New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

New Brunswick’s East Coast in 1832, Following the Miramichi Fire

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From the blog at

Following is a description of the east coast of New Brunswick in the early days—1832. It is condensed and edited from Sketches of British America by John Macgregor, London, 1832. This concentrates on the Miramichi, but also includes other areas.


The Miramichi River Near Newcastle, ca. 1908

From the McCord Museum


New Brunswick’s East Coast in 1832, Following the Miramichi Fire

The Miramichi River is navigable for large ships for about forty miles. There is a sand bar across off the entrance, but the channel over it is broad, with water for ships of from six hundred to seven hundred tons; and vessels entering the river seldom meet with any accident. The land near the sea, like the whole of the north-east coast of New Brunswick, is low, and clothed near the shore with dwarf spruce and birch trees; beyond which, the whole country is covered with heavy timber. This magnificent river divides into two great branches, and these again into numerous streams.

The Miramichi was scarcely known thirty years ago, except to a few adventurers, who traded with the Indians for furs; and those who first settled on the banks of the River were attracted thither by its plentiful salmon fishery, which formed for some years a profitable source of enterprise. The exportation of timber has since then superseded almost every other pursuit; and the waters of the river being much disturbed by vessels, boats, and rafts of timber, a decrease in quantity has followed in the salmon-fishery; but whether in consequence of this circumstance, as the inhabitants always assert, or from some unknown natural cause, must, I think, be difficult to determine. The salmon-fishery on the river still affords more than is required for the use of the settlers and lumbering parties.

On the south side of Miramichi, a little within its entrance, lies Bay du Vin, where ships occasionally load, and where there is safe and sheltered anchorage; on the north, is the bay and settlement of Neguac, where ships also load, but where there is not much shelter.

Houses are seen thinly scattered along each side as we sail up the river; but little cultivation appears. About twenty miles up, on the south side, stands the town or village of Chatham, where many of the timber ships load, and where several of the merchants are settled, who have erected stores and wharfs. Some of the latter, particularly the fine stone warehouse, stores, wharfs, and timber booms, belonging to the very extensive establishment of Messrs. J. Cunard and Co., are on a most respectable scale. About four miles further up, the houses of Nelson village, with one or two wharfs, rise along the banks of the river; and here also a few vessels occasionally load with timber. On the opposite side, the village of Douglas, and the extensive mercantile establishment of Messrs. Gilmour and Rankin, where several ships load, appear rising along the shore.

Four miles further up than Chatham, and on the north side of the river, stands the village or town of Newcastle, with its wharfs and stores. It is considered the shire town for the county of Northumberland. Its public buildings, and most of the dwelling houses and stores, were consumed by the fire of 1825, which reduced almost everything else it contained to ashes; even in the churchyard I observed, three years afterwards, marks of that terrible conflagration. A new church, court-house, jail, and many private buildings, have been since built.

It is much to be regretted that the houses, stores, and wharfs, which are now scattered in four different places, each claiming the designation of a town, were not all built in one convenient place, where together they would now form a town of some consequence in extent; and where the operations of commerce would be carried forward with much greater convenience.

A little above Newcastle, and a short distance below the confluence of the two great arms of the river, lies Frazer’s Island, where there are stores, and a ship-building establishment.

On the banks of this river and its great branches, there is yet but a thinly scattered population, who employ themselves chiefly in hewing timber during winter in the woods, and in rafting it down the river in summer to where the ships load.

Fertile tracts of intervale, and excellent uplands, abound along its banks and in the extensive upper country, watered by its numerous streams, which are capable of most profitable cultivation; but the lumberers, who compose probably more than half the population, are neither from habit nor inclination likely to become constant or skilful farmers; which accounts for the cultivation of the soil having been so long neglected.

The depression, however, in the value of timber, which took place in 1826, and the poverty and distress occasioned by the fire the preceding year, drove the actual settlers to the cultivation of the soil for the means of subsistence; and since that time they have devoted their attention nearly with as much industry to agriculture as to the timber business.

In October 1825, about a hundred and forty miles in extent, and a vast breadth of the country on the north, and from sixty to seventy miles on the south side of Miramichi River, became a scene of perhaps the most dreadful conflagration that occurs in the history of the world.

When one of these fires is once in motion, or at least when the flames extend over a few miles of the forest, the surrounding air becomes highly rarified; and the wind consequently increases till it blows a perfect hurricane. It appears that the woods had been, on both sides of the north-west, partially on fire for some days, but not to an alarming extent until the 7th of October, when it came on to blow furiously from the westward; and the inhabitants along the banks of the river were suddenly surprised by an extraordinary roaring in the woods, resembling the crashing and detonation of loud and incessant thunder; while at the same instant the atmosphere became thickly darkened with smoke. They had scarcely time to ascertain the cause of this awful phenomenon, before all the surrounding woods appeared in one vast blaze. In less than an hour, Douglas Town and Newcastle were in a blaze, and many of the wretched inhabitants, unable to escape, perished in the flames. The following account was obtained and printed in the papers for public information a few days afterwards:—

“More than a hundred miles of the shores of Miramichi are laid waste, independent of the north west branch, the Bartibog and the Napan settlements. From one to two hundred people have perished within immediate observation, while thrice that number are miserably burnt, or otherwise wounded; and at least two thousand of our fellow creatures are left destitute of the means of subsistence, and thrown at present upon the humanity of the Province of New Brunswick.”

“The number of lives that have been lost in the remote parts of the woods, among the lumbering parties, cannot be ascertained for some time to come; for it is feared that few are left to tell the tale.”

“It is not in the power of language to describe the unparalleled scene of ruin and devastation which the parish of Newcastle at this moment presents. Out of upwards of two hundred and fifty houses and stores, fourteen of the least considerable only remain. The court-house, jail, church, and barracks; Messrs. Gilmour, Rankin, and Co.’s, and Messrs. Abrams and Co.’s establishments, with two ships on the stocks, are reduced to ashes.”

“The loss of property is incalculable; for the fire, borne upon the wings of a hurricane, rushed on the wretched inhabitants with such inconceivable rapidity, that the preservation of their lives could be their only care.”

“Among the vessels on the river, a number were cast on shore; three of which, namely, the ships Concord of Whitby, and Canada of North Shields, together with the brig Jane of Alloa, were consumed; others were fortunately extinguished, after the fire had attacked them.”

“At Douglas Town, scarcely any kind of property escaped the ravages of the fire, which swept off the surface everything coming in contact with it, leaving but time for the unfortunate inhabitants to fly to the shore; and there, by means of boats, canoes, rafts of timber, timber logs, or any article, however ill calculated for the purpose, they endeavoured to escape from the dreadful scene, and reach the town of Chatham; numbers of men, women, and children, perishing in the attempt.”

“In some parts of the country, the cattle have all been destroyed, or suffered greatly, and the very soil is in many places parched and burnt up, while scarcely any article of provisions has been rescued from the flames.”

“The hurricane raged with such dreadful violence, that large bodies of timber were on fire, together with houses and stores. Large quantities of salmon and other fish resorted to land; hundreds of which were scattered on the shores of the south and west branches.”

“Chatham at present contains about three hundred of the unfortunate sufferers, who have resorted to it for relief, and are experiencing some partial assistance; and almost every hour brings with it great numbers from the back settlements, burnt, wounded, and in the most abject state of distress.”

Great fires raged about the same time in the forests of the River St. John, which destroyed much property and timber, with the governor’s residence, and about eighty private houses at Fredericton. Fires raged also at the same time in the northern parts of the province, as far as the Bay de Chaleur.

It is impossible to tell how many lives were lost, but five hundred have been computed as the least number that actually perished in the flames.

The destruction of bears, foxes, tiger-cats, martens, hares, and other wild animals, was very great. Even the birds, except those of very strong wing, seldom escape; some, particularly the partridge, become stupefied; and the density of the smoke, the rapid velocity of the flames, and the violence of the winds, effectually prevent the flight of most others.

If the benevolence and charity of mankind were ever manifested in a more than common degree of feeling for the sufferings of unfortunate people, it was assuredly on this memorable occasion. No sooner did accounts of the calamity arrive in the neighbouring colonies, than clothing and provisions were collected and sent, with the utmost expedition, to ameliorate the distress of the sufferers; and the governor, Sir Howard Douglas, crossed the country, without any delay, to ascertain personally the extent of the calamity. Subscriptions, for the relief of all those who were subjected to want, were raised, to an amount hitherto unexampled, in Great Britain, in the United States, and in all the British Colonies; and the funds placed for distribution under the management of Sir Howard, and a committee appointed for the purpose in the province.

Miramichi may now be said to have completely surmounted the misery and loss occasioned by the ravages of so terrible a visitation. Newcastle has not only arisen from its ashes, but will likely, in a few years, contain as many and much better houses, and as great a population, as formerly. The country laid waste by the insatiate element, is of much less value, it is true, when compared with its former worth. The majestic timber trees, which acquired their gigantic size by many ages of growth, have been destroyed, and a smaller species, originally common to sterile soils, and scarcely ever fit for the timber of commerce, have sprung up in their room.

I have often heard it maintained in England, by people unacquainted with America, that the lands must become much more valuable by being cleared of the woods by fire, as immense labour and expense in clearing the forest-lands would consequently be saved. No opinion can be more erroneous. Settlers, who understand the value of wilderness lands, always choose those covered with the heaviest trees of promiscuous kinds; and the strongest objection that can be made to a plot of land is, its having been previously subjected to fire.

If the burnt lands, as they are termed, were, immediately after being overrun by fire, brought under cultivation, they would then be of exactly the same value as those cleared in the usual way; but even in this case they are objected to, as the great fires scour over the surface with such rapidity, that the trunks of the large trees are only very partially destroyed, and scarcely ever levelled, while, by losing their sap, they soon become much harder, and more difficult to cut, than green wood, and, by being all charred on the outside, exceedingly disagreeable to work among.

The great business of Miramichi is the timber trade. Scarcely any other branch of trade is attempted; yet vast quantities of fish might be brought in from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which, with the salmon caught in the river, would form portions of assorted cargoes with lumber for the West Indies. This business has lately been partially prosecuted. In 1824, 141,384 tons of square timber were exported from Miramichi to ports in the United Kingdom, in nearly three hundred ships; and, although a depression occurred in 1826, the trade has since then been extensively followed.

The principal articles of provisions, and all others of general consumption, are imported, which will long continue as necessary to supply the wants of the settlers and lumberers. When the interior country, watered by the branches of this river, becomes tolerably well settled by farmers, the importation of provisions must, from want of demand, necessarily cease. The fixed property, in saw-mills on this river and its tributaries, is of important value.

To the southward of Miramichi, New Brunswick extends about seventy-five miles, along the strait of Northumberland, to Cape Tormentine. On this coast are the harbours of Richibucto, Bouctouche, Cocagne, Shediac, and the Harbour of Shemogue for small vessels. Several rivers also occur in this district. The soil is generally fertile, but the lands are very thinly inhabited, although many thousands of settlers might be located on the vacant lands lying between the sea and the Rivers St. John and Petit Coudiac. The few roads opened as late as 1827, were then bad beyond the powers of description. Since then the energy of Sir Howard Douglas, with the cooperation of the legislature, have improved them greatly.

Richibucto harbour has a bar across the entrance; but at high water ships drawing sixteen feet may pass safely over it. Within the last few years vast quantities of timber have been exported from this place. Its river, dividing into several streams, flows through an extensive country. It is navigable for several miles, and many of the settlers are Acadian French. The timber business, hitherto, has been chiefly attended to, as affording the most ready means of living; but agriculture, long considered of minor importance, now also engages the attention of the settlers.

Bouctouche is also a bar-harbour, and a port from which timber is exported. Several families of Acadian French are settled at this place.

Cocagne lies to the southward of Bouctouche. Its entrance is very intricate; but ships of three hundred tons may load within the bar. Several cargoes of timber have been exported from this place, and a few ships have also been built here. It receives a fine river, but the population is yet trifling.

Shediac is a small harbour, with a scanty population, who have divided their labour between hewing timber and a little farming.

Shemogue River has a shallow entrance; but the lands are under tolerable cultivation, and agriculture and rearing cattle occupy the principal attention of the inhabitants. Between Shemogue and Cape Tormentine, there are many extensive and well-cultivated farms. The soil resembles that of Prince Edward Island, immediately opposite; and here the distance across the strait is not quite ten miles.

From Miramichi, north to Point Miscou, at the entrance of the Bay de Chaleur, the distance is about seventy miles. The sea-coast, and back lands of this part of the province, are very low; and the shore is nearly altogether fringed with sandy ridges, or small islands, producing bent-grass. Within these are lagoons, with shallow entrances. To Tabusintac and Tracadie, the principal of these places, several thousand tons of timber are annually hauled out of the woods, and rafted to Miramichi.

To the northward of Tracadie, and near the passage of Shippagan, which divides the island of that name from the continent, are the small and shallow harbours of Little and Great Pokemouche, inhabited principally by a few families of Acadian French. The inhabitants along this coast are scattered thinly near the shores, and subsist by means of fishing, cultivating potatoes and a little grain, and hewing timber.


Written by johnwood1946

January 25, 2017 at 8:49 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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