Ruby M. Cusack
“The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877"
by George Stewart
Just about bedtime, we saw a car stop near the driveway, then back up and come into the yard. Everyone was curious as to who it might be, until Gramp came through the kitchen door with a message for me from Gram.
I was to be up early and ready to go to town when they took the cream to the Dairy. Since School Closing was fast approaching Gram would take me to find a dress. I had a growing spurt and last year’s clothes were too small and did not fit properly.
The next morning, the sun was hardly up when Mum and I stood waiting on the doorstep. I was attired in my too small last year’s best dress, patent leather shoes that were too tight for my feet and a bow in my hair. When the Oldsmobile arrived, I climbed into the back seat.
Mum reached in the window to hand Gram an envelope which I knew held her carefully saved egg money that she had planned to use to buy a hat and white gloves to wear to church but instead she was making a sacrifice for me.
I saw the wheels turning in Gram’s head as she whispered, “I can cut down one of the dresses of the twins and add some lace to make a dress that would be suitable.” “You can buy her new shoes and have enough egg money left over for what you have been saving for.” But Mum shook her head, waved and threw me a kiss as the car pulled away.
My eyes were glued to the sights of the approaching city. We passed the One Mile House, Haymarket Square and then drove along City Road to General Dairies, on what is now Station Street. While the cream cans were being removed from the trunk, I admired the big hooves of the horses that pulled the milk wagons. The shoes on their feet did not look like any horse shoes that I had ever seen. They appeared to me to be made of rubber.
Once we started up the Garden Street Hill, I knew we would soon be uptown. I loved King's Square, and best of all, I had a bag of breadcrumbs to feed the pigeons.
But something was not right as a policeman wearing white gloves was rerouting the traffic while billows of gray smoke darkened the sky.
Gram seemed nervous and started talking about the Saint John fire on June 20, 1877 that burnt out her parents. In the short space of nine hours, one thousand six hundred and twelve houses were levelled. 200 acres were destroyed. Even some of the old stone buildings were lost.
This week, I learned much from reading “The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, N.B., June 20th, 1877 by George Stewart”. I will pass along the chain of events with thanks to Project Gutenberg for making this book accessible online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/39260?msg=welcome_stranger
The Great fire of 1877 was not the first tragic fire in Saint John, as in 1784, on Friday, the 18th of June, eleven houses were burned, Then in 1788, a fire occurred in the store of General Benedict Arnold. His former partner charged him with setting fire to the store. Arnold sued him for slander, and recovered a verdict of twenty shillings!
A 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 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. During this fire, more than 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.
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.
The spring of 1841, 17th March, was the scene of another fire, when four lives were lost. 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.
In 1845, 29th July, forty buildings were burned from a fire which took its start in Water Street. 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.
Over the years, the Fire Dragon, brought great grief to many Saint John families as well as loss of churches, businesses, schools etc. but the fire of 1877 was terrible. The number of people rendered homeless was about thirteen thousand. Yet Saint John rose again from the ashes.
Family researchers will be burning the midnight oil as they search through lists of those who lost property and will marvel at the generosity of kind hearted souls from far and wide.
Many references can be found online to the 1825 Miramichi Fire. I found one from the Grand Forks Daily Herald, Grand Forks, ND 22 Sept 1908 which gives a look into October 07, 1825 when the Miramichi fire began its great destruction about one o'clock in the afternoon. In nine hours it had destroyed a belt of forest 80 miles long and 25 miles wide of over more than two and one-half million acres, almost every living thing was killed. Even the fish were afterwards found dead in heaps on the river banks. Five hundred and ninety buildings were burned, and a number of towns, including Newcastle, Chatham, and Douglastown, were destroyed. One hundred and sixty persons perished, and nearly a thousand head of stock. The loss from the Miramichi fire is estimated at $300,000, not including the value of the timber.
As all stories have different versions so does the Miramichi Fire. On the New Brunswick Natural Resources website, we find it says: The largest fire ever in eastern North America in an area between one - two million hectares. An estimated 280 - 300 lives were lost. Given that an estimated 3,000 lumbermen were in the wilderness at the time, the actual number may have been higher.
Eye witness account: "About eight o'clock in the afternoon a loud roaring was heard in the woods, and from the burnt substances still continuing to thicken the atmosphere, it was so dark that the flames could not be distinguished though they were more than one mile from the town. Immediately after, the wind blew a hurricane, a roaring noise became more and more tremendous and seemed to the astonished people as if the earth had loosened from its ancient foundation."
Wikipedia ranks the Miramichi Fire among the three largest forest fires ever recorded in North America. About 160 people died in and around Newcastle, including prisoners in the Newcastle Jail. To escape the blaze many residents took refuge with livestock and wildlife in the Miramichi River.
Speaking of how stories get altered over the years, I suggest reading online "Sketches and Tales - Illustrative of Life in the Backwoods of New Brunswick, North America, Gleaned From Actual Observation and Experience During A Residence of Seven Years in that Interesting Colony" at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/beavan/backwoods/backwoods.html by Mrs. F. Beavan - published in 1845.
Some chapter titles are:
New Brunswick–by whom settled,
Remarks on State of Morals and Religion,
The Spring Freshets,
Moving a House,
Breaking up of the Ice,
First appearance of Spring,
Burning a Fallow,
A Walk through a Settlement,
Description of a Native New Brunswicker's House,
Blowing the Horn,
A Deserted Lot,
The Law of Kindness exemplified in the Case of a Criminal,
The School Mistress,
The Indian Bride - a Refugee's Story,
Mr. Hanselpecker, Burning of Miramichi,
Song of the Irish Mourner,
The School-mistress's Dream,
Library in the Backwoods,
The Lost Children–a Poem and others.
Seeing the past through the eyes of those who lived through it and those who wrote about it, reminds me of opening the roller window blinds to view what the daybreak has brought.
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