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Saint John, New Brunswick
Remembering Black Wednesday
Great Fire of 1877 leveled two-fifths of Saint John, an area covering nearly a square kilometre

BY MAC TRUEMAN
Telegraph-Journal
June 20/02

This Provincial Archives of NB photograph shows the devastation of the Great Saint John Fire from Queen Square looking west.   It was 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.
   The main 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 people homeless.
   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 establishments.
   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.
   Although nobody 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 Museum.
   "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 extinguished.
   " 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 radiant heat.
   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.
   "Both 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.
   Business 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.
   The 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."
   In the 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 building.
   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.
   A thousand 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 deserted."
   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 houses.
   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 there.
   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.
   But 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.
Thomas Donovan, curator of the Old Number 2 Engine House Museum in Saint John, with a Prince of Whales pumper.   In the 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 in 1871.
   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 building boom.
   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 ashes.
   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.
   "He was a construction worker, and education wasn't a big thing in that day," Mr. Donovan said.

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