HOME · HISTORY · AROUND TOWN · INFO BOOTH · FUN STUFF · NEW BRUNSWICK

Saint John, New Brunswick
Weary city resurfaces from ashes
In the weeks and months following the Great Fire of 1877,
Saint John people and businesses persevered

BY DONALD COLLINS
Telegraph-Journal
June 20/02


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 ensued.
    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.
   The fire 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."
   Despite 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.
   At another 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 a barn.
   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 woes.
   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.


This photograph 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 Brunswick (P86-55).

   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.
   The 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.
   Amid 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 threatening walls.
   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.
   Photo by A.R. Simmons - King's Square is shown immediately after the June 20 fire, when members of the 97th Regiment were camping in the square. Photo courtesy of harold WrightCountless 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 bones.
   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.
   For the 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 completed.
    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 Rising."

Donald Collins is a Saint John freelance writer.

NEXT

HOME · HISTORY · AROUND TOWN · INFO BOOTH · FUN STUFF · NEW BRUNSWICK