Saint John, New Brunswick

Great Fire Remembered
1877 disaster leaves city with lasting legacy

St. John (stone) Church looms in the background overlooking Germain Street both today and following the Great Fire of 1877. The historic photograph, taken the day after the June 20, 1877 fire, is from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. P86-61.

June 20/02

The largest historic district in North America could rise from the 125-year-old ashes of the Great Saint John Fire.
   In 1991 the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board designated the city's 20 block Trinity Royal heritage preservation area of some 800 turn-of-the-century uptown buildings as a national historic area. Talks are now underway with Parks Canada to expand the historic district across the city's entire uptown and South End.
   Containing somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 heritage buildings, this proposed new heritage zone stands to become the largest such area on the continent.
   Because of this Saint John may owe a buoyant economic future to the fire that devastated the city 125 years ago today, says city heritage planner Jim Bezanson.
   In an era when this city was a major world seaport and trade centre, the fourth largest shipbuilding centre in the world and one of the most prosperous cities in North America, wealthy merchants here competed to create the most opulent homes and businesses, as the city rebuilt from the Great Fire of 1877.

A Currier & Ives colour print of the Great Fire of Saint John can be seen at the city's firefighters museum.
A Currier & Ives colour print of the Great Fire of Saint John can be seen at the city's firefighters museum.

Legacy includes rich turn-of-the-century architecture

   That's how uptown Saint John came to have the largest and richest collection of turn-of-the-century architecture in all of Canada, says Mr. Bezanson, who came here from Vancouver 12 years ago because of this city's unique heritage of Victorian housing.
   "In my mind, they are the success story of Saint John. I don't think we need to look any further than the buildings that we have."
   These uptown and South End streetscapes are what bring the passengers who feed Saint John's growing trade as a cruise ship port, a survey of these passengers indicated last summer. These buildings appeal to an emerging market in cultural heritage tourism, worth $4 billion in Canada last year and increasing 10 per cent per year.
   And Mr. Bezanson believes that the city centre's unique atmosphere of elaborate brickwork, big roman arched windows, gargoyles and intricate scrollwork are the magnet that will also bring data processing industries here and make Saint John a future centre for high technology.
   He calls it "the silver lining in the cloud that has hung over Saint John."
   Buildings like these "are very desired by high-tech industries, because they're seen as quite creative spaces. Rich detailing in the architecture and craftsmanship provide an ambiance for these people to work in."
   High-tech industries also want to convey to their clients and investors the message of permanence that these old buildings project in a volatile world, he says. The Imperial Bank of Commerce building on Germain and King Streets, built to look like the Parthenon in Greece, is perhaps an extreme example.
   "Particularly after Sept. 11, more and more companies are going to be looking for smaller cities, where there is a higher quality of life, where there's architecture at a human scale, buildings that their employees can relate to."
   Standing on the corner of Union and Charlotte Street, which was untouched by the Great Fire, one can get an idea of the housing hodgepodge that would make up Mr. Bezanson's historic Trinity Royal area today if it had not been gutted by the fire.
   Here, the block-shaped, wooden Loyalist House stands only a few across from a stucco-covered wooden pub. Across Union from this is a modern concrete building, and a few doors up Charlotte Street, a movie theatre that is now a Knights of Columbus hall was added to a Georgian-style sandstone mansion. And it all lies under the shadow of the concrete-and-glass Brunswick Square tower.
   The area that lay in the path of the fire also held ramshackle tenements, and the utilitarian cabins and warehouses built by the city's late 18th century Loyalist founders as these refugees started their homes and businesses here from scratch.
City heritage planner Jim Bezanson came here 13 years ago from vancouver because of Saint John's unique hertiage of Victorian housing.   Although some of these individual buildings may have been historic, there was no unifying character that made the whole area worth preserving from more-recent architecture as these buildings fell one by one, he said.
   In contrast to this is the impact of standing among the brick and stone only a couple years of the fire.
   "It's seen as the best, most intact and most contiguous collection of turn-of-the-century architecture in Canada," said Mr. Bezanson.
   As these prosperous businesses set out in 1877 to rebuild from the fire, "the owners were much more interested in expressing their personal values, beliefs and personality on the exterior of their buildings.
   "So, after the fire, a lot of prominent people competed with each other for the most prominent architect, the most prominent building site, the most skilled trades people, and so on."
   The tycoons didn't realize that Saint John's golden age of sail was drawing to a close. The resulting economic slump preserved the Prince William-Canterbury-Germain commerce district from the sort of large-scale redevelopment' that would have razed many of the buildings seen as treasures today.

City penny pinching played a role in fire

June 20/02

    The Great Saint John Fire might have been nipped in the bud, 125 years ago today, if one critical element had not been missing from some of the city's fire stations, Thomas Donovan tells visitors to the Old Number 2 Engine House Museum.
   Because of City Hall penny pinching, the horses needed to haul the Number 2 engine to the start of the fire on that fatal afternoon were gone, he says.
   Mr. Donovan, museum curator, stands in the engine bay of this 1842-built retired fire station and points to where ceiling pulleys used to lower the harness of the station's steamfired pump engine directly onto the horses, who automatically filed into position from the adjoining stable as soon as they heard a fire bell.
   Located on Sydney Street next to the County Court House, the fire station stood at the top of a hill, giving its crew and their horses a running start toward any fire in the city. The designers had thought everything out, with one exception.
   When a hay barn at York Point Slip burst into flames and was on the verge of touching off the Great Saint John Fire of 1877, the shiny brass, state-of-the-art steam-driven pump engine located here barely a kilometre uphill from it wasn't going anywhere.
    This fatal flaw, Mr. Donovan says, arose almost as soon as the city fathers set out in 1863 to revolutionize Saint John's fire department by equipping its fire stations with the new high technology steam engines.
   Shelling out an enormous amount to buy five U.S.-made Amoskeag steam engines for its fire stations was only the start of the costs. Because these steam machines had to keep a head of steam at all times, they required crewmen to coal them 24 hours a day, in addition to taking care of the horses needed to pull these new machines.
   So the city disbanded its volunteer fire brigades and set up its first professional fire department of paid staff. And it had to dip even further into its treasury to add stables to its fire halls.
   That's why city fathers were soon looking for ways to cut back these new costs. Their solution was to share the are horses with the public works department.
   "When the fire started, at 2:30 in the afternoon, the horses weren't even in the fire hall. They were working with a road crew of city workers ...
   "The firefighters had to go get their horses, which were tired from working all day anyhow, and come back to the fire station to get their apparatus, and then go to the fire.
   "By the time the firefighters arrived on the scene, there were already over a half a dozen buildings ablaze."
   Not all of the fire engines were delayed. Engine 3, coming from the Union Street station, was throwing water on the fire within three minutes of the alarm, Gordon Shorter, then-director of fire research for the National Research Council's Division of Building Research, said in his 1967 study of the fire.
   "Other engines followed immediately, but before they could find a suitable location to play water upon the flames, the fire had spread by means of sparks and radiated heat to a score of wooden structures."
   The fire museum disputes Mr. Shorter's term "immediately." Mr. Donovan estimates it may have taken half an hour for Engine 2 to get to the scene.
   In all, the city had four steam fire engines, several hose wagons, a hook and ladder wagon, one coal wagon and a total strength of 59 men, Mr. Shorter summarized in his study. Although Saint John had 50,000 citizens at that time, compared with today's 72,000, it occupied a fraction of its present area. It included what are now the uptown, South End and lower West Side. Its northern boundary ran along City Road.
   In his report, Mr. Shorter apparently wasn't counting the city's King Street West fire station, which quickly sent a fifth engine across the harbour. A sixth engine from the Town of Portland engine house on City Road also rushed to the fray.
   These horse-drawn machines of gleaming brass represented the forefront of firefighting technology, and were an awe some sight in 1863, said Brian MacDonald, a Saint John fire fighter who led the creation of the museum six years ago.
   The earlier, human powered hand pumps were hauled through the street by teams of 60 men, who took turns in 30-man squads at working the pump handles. Others formed bucket brigades to carry water to the tank. The machine could lift a single stream of water three storeys into the air, but only until the crewmen tired out.
   The new steam machines could feed multiple fire hoses and reach three or four storeys for as long as the water supply lasted.
   The new steam fire engines gave Saint Johners the impression that their city was invulnerable to fire, Mr. MacDonald said.
   "The firemen at the time felt that it was. There was no conflagration at that time that they could not put a halt to. They figured they'd be able to combat anything having this type of engine. "