New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Many Fires in Saint John, 1784 to 1877

leave a comment »

From the blog at

The following is from a book The Story of the Great Fire in Saint John, June 20, 1877, by George Stewart Jr. It is from an introductory chapter, however, and is a summary not just of the 1877 fire, but of the many fires that preceded it.

Market Slip in Flames 1877

Market Square and South Market Slip in Flames, 1877



The Many Fires in Saint John, 1784 to 1877

One of the most destructive fires of modern times occurred at St. John, N.B., on Wednesday, the 20th June, 1877. It was more calamitous in its character than the terrible conflagration which plunged portions of Chicago into ruin, and laid waste the great business houses of Boston a few years ago. In a relative sense, the St. John fire was a greater calamity, and its people for a time suffered sterner hardships. The fire in the large American cities was confined to a certain locality, but in St. John an immense area of territory was destroyed in the incredibly short space of nine hours, and fully two-fifths of the entire city were laid in ashes, and one thousand six hundred and twelve houses levelled to the earth. The fire raged with overwhelming violence, carrying in its wake everything that came before it. At one time three portions of the city were burning at once, and all hope of checking the conflagration died in the hearts of men as the terrific volume of flame thundered and crackled, and hissed in sheets over their heads. The blinding smoke rolled heavenwards in a thick heavy mass; the flying embers were carried along for miles, and the brisk north-west wind brought the destroying flame to a thousand households. Men and women stood paralyzed in the streets, fearing the worst and hoping against hope. Those who had worked all afternoon trying to save their property now sank to the earth and barely escaped with their lives, for the fire was upon them. Nothing appeared to stay the march of the fiend. Immense piles that seemed to stand like an army of picked guardsmen, were swept away in an instant; granite, freestone, brick and marble were as ineffectual in staying the conflagration as the driest tinder-box houses which fed the flames at every turn. Even old stone buildings that had stood for sixty years, in the outskirts of the city, and had withstood many a serious fire before, now crumbled and tumbled before the conquering scourge. 200 acres were destroyed, all that part of the city south of King Street, regiments of houses, stores and public buildings were burned, and the fire was only stayed when the water-line prevented its going further. The boundary of the burnt district followed a line on the eastern and northern sides of Union Street to Mill Street, Mill Street to Dock Street, northern and eastern sides of Market Square, centre of King Street to Pitt Street, Pitt Street to its junction with the water; thence around by the harbour-line to the starting point. In brief, this was the battle-ground through which the grand charge of the fire was made unparalleled in its brilliancy by any similar exploit which the annals of military deeds unfold. Men, horses, rows of stoutest building material, steam, water, all succumbed and went down like chaff before the whirlwind. Nothing was too strong to resist, nothing too weak to receive clemency.

A glance at the earlier history of St. John will show that destructive fires have been of frequent occurrence, and its people have suffered much from this system of devastation. In 1784, on Friday, the 18th June, the first fire of which we have any knowledge took place. At that time it was considered a terrible blow, and the sparse population thought that many years would elapse before the little city could recover from the wreck which the fire had made. Eleven houses were burned, and a large number of discharged soldiers of the 42nd Regiment were the principal sufferers. About this time a woman and child were burned to death at the Falls, and seven houses in this quarter were destroyed.

In April, 1787, the people decided to take active measures for protection against fire, and accordingly the following document was drawn up:

We, the subscribers, taking into our serious consideration the alarming situation of the city for want of fire engines and public wells, should a fire break out in any part of it, and, at the same time, being sensible of the present inability of the city corporation to advance money for the purpose, do severally promise to pay the mayor, aldermen and commonalty, of the City of St. John (or to such persons as they shall appoint), the several sums annexed to our names as a loan upon interest, for the purpose of importing from London two suitable fire-engines, and for sinking a sufficient number of public wells in this city.

Which several sums the said corporation have engaged to repay to each separate subscriber with interest annually, as soon as their funds will enable them so to do, as appears by an abstract from the minutes of the common council, dated the 20th March last:

[The list of contributors is presented here. About £294 was contributed by 45 people and companies. That amounted to about £6 10s. each on average, and none of the contributions exceeded £10. The contributors were: Gabriel G. Ludlow (Mayor), Ward Chipman (Recorder), Jonathan Bliss (Atty.-General), James Putnam (Judge), Christopher Billop, Zeph Kingsley, Samuel Randall, Gilbert & Hansford, Isaac Bell, Robert Parker, Benedict Arnold, William Wyly, Mark Wright, C.C. Hall & Co., William Pagan, John Colwell, Thomas Bean, Francis Gilbert, Samuel Hallet, William Hazen, James Ruon, John Califf, Isaac Lawton, Sar mel Mills, Paul Bedell, William Wanton (Collector Custom), Adino Paddock, M.D., McCall & Codner, Thomas Horsfield, John McGeorge, Thos. Elliot, William Bainy, Thompson & Reed, Christopher Lowe (King’s Printer), W.S. Olive, (Sheriff), Wm. Whittaker, Pe-er Quin, Charles Warner, Abiather Camp, James Peters, Daniel Michean, Fitch Rogers, Manson Jarvis, Nehemiah Rodgers, and Edward Sands.]

On the 2nd February, 1786, the corporation paid Peter Fleming £136 6s. 8d. for two fire engines. These must have proved ineffectual, for the reader will notice that the above loan was made up hardly a year afterward, and the present sum was raised for the special purpose of buying London engines, and sinking wells.

The movement was not inaugurated a moment too soon, for in 1788 the following year, a fire occurred in the store of General Benedict Arnold, of revolutionary fame, which threatened to become very serious before it was got under way. Arnold’s store was situate in Lower Cove, where the sewing machine factory adjoining John E. Turnbull’s sash factory stood, till the late besom of fire swept it away. A good deal of excitement was occasioned at the time of the fire in Arnold’s premises. His former partner, Hoyt, charged him with setting fire to the store. Arnold sued him for slander, and recovered a verdict of twenty shillings!

The next fire broke out in 1816 in a large two-story house on the corner of Germain and Britain Streets, occupied by a military physician named Davis. The doctor and his wife were saved from burning by the heroic conduct of their next door neighbour. A party of soldiers were engaged the next day sifting the ashes and searching for the silver which had melted; not a trace of it was found however.

The fire of 1823 was a very serious one, and caused great destruction. It began on Disbrow’s Wharf and took along with it nearly both sides of Prince William Street; the old wooden building on the latter street lately occupied by The Telegraph newspaper, alone escaped. The lot on which it stood cost Dr. Adino Paddock five shillings in 1786. During this fire over forty houses were burned, and the loss of property and goods was estimated at £20,000, which in those days was felt to be enormous.

The fire of 1837 will linger long in the memory of many of the inhabitants of St. John. It was the most wholesale destruction of property which the people had ever known. Many today contrast the misfortunes of that day with those of the present hour. Even when the flames were carrying death and destruction on all sides on that warm day in June, 1877, men stopped to compare notes and whisper a word or two about the fire of 1837. Of course the loss was not as great then, or the number of lives lost so large, or so much valuable property destroyed as at the present time, but the people were less able to bear the trials which came upon them then, and many never recovered from the shock. The city was young and struggling to gain a foothold. The city was poor and the people were frugal. They were not able to bear the burdens which were in a night entailed upon them, the magnificent system of relief from outside sources was not in operation, and without help of any kind save that which they themselves brought into requisition, the citizens nobly worked long and hard to rebuild their little seaport town. There was a prejudice against insurance, and many lost every dollar they possessed. The hardships of those days are remembered by many who passed through them then, and who once more endure the horrors of a great calamity with almost Spartan courage. The time of the ’37 fire was in the very heart of a rigorous winter, on the 13th of January, and we can only picture the destruction of Moscow to enable the reader to understand how terrible the sufferings of the people must have been, when snow and ice were on the ground, and not a shelter covered the heads of the afflicted women and tender babes. It was a day remembered long after by those who had passed through its trials. The fire originated on Peters’s Wharf, and in a moment, like lightning, it darted along South Market Wharf and extended up to the ferry boat. Both sides of Water Street and Prince William Street between Cooper’s Alley and Princess Street were destroyed. The old Nichols House was saved; it was occupied then by Solomon Nichols and stood on the corner of Cooper’s Alley and Prince William Street, lately the site of Farrall & Smith’s dry goods store. It was originally built of wood and it was a marvel that it was not carried away with the rest; but it stood like an oasis in Sahara, or the old sentinel who was left on guard and forgotten after the army had fled. One hundred and fifteen houses were consumed, and nearly the whole of the business portion of the city, and one million dollars’ worth of property were destroyed.

Hardly had the people recovered from the disaster of 1837, when another scourge came upon them causing nearly as much destruction as before. This was in August, 1839, when a fire started in Nelson Street and burned the entire north wharf, both sides of Dock Street, Market Square, with the exception of the house standing on the site now occupied by the Bank of British North America, and a house on Union Street west, occupied by Mr. Hegan. It didn’t cross Prince William Street. The old Government House, Union Street, escaped.

The spring of 1841, 17th March, was the scene of another fire, when four lives were lost and much excitement prevailed. Mr. Holdsworth, of Holdsworth & Daniel, (London House) perished while endeavouring to keep off the sparks from the roof of his store.

On the 26th August, a £30,000 fire in Portland carried off sixty houses; and on the 15th November, 1841, a fire broke out on the South Wharf and burned the whole of that wharf together with Peter’s Wharf, south side of Water Street, and the large brick Market-house in Market Square, which was occupied by butchers in the ground flat, and used for the civic offices in the second story. This building could have been saved, and was lost through gross carelessness. Incendiarism was rampant and the greatest excitement filled the public mind.

In 1845, 29th July, forty buildings were burned from a fire which took its start in Water Street, and in 1849 the famous King Street fire broke out in a store in Lawrence’s building. The Commercial Hotel, then kept by the late Israel Fellows, father of James I. Fellows, Chemist, was destroyed, together with the Tower of Trinity Church, which had to be pulled down that the Church might be saved. Pilot Mills climbed to the cupola and secured the fastenings by which it was brought to the ground.

The fire in Prince William Street of March 8th of the present year, which broke out in the building owned by the Ennis and Gardner estate, and resulted in the loss of seven lives and nearly two millions of dollars’ worth of property, is still fresh in the minds of our readers.

Thus the reader will see that St. John has had a goodly share of the great fires, which, in a moment lay prostrate a city, and plunge her inhabitants into almost hopeless ruin.


Written by johnwood1946

August 26, 2015 at 8:27 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: