Saint John, New Brunswick
Rooftops an ideal trap for embers

June 20/02

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 barn-shaped.
   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.
   "It 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.
   This was the sight on King Street looking west. This photograph comes from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (1586-61). Even 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 gutted."
   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.
   It took 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.