his friends and the public that he has removed to the Store next adjoining Mr. Crozier’s in the Market Square, where he offers for sale the remainder of his Stock of Books and Stationery saved from the conflagration of Saturday last, and respectfully solicits a share of the patronage so liberally bestowed on him.

The McMillan store was on the same lot in Prince William Street as it is now. It was after this fire that it adopted the title of Phoenix House, disused in recent years, but a title very applicable even to this day. The firm has been burned out eight times in the course of its long existence.

The most devoutly expressed notice is that of Mr. Nathan S. Demill, who kept in Water Street next to Tisdale’s corner, the second lot from the South wharf. He says:

WITH deep feelings of gratitude to that gracious God, whose controlling hand he desires most explicitly to acknowledge in this and every other event of his life, and, at the same time, with sincere thanks to many kind friends who came to render him their assistance at the last awful visitation that has been permitted to fall upon this city; the subscriber begs to state that he has been enabled to preserve the greater part of his stock of hardware, &c., and also to inform the public that he has recommenced his business in Dock Street, in the store recently occupied by W.A. Robertson, the second door above Messrs. Owens & Duncan.


All the buildings burned were not of wood. The Disbrow premises, at the rear of the Bank of New Brunswick, were of brick; Walker’s building, Water Street, was of stone, and several of the others were of brick. The fire was prevented from extending to the corner of King Street by a brick wall, and Nethery’s brick house stopped its way up Church Street. The Bank of New Brunswick proved an effectual barrier on Prince William Street, and the City Bank, where the Barnhill building now is, also resisted the flames.

Among the heaviest losers was Barnabas Tilton, who had a flour and provision store in Water Street, with a range of sheds and warehouses extending in the rear to Ward Street. His stock was valued at some $60,000, and more than half of it was a total loss. Other heavy losers were the Kinnears, Street & Ranney and John Walker. Of all the merchants burned out, the only firm remaining at the present day, in addition to Messrs. McMillan, is that of T. McAvity & Sons, which was then known as Thomas McAvity & Co., and did business in Prince William Street, where the store of George Robertson is at the present time.

A letter written the day after the fire, by a St. John man to a friend in Fredericton, gives an idea of the desolation:

“The scene of horror on the South Market wharf and in Ward street is beyond description—valuable goods to an immense amount either burned or destroyed by throwing over the wharves—thousands and thousands of barrels, puncheons and casks of all kinds piled up in the slips—the streets choked up with furniture and merchandize of all descriptions—men, women and children stalking about half crazed; all tend to render our city lamentable indeed . . . Horrid, horrid devastation, we know not what will be the result of it all.”

Mrs. William Reynolds, wife of a well-known book seller, died on the day after the fire, and it is believed her death was due to the shock of that night of terror.

On the following Thursday a public meeting was held at the court house, at which the mayor, Hon. John Robertson, presided. A number of resolutions were passed, the foremost of which was for the procuring of legislation providing that in the future no wooden building should be erected in the city with a greater height than twenty feet posts and a further height of fifteen feet above the top of the posts. Another resolution was to have the width of the South wharf increased from 25 to 50 feet, and that measures be taken for the widening of Water and Ward Streets. It was further resolved that a subscription list be opened for those who had lost their all by the fire, and that the legislature be asked for a money grant for the same object.

A vote of thanks was also passed to Major Slade and the officers and men of the 43rd Regiment and of the Royal Artillery for the assistance they had rendered at the fire, and it was resolved that the freedom of the city be conferred on two soldiers of the 43rd, who peculiarly distinguished themselves in saving the brigantine Tom Cringle while it was on fire at the South wharf.

The legislature was then in session, and no time was lost in having the fire law introduced and passed. The government made a grant of $4,000 in aid of the sufferers, and customs duties to a considerable amount were remitted to merchants who had lost goods on which there was no insurance, or where the loss was very great. Under this provision Robertson & Hatton received over $800, William Hammond over $3,000, John Walker $1,375, and many others smaller amounts, until at last the legislature resolved that no more petitions of this kind would be entertained. A large sum was given to the sufferers by the governor, Sir Archibald Campbell, from his private purse.

Subscription lists were opened at Halifax, Miramichi and St. Andrews, in aid of the fire sufferers, but at another public meeting held in St. John on February 4, while gratitude was expressed for the aid thus offered, it was decided “That this community cannot with propriety accept the same; a sufficient sum being already provided by the munificent grant of the Legislature and the generous donation of our worthy Lieutenant Governor.” It was therefore resolved to refund the money which had been received from the places named. It was further decided to extend pecuniary aid only to those whose destitute situation called for relief.

The community soon took heart again, and the work of rebuilding went forward rapidly. Property was held at its former value, and in some cases it brought a premium. The Peters building, Market Square, which escaped the fire, was sold within a week, at auction, for $8,820. The size of the lot was 20½ by 25 feet. Many of the new buildings were of brick, but enough wooden structures were put up to be a menace to that part of the city in future years, and to materially aid, forty years later, in the spread of what is now the historic Great Fire.


Written by johnwood1946

December 10, 2014 at 9:14 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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