The Great Fire in St. John

“James Turnbull … was about to rush into the cellar and tell him [his father] how near the fire was when he turned and beheld a dark shadow in the doorway. It was coming towards him, and for a moment struck terror into his soul. The tall figure of a woman, deeply robed in black, holding up a long train in her hand, and with head-dress all aflame, stood before him in the hall.”

This is one of the scenes in George Stewart’s The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877, a detailed description of the massive fire that for nine hours tore through the city destroying 1,612 buildings, killing 18 people, and leaving more than 13,000 people homeless. At the time, St. John was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in North America, with shipyards that were famous around the world.

Prince William Street

Prince William Street, St. John, before and after the fire.

Stewart lived through the fire. Indeed, he lost his home and his pharmacy business to the flames. His book about the fire and its aftermath was so popular that its sales allowed him to recoup all his losses.

After weeks of dry warm weather, St. John citizens welcomed the strong wind that arose on “Black Wednesday.” They soon had reason to fear it, however, when a small fire that started at McLaughlin’s boiler shop swept into neighbouring buildings. The author witnessed as “in a few minutes the fire spread with alarming rapidity, and houses went down as if a mine of powder had exploded and razed them…. The huge blazing brands were carried along in the air for miles around, and where-ever they dropped a house went down.” The fire roared through the city and into the harbour where the flames mounted the masts of the schooners, passing from ship to ship until it “formed a complete bridge of fire from the north wharf to the south. It was like a gala-day celebration of fire-works on a large scale.” Passengers on the Empress steamship that was entering the harbour were stunned by the sight of a city in flames and tortured by fears for their homes and children.

The book describes how people frantically carted their belongings to places they believed would be safe from the flames, only to discover that safety was only temporary — “Men had their stores burned at four and five o’clock, and their goods burned at seven and eight o’clock.” One woman hired a team to carry all her valuables to her mother-in-law’s house, only to have all her goods destroyed when her mother-in-law’s home burned to the ground two hours later, while her own home was spared from the fire.

People who strove to save what they could often found that they’d left the most valuable things behind. A woman, who asked her husband to cart away the bag that contained the family silver, discovered that he had rescued the rag bag instead. One man saved an old tub and dipper, and watched his valuable library and private papers succumb to the flames. Another man tried vainly to protect his house by standing on his roof with a pitcher and splashing water onto the flying sparks. He escaped, but the next day all that was left of his house was a pile of ash and his pitcher, still standing on the ledge of the tall chimney where he had left it.

There are many images of horror. I can still picture the flock of pigeons whirling into the flames and the cat who, “maddened and wild, cut off from all escape, dashed along, when the fire pursued her, and she stood still.” The author continues, “On Thursday morning she was still standing in the same place. Her frame only could be seen, with head up and tail erect.” He describes a little boy who could not be comforted: “O, pa, pa, come and see! God is burning up the world, and He won’t make another, and He won’t make another!” But the book also recounts many moments of heroism as the people of St. John worked together to save themselves and their city.

As well as describing the struggles and frequent heroism of the citizens and the terrible losses suffered, this account covers the aftermath of the fire, including detailed lists of donations received. There are also many beautiful woodcuts of the city and its buildings before and after the destruction.

The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877 is a masterpiece of its kind, giving us a first-hand account of how ordinary people endured, survived and recovered from a disaster that destroyed more than half of their city.

This post was contributed by Linda Hamilton, General Manager of Distributed Proofreaders.

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