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Weary city resurfaces from ashes
weeks and months following the Great Fire of 1877,
Saint John people and
BY DONALD COLLINS
Tents appear in
King's Square after the Great Fire. Many residents made homeless by the fire
were forced to live in tents in different areas of the city. Life in the tents
was uncomfortable. They were watertight, but heavy rains wet the canvas as well
as the ground. Without a warming fire, the heavy fog and chilly air (typical
July weather for Saint John) made conditions miserable. This photograph comes
from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (P86-52).
0ne hundred and twenty
five years ago, Saint John experienced "the worst of times."
On June 20, 1877, fire reduced two-fifths of the city to
ashes and crumbling ruins. The horrible events of that day and the night that
followed have been well documented. But, few realize the suffering this
calamity caused in the days, weeks, and months that
On that fateful Wednesday afternoon, a strong
north westerly wind raised the dust in clouds as it barreled through the city.
Around 2:30, many believe a spark carried on the breeze from the mill of Kirk
& Daniels passed through an open door and ignited the hay stored on the
upper floor of Fairweather's warehouse near the head of York Point Slip. To
find the location today you would need to be on the western side of Smythe
Street between the old Red Rose Tea building and Long Wharf.
The first fire engine arrived a few minutes after the
alarm sounded. But the fire, fanned by the high winds, quickly began devouring
rows of tightly-knit, tinder-dry buildings. The firemen, heroic in their
efforts, were simply overwhelmed. The burnt district followed a line from York
Point up to Georges Street, along both sides of Dock Street, through Market
Square and up the southern side of King Street. From the head of King, it
jumped to King Square South, across to Leinster and King Street East, down as
far as Pitt Street, travelling the length of Pitt to the water's edge and back
around the harbour-line to the starting point.
swept over 98½ hectares, consuming 1,600 buildings. An estimated 15,000
people were left homeless. Considering the thousands of panic-stricken men,
women and children running helter-skelter trying to escape the inferno, it's
miraculous only 18 perished.
Rich, poor and middle class
all shared a common fate. Most escaped with only their lives and the clothes
they wore. Whatever their station in life, all that mattered now was food and
shelter. Relatives, friends, and strangers alike threw open their doors to take
in the homeless. What public buildings remained were filled to overflowing.
Warehouses, lodges, churches and all other available space were occupied. One
woman, a Mrs. Johnston, who lived at 139 Mecklenburg St., sheltered nearly 50
of the homeless at one point.
For the first few days,
hundreds toured through the deserted streets during the day, taking in
kilometres of absolute desolation. All that remained of their homes, churches,
schools, and places of work were jagged walls of brick and stone and charred
wood. Everywhere, orphaned chimneys rose up like silent sentinels overlooking
the crippled city.
When news of the disaster reached the
outside world, aid from all over North America and Great Britain began pouring
in. Food, clothing and supplies of every description arrived first by rail and
later in ships. Hundreds of cash donations came from places as distant as San
Francisco and Liverpool, England. Early on, large shipments of tents provided
shelter for dozens of families. The bulk of these were set up on the Barrack
Square. Others dotted the nearby Ballast Wharf and Back Shore on the southern
tip of the peninsula. A handful stood on Queen Square. The inhabitants of this
new community came to be known as "tent people."
all this, many continued to struggle without shelter. Some scenes were
particularly heart-wrenching. At one place an old man sat amid a heap of
household goods on a mass of warm ashes and rubbish, a bright-eyed young girl
standing guard over him. His name was Simpson. He had been the proprietor of a
licensed tavern, and he was blind. His wife had saved the few things they had
left by carrying them to the water's edge. Now the helpless man sat on a lounge
with a carpet propped up over it for shelter.
place, two elderly women, a Mrs. Gallagher, aged 72, and Mrs. Roberts, 83,
spent the third night after the fire under the cover of a few boards alongside
With cruel irony, heavy rains began falling the
day after the fire and continued through the evening. Had they come twenty-four
hours earlier, those rains could have helped quench the fire. Now they only
made the harsh conditions worse.
The vast majority of the
business district lay in ruins. As a result, huge numbers suddenly found
themselves unemployed. Many men saw no hope for the future. Some, in deep
despair, turned to the bottle for comfort. Rum-shanties, appearing among the
ruins like mushrooms in a field, did a thriving business. The wives and
children, already suffering physically, added mental strife to their list of
One frightful case involved a man named Tom Leary.
He, his wife, and four children were residents of the "tent city" on Barrack
Square. Tom Leary's abusive behavior and drunken rages made him a constant
irritant to the community. One fearful night; he beat his wife terribly about
the face and head. Then, stalking around the encampment brandishing a knife, he
threatened death to anyone who interfered. Later on, he turned his wife and
children out into the cold and wet.
A kind woman, whose
husband was absent, took the unfortunate family into her tent. Mr. Leary
attempted to get in, but was withheld by a group of men on their way to work.
When the police finally appeared, he subsided into silence and spent the
remainder of the morning sleeping in his tent. The following day, he returned
to camp in a drunken stupor and began abusing his children. This time, two
nearby policemen promptly arrested him.
Life in the
tents, especially early on, was decidedly uncomfortable. The tents were
watertight, but heavy rains wet the canvas as well as the ground. Without a
warming fire, the heavy fog and chilly air (typical July weather for Saint
John) made conditions miserable. The women and children suffered the most, but
they did not complain.
shows the burned out Victoria Hotel, a five-storey brick edifice on the corner
of Germain and Duke streets. It had been built six years before the fire. At
the time, it was the largest hotel in Canada. The rebuilding of the city proved
to be a dangerous task. In the business district, where many structures were
made of brick and stone, walls three and four storeys high stood, crippled by
the intense heat. This photograph comes from the Provincial Archives of New
On the outskirts of the
grounds, residents of some rude shanties were even more uncomfortable. None of
the huts were watertight. The torrents of rain poured through the open roofs as
freely as it fell outside, wetting bedding and everything else.
One reporter wrote: "A dog would not live in such places.
Almost without exception these shanties are tentanted by the disreputable women
of Sheffield Street. They are not allowed to associate with the camp, and can
hardly secure even the poor habitation of a tent. Truly, the way of the
transgressor is hard. "
At the same time, pitiful
conditions prevailed at Queen Square. Eight families there eked out a wretched
existence. "Their quarters were situated on a slope. When the rains came, water
flowed freely through the tents. With no planking for a floor, their clothes
and bedding were soaked much of the time. When it wasn't raining, they received
frequent visits from "midnight marauders" who busied themselves by tapping on
the canvas or lifting the lower part of their tents.
broad cross section of society that made up the homeless included an unsavory
element. Petty theft was rampant. Despondent people returned to their tents
only to find clothing, blankets, a precious memento saved from the fire, and
even the planking, stolen.
Groups of bullies called
"roughs" delighted in terrorizing women and children. They fought in the
streets, committed arson and stole. At the barrack grounds, they swarmed around
the provisions wagon, helping themselves to extra rations while poor women,
children and the elderly were often obliged to go without. Thankfully, by mid
July, the police had put a stop to this practice.
all the hardships, the city and the people persevered. By mid-July, 40 one-room
shanties on Queen Square and several more on the barrack grounds accommodated
hundreds of homeless families. Living in these simple edifices wasn't very
luxurious, but compared to the tents, it was like Shangri-La.
The rebuilding of the city began with the removal of the
ruins and debris. This proved to be a difficult and dangerous task. Wooden
buildings left little more than a chimney behind. In the business district,
where many structures were made of brick and stone, walls three and four
storeys high stood, crippled by the intense heat.
Attempts to bring them down with cannon fire were largely
ineffective. Then the H.M.S. Argus arrived from Halifax with the Marine
Artillery, which brought down the larger walls with bags of blasting powder. On
June 22, tragedy struck when a charge exploded prematurely. A bystander named
John Anderson was struck by flying debris and suffered fatal injuries. After
this the crew of the Argus used lines and blocks to haul down the most
Reconstruction began almost
immediately. John E. Turnbull became the first to build within the burnt
district. Construction of a temporary cottage for his family commenced on June
24. He planned to build a brick residence later on.
Countless merchants lost their stores and warehouses.
Some moved into new locations in existing buildings. A few put up temporary
structures at their old sites until they could rebuild. The city allowed a
large number of businesses to occupy makeshift huts located on King Square. The
agreement stipulated that they vacate the square by May 1, 1878. This
"community" was dubbed "Shanty Town."
In the midst of
all the hardship, people still found time to have fun. On July 25, an impromptu
party took place on the barrack grounds. A Globe reporter wrote: "Last night
the whole camp enjoyed themselves in "tripping the light fantastic" to the
music of an accordion; and bright moonshine, the flashing fires over the
grounds, the music and mirthful hilarity of the dancers made a scene that
seemed to be free from care."
By August, the rebuilding
pro cess accelerated with hundreds of buildings under construction. Accidents
occurred regularly. The most serious injuries resulted from falls. Kimball
Hooper, a brick mason from Saco, Maine, fell from a staging and was paralyzed
from the waist down. Others received treatment for a variety of cuts and broken
In spite of the difficulties, the city continued
to rally, materially and spiritually. Evidence of physical progress grew on a
daily basis. Mental recovery was more subtle.
first few weeks after the fire, newspaper columns conveyed a most serious tone.
Reports of bravery during the fire and the subsequent generosity of strangers
afterward might have raised spirits, but one element remained absent: humour.
Then, about five weeks after the event, the tone began to lighten.
Part of the transient population at the time included
organ-grinders, who plied their trade on city streets with chimpanzee
sidekicks. Back then, such men were looked upon as a nuisance.
Nevertheless, one writer seized the opportunity to inject
some humour into his column by reporting the trials and tribulations of an
organ-grinder and his monkey.
Reports of runaways in the
city usually referred to horses that had gotten away from their drivers. In
late July, an organ-grinder's monkey broke loose and, as the reporter stated,
"sought liberty among the ruins of Germain Street."
This view looks
west on Germain Street after the fire.
This photograph comes from the
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (P86-58).
Rebuilding suffers setback
with second fire four months later
Two weeks later an
organ-grinder and his monkey produced more fodder for the witty writer:
"Yesterday afternoon the hand-organ man, who has been grinding out his
discordant tunes at our street corners for some time past, got a little
"elevated," and in company with his monkey started off to have a good time.
They got as far as the rumshop at the corner of Union and Mill Streets, but
their ' presence there did not appear to be at " all appreciated. After several
ineffectual attempts to get the bar-keeper matched against his monkey, he was
collared by Officer Baird and hurried off to the station."
Later on, in the "Police Court" - column, we learn of the
organgrinder's fate. "Louis Melodis, the melodious organ-grinder, was fined $4
for drunkenness. The charge against the monkey was not pressed, and he was
allowed to go."
The final chapter on the organ grinders
appeared about a week later. "Hoping in Vain - We were in hopes that the rain
and fog of the past week or two would have the effect of driving out of the
city those itinerant organ-grinders and their monkeys, who have been harrowing
our feelings with the twisting of their music box, but appearances indicate
that such hopes were founded on shadows, for they have appeared in a larger
number than usual today."
In late August, one
enterprising contractor named Lovitt took speedy reconstruction to an extreme.
He entered into a contract to build a three-storey house in four days. He
employed some fifty or sixty carpenters for the job. The agreement stipulated
that if the building wasn't completed after four days, no payment would be
received for the work he had done. Lovitt failed to finish on time. However,
the person who hired him must have been compassionate as an extension of three
days was granted. This time Lovitt met the deadline. The relieved contractor
and his band of carpenters received payment.
With work on
commercial buildings and private residences humming along, reconstruction of
public buildings lagged far behind. By the end of September, the ruins of many
structures still lay where they fell. Editorials expressed dismay over how slow
the government was moving.
By the first week of October,
more and more citizens were becoming self-sufficient. People requiring relief
now numbered about one hundred daily. All requests were for provisions only.
For some, however, chaos returned once again in the early
morning hours of Oct. 20. Four months to the day from the date of the Saint
John fire, a second great conflagration came calling. It began about 2:30 that
morning in a woodhouse near the corner of Main and Acadia Streets in the town
of Portland (Portland was amalgamated by Saint John in 1889). Acadia Street no
longer exists. It ran east of and parallel to Portland Street. The fire whipped
up its own wind and travelled in a southerly direction toward the harbour.
By nine o'clock the fire was under control.
The flames consumed whole blocks of three and four storey
houses. About 120 buildings burned to the ground, rendering 600 families
homeless. Many of these were refugees from Saint John who moved there after the
first fire. Once again, they found themselves out on the street. Whatever
possessions they had accumulated were lost once more. Most believed arson to be
the cause of the blaze since no fire was kept where it originated.
Relief officials managed to find shelter for everyone. No
tents or shanties were required. Donations poured in, including $5,000 from the
Saint John Relief and Aid Society. The former and future residents of Saint
John began the rebuilding process anew.
Through it all,
Saint John continued to march forward. The fortunate spent the winter in the
comfort of their new homes.
Poorer families faced the
prospect of making do with their simple one room shanties. Truly, they must
have endured many a frosty night huddled together trying to ward off the cold.
By June of 1878, the shanties disappeared and hundreds of
fresh, new structures began to fill the void. By the second anniversary in
1879, more than 90 per cent of the city stood proudly back in place. The new
buildings, whether of brick or wood, were larger and more comfortable than
their predecessors. New building codes and wider streets made them safer too.
Between then and the end of 1881, the remainder of the
reconstruction, mostly larger public buildings, was
After just four years, 1,100 new buildings
stood in the burnt district. Saint John's citizens literally witnessed the
rebirth of their city. The city's Latin motto was never more appropriate; "O
Fortunati Quorum Jam Maenia Surgunt," "O Fortunate City Whose Walls Are
Donald Collins is a Saint
John freelance writer.
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