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1877 disaster leaves city with lasting
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.
BY MAC TRUEMAN
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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."
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
pinching played a role in fire
BY MAC TRUEMAN
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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. "
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