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Rooftops an ideal trap for embers
BY MAC TRUEMAN
The scene was
desolate on Germain Street looking west. Fires were a fact of life in Saint
John before that dark Wednesday in 1877. There were no fire codes in that day
to prevent chimneys from shooting sparks directly into the air. This photograph
comes from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (1386-53).
In retrospect, the Great
Saint John Fire of 1877 had long been a tragedy waiting to happen.
The city's pre-1877 skyline, as shown in a photograph
taken from the spire of Trinity church, was closely packed with wooden tenement
buildings, with cedar-shingled roofs, some of them pitched and some of them
Tandem houses, standing in rows, shared a
common tube-shaped attic capable of carrying fire from one house to the others
"in a matter of no time," says Thomas Donovan, curator of the Old Number 2
Engine House Museum.
These slanted, wooden roofs were an
ideal trap for embers sent into the air by the fire, which easily got caught in
the overlapping cedar shingles and quickly fanned into a blaze, he said.
There were lots of embers for them to catch. R. H.
Conwell, in his History of the Great Fire in Saint John, wrote of the huge fire
throwing up "burning brands of pine which a strong man would have found it
difficult to carry."
There were no fire codes in that day
requiring chimneys to contain any kind of baffle to keep them from shooting
sparks directly into the air as if from a gun barrel. The smokestack of the
Kirk and Daniels lumber mill near Long Wharf, which some suspect as the source
of the spark that set off the nearby Fairweather's Hay Storage barn at the
start of the conflagration, was a straight tube, Mr. Donovan said.
And before the 1877 fire, "there were fires all of the
time, and two or three buildings would go down," said Gary Hughes, curator of
history and technology at the New Brunswick Museum.
was just a fact of life."
Although the fire did an
estimated $27 million worth of damage, only $7.5 million of it was insured,
then mayor Sylvester Z. Earle reported to the first Common Council meeting
after the fire. Many Saint Johners had still held a belief brought here by the
Loyalists, that fire insurance amounted to betting on arson.
A view from
Mecklenburg Terrance after the fire. This photograph comes from the Provincial
Archives of New Brunswick (P86-63).
Earlier, a loan had been
granted to Trinity Church with the provision that the church cancel its fire
insurance, and it did. Later, the elders had a change of heart, and reinstated
their $20,000 fire insurance, which was in effect at the time of the fire.
Only $6.5 million of the covered insurance was ever paid
up, according to a 1965 study of the fire. Many of the insurers were local
companies that did not have coinsurers.
"Who would expect
something so major?" Mr. Donovan said. Some local insurance companies went
bankrupt. A few had disappeared in the fire, he said.
Only a few years before this, the city had passed a bylaw
requiring all subsequently built commercial buildings in the uptown mercantile
area to have brick or stone walls. Although many roofs in this area were slate
or gravel, a number of them still had wooden shingles.
though the newer buildings had masonry exterior walls, their interior frames
were wood, as were their floors and roofs, Gordon Shorter, director of fire
research for the National Research Council of Canada, found in his 1967 study
of the fire.
Almost all of them had wooden door and window
frames, and in the Great Saint John Fire, "these were often the first items
ignited," Mr. Shorter wrote.
The thin-glass windows of
these buildings could admit enough radiant heat to ignite the interior, even
when the exterior was impervious to fire, Mr. Dononvan said.
"Once the fire penetrated into the building, it (the
brick or stone walls) would act like an incinerator. With a lot of these
buildings, the stone walls were still standing, but their insides were totally
Radiant heat coming through thin window glass is
believed to be what did in the largest hotel in Canada - the Victoria Hotel, a
five-story brick edifice on the corner of Germain and Duke, which had been
built only six years before. It stood across the street from a huge wooden
house that looked just like Loyalist House.
The same fate
took the relatively new Customs House, an imposing, marble-columned four-storey
stone building that seemed to extend nearly half a block along Prince William
Street, one of the longest-spanning public buildings in the city.
In the wake of the fire, the city divided itself into
three fire zones. Wooden buildings were prohibited in the zone nearest the
waterfront, and this is why the classic turn-of-the century streetscape of
Germain Street homes is almost entirely brick.
11years for the city and the insurance companies to relax the ban and allow
some wood houses on Germain. "That's why, if you see a house on Germain, you
know it was built after 1888," said Valerie Evans, a history researcher who
pioneered the uptown's system of historic walking tours.
Building codes, which were recommended to this city by
the Boston architects who oversaw its reconstruction, called for flat roofs
covered in fire-proof gravel, and thicker windows.
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