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Remembering Black Wednesday
of 1877 leveled two-fifths of Saint John, an area covering nearly a square
BY MAC TRUEMAN
125 years ago today that the Great Fire of 1877 leveled two-fifths of Saint
John. The blaze was so huge the light of its flames could be seen in the
evening from Fredericton, more than 100 kilometres away.
Within nine hours, it had reduced Saint John's downtown
and South End to an unbroken landscape of smoldering ruins covering nearly a
square kilometre from Saint John Harbour to Courtenay Bay.
"Yesterday was the most calamitous day ever known in the
annals of Saint John," was how the Daily Telegraph began its story of
destruction, anguish, heroism, terror and death.
business centre in what had been one of the most prosperous cities in North
America was wiped out. More than 1,600 homes were destroyed, leaving 13,000
Eighteen people lost their lives - 12
from burns, four were struck by falling debris and two drowned while trying to
save their property in boats.
The fire obliterated most
public buildings and businesses, including the post office, city hall, customs
house, five banks, 14 hotels and 14 churches, as well as theatres and schools.
The 1,500 commercial and industrial buildings that were
razed included 10 retail grocers, 116 liquor dealers, 93 commission merchants,
80 law offices, 55 boarding houses, 55 shoemakers, 36 tailors, 32 flour
dealers, 29 insurance agents, 29 clothing stores and 22 dry goods
Damage was estimated at $27 million in
1877 dollars, of which only $6.5 million was recovered from insurance.
Black Wednesday - June 20, 1877 - culminated a three-week
dry spell, and the temperature this day was hovering at 25 C. The breeze that
came up mid morning and soon developed into a stiff wind was seen as a relief
to many of the city's 50,000 residents.
knows for sure what went wrong, the best guess is that a spark shot up from the
unbaffled smokestack of the Kirk and Daniels lumber mill, near where Long Wharf
is today, and it was carried by this same wind to the nearby Fairweather's Hay
Storage barn, standing at the location of the modern-day Hilton Hotel
boardwalk, said Thomas Donovan, curator of the Old Number 2 Engine House
"About 2 o'clock in the afternoon, we heard the
fire alarm and we saw from the upper windows a fire breaking out from the
direction of Portland, at a place called York Point," wrote one eyewitness.
"But that being far from the principal streets, and rather a common place for
fires, we took little notice, thinking it soon would be
" But by the time the first fire engine was
galloped to the site, McLaughlin's Boiler Works had caught fire next door, and
the gale was now blowing sheets of flames and sparks from building to building
in this neighbourhood of wood. The fire quickly involved Smythe Street and
spread south to South Wharf while at the same time reaching into Drury Lane,
Mill Street and Dock Street.
Firemen ran for their lives
along Dock Street, pulling their fire engine behind them. In some locations,
fire horses had to be cut loose from their engines, lest they cook in the
More companies of firemen, arriving in time
to see wind-blown flames leaping across the foot of Union Street, dug in their
heels in an effort to keep it from coming up Union.
sides of the street were soon in the grasp of the devouring element, and the
men lingered so long in their struggle to save the buildings that at last they
were obliged to drop their branch pipes and run up the street, after which they
dragged the hose after them," the Telegraph reported.
They eventually managed to hold the line on Union just up
from Dock Street, with many of the men holding boards to shield their faces
against the heat as their clothing singed.
owners throughout the uptown were already emptying their safes and trundling
the contents to the Bank of New Brunswick, never dreaming that this stone
building on Prince William Street could burn down.
fire, fanned now by a galeforce wind and possibly by its own vortex, was
sweeping south and west and hopping across streets, riding with the firebrands
it threw up.
"So hot became the gusts, and so full of
sparks was the air everywhere in the path of the tempest," R. H. Conwell wrote
in his 1877 book History of the Great Fire in Saint John, "that bundles of
goods tossed from second-storey windows were on fire before they reached the
hands of those who caught them in the yard below."
South End, children at St. Joseph's School, on Duke and Sydney Street, were
jubilant at having classes dismissed early because of the smoke enshrouding the
Margaret Whelly, 11, had come to school with
her five-year-old sister Bridget, who was scheduled to enter St. Joseph's the
next fall. And now she had to walk home with her to what was then the
northeastern end of the city, at the corner of Meadow Street and City Road,
through the smoke.
When the St. Joseph's teachers ordered
their pupils to go directly home, the youngsters from central city had nothing
but flames waiting for them. Margaret Sheehan, 92, who is Margaret Whelly's
daughter, is convinced of this.
Mrs. Whelly used to tell
her daughter about the smoke and the long walk. But if she was scared, she
never mentioned it.
"They were happy to get out from
school and go home," Mrs. Sheehan said.
cast-outs sat with their remaining possessions at Queen Square, watching their
homes burn, while looters circled around the square like vultures.
"It was heart rending to witness sick, infirm and aged
persons being dragged through the streets in search of a place of safety, which
it was very difficult to find," the Daily Telegraph reported of the fire as it
rushed through the uptown.
"Women and children wept
freely, and even full grown men could not restrain their emotions.
"Streams of blood, the results of injuries, marked the
faces of several men, and others had received bruises and (were) maimed in
various ways. "Many men and women might be seen utterly exhausted, with the
fatigue and the beat which becomes insufferable, dragging bedding, pieces of
furniture and other articles through the streets, a vain task in many cases, as
the new places of refuge sought out often proved as unsafe as those that were
The Telegraph was one of nine newspapers whose
offices were destroyed in the fire. Both it and the Globe got editions on the
street the next day by using borrowed printing
Clerks and employers worked with hoses and buckets
to fight against the fire on every roof on King Street, with little effect.
In the South End, one man doused sparks with a water
pitcher as they landed on his roof. He managed to keep his house standing for
more than an hour before the fire went out of his control. He threw the pitcher
down on the ledge of his' chimney and fled for his life.
"The next day, when people walked over the heap of ashes
that once had been a household, they saw the old pitcher, standing on the ledge
of the chimney," Gordon Shorter, then director of fire research for the
National Research Council of Canada, wrote in his 1967 report of the fire.
Several accounts have been written of how James Allison's
heroic effort stopped the fire from travelling up the north side of King
Street. Mr. Allison had his staff at Manchester Robertson spread hundreds of
yards of carpeting and other heavy fabric across the roof of this dry goods
store, soaking the material down with buckets of water before the fire got
George Stewart in his 1877 book, The Story of
the Great Fire in St. John, N. B., heralded Mr. Allison's store as "the
building which prevented the fire from extending up King Street." Mr. Shorter
made a similar finding in his 1967 analysis. These are contradicted by The
Globe, whose story on June 24, 1877, reported that the fire stopped two
buildings short of the Allison store.
Among the King
Street buildings that were saved was the Saint John City Market, which had been
constructed only the previous year.
The middle of Saint
John Harbour was a tangle of masts and yardarms of the square riggers that were
hurriedly towed there from the piers and anchored.
with the tide out, the coastal schooners at Market Slip were stuck on the
harbour bottom as if on fly paper. Their crews threw buckets of water on their
vessels from stem to stern and waited in horror to see if the tide or the fire
would get to them first. A total of 15 schooners burned at their moorings.
While Margaret and Bridget Whelly walked home, their
lather, teamster John Whelly, was away helping to rescue a grand piano from the
Queen Street home of Bernard Mooney.
His crew left the
dismantled piano at Queen Square, which was filling up with furnishings and
refugees from other South End houses that stood in the inferno's path.
"I remember we used to play on it when we were kids,"
engineer and former MIA John Monney said of the piano. He is a great-grandson
of Bernard Mooney.
As an Irish Canadian, Mr. Whelly threw
his home open to dozens of families of his countrymen displaced by the fire.
Women and children slept shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor of the Whelly house.
The men slept in the hay loft of Mr. Whelly's horse barn, while their host
spent many sleepless nights patrolling his loft for smokers.
Although the Bank of New Brunswick building fell to the
fire, its underground vault and the treasure with which it was hurriedly
stuffed were undamaged.
"Without this building, there
wouldn't have been any rebuilding of Saint John," researcher Valerie Evans
said, "because people wouldn't have had the money to do it. That's why I think
it's one of the most important buildings in the city." She was referring to the
original bank building, constructed in 1826, not the present building that went
up on the same spot in 1878.
huge wave of disaster relief efforts that welled up internationally, the City
of Boston, which had suffered its own conflagration in 1873, sent $6,200 to
Saint John. More than $20,000 came in from Chicago, which had seen its big fire
Bangor, Me., sent $7,000; the schoolchildren of
Buffalo raised $1,000; Charlottetown $5,000, Fredericton $8,000; Glasgow,
Scotland, $14,600, among an endless list of contributors.
Within a week of the fire, the army that came to enforce
martial law in Saint John found itself sharing its King Square encampment with
a shanty town of businesses that refused to die.
Newspapers filled with change-of-address notices.
Much of the mercantile area along Prince William and King
Street was under reconstruction within a year of the fire, under the direction
of the same architects who rebuilt fire ravaged Boston, and even statelier new
mansions began to appear on Germain Street. Families that fled economic
depression in the wake of the fire were now coming back to take part in the
Even so, gaps remained in the streetscape
for many decades, "almost like London after the blitz," said Gary Hughes,
curator of history and technology at the New Brunswick Museum.
A few overgrown foundations, overlooked in the
reconstruction, could still be found as late as 1957. In 1964, a construction
project on Water Street unearthed a safe believed to have been buried during
the Great Fire.
It was empty, except for a key and some
In 1988, renovations of a turn-of-the-century
Wentworth Street home uncovered a note left inside the wall by a disgruntled
construction worker named John Edwards. It read: "Came to this damned hole to
get 1.50 cents per day. May the devil burn the damned town down again."
Of course, he meant $1.50.
a construction worker, and education wasn't a big thing in that day," Mr.
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