One hundred and twenty-five years ago, Saint John, a bustling city in New Brunswick, Canada, faced unimaginable devastation. On June 20, 1877, a fire engulfed two-fifths of the city, leaving 15,000 people homeless and 1,600 buildings destroyed. As the city struggled to recover, a spirit of resilience emerged, shaping Saint John’s future.
The fire began in Fairweather’s warehouse and quickly spread due to strong northwesterly winds, ultimately consuming 98½ hectares of the city. Miraculously, only 18 people perished in the disaster. However, the aftermath was marked by widespread suffering, as people from all walks of life struggled to find food, shelter, and employment.
Aid poured in from across North America and Great Britain, providing much-needed supplies such as food, clothing, and tents. Hundreds of cash donations came from places as distant as San Francisco and Liverpool, England. With this support, the people of Saint John began to rebuild their lives, creating temporary tent communities throughout the city.
Despite the aid, many continued to struggle without proper shelter, and the suffering was compounded by heavy rains and harsh conditions. Unemployment soared, and some turned to alcohol for solace. As the city faced these immense challenges, a spirit of perseverance emerged, with residents helping one another and working together to rebuild their community.
The process of rebuilding Saint John was difficult and dangerous. Initially, attempts to clear the ruins and debris were hindered by the unstable remains of brick and stone structures. However, the arrival of H.M.S. Argus from Halifax and the Marine Artillery eventually facilitated the removal of the larger walls with blasting powder and other techniques.
By mid-July, 40 one-room shanties on Queen Square and several more on the barrack grounds accommodated hundreds of homeless families. Though simple, these structures provided a significant improvement over the previous tent accommodations. As the people of Saint John continued to rebuild their lives, their resilience and determination became a defining characteristic of the city.
The Great Fire of 1877 was a devastating event in Saint John’s history, but it also marked the beginning of a remarkable story of survival and recovery. The city’s residents demonstrated an inspiring spirit of perseverance, rebuilding not just their homes and businesses but also their sense of community. Today, the legacy of the Great Fire lives on as a testament to the strength and resilience of the people of Saint John.