Sign on nearby store window. — Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram
Of the whole easterly section, scarcely a building remained … of the costly and imposing structures and public buildings which were the pride and glory of the people, scarcely a vestige remained; and St. John’s lay in the morning as a city despoiled of her beauty, her choicest ornaments, presenting a picture of utter desolation and woe.
William Joseph Kent was a New Brunswick businessman who happened to be visiting St. John’s on July 8, 1892, when the city went up in smoke.
Technically it was the east end that was levelled, although there wasn’t much to the city other than the east end in those days.
Kent described the whole event in a book with the unwieldy title, “A Directory Containing Names and Present Addresses of Professional Men, Merchants and Shopkeepers, Burnt out by the General Conflagration of July 8th, 1892; A Full Account of the Great Fire, the Customs’ Tariff and Other Matter of General Information.”
Behind the cataloguish facade, though, was a nightmarish description of the events in St. John’s on that July evening: women and children wailing and screaming; people huddled outside with only the clothes on their backs.
Several residents filled the Anglican Cathedral with valuables, thinking the stone edifice would withstand the blaze. Tragically, the mighty roof caught fire and caved in, destroying everything.
A hundred years later, in an era of modern firefighting equipment and foolproof water supplies, the Harvey Road fire of Dec. 21 destroyed the CLB Armoury and Dominion supermarket, as well as a couple of business on the south side of the street.
There’s a reason people get nervous when they hear there’s a fire downtown. Cramped conditions make it difficult to fight flames. Adjacent buildings are sitting ducks. And if the wind picks up, things could get very ugly, very fast.
On Wednesday morning, St. John’s residents remained riveted as firefighters from around the city fought a blaze that consumed three buildings on Duckworth Street near the bottom of Bates Hill.
Among them were the Oxfam regional office and a relatively new fresh produce distributor called Food for Thought.
As flames licked high up through vent holes in the roof, it appeared at first that the blaze was destined to spread. Nearby residents were evacuated. But by lunchtime, firefighters had it under control.
The bright spot amid all the destruction is the spirit of camaraderie that sprung up from nearby businesses. The Sprout restaurant put a note on its door informing customers of a delayed opening, but adding a few words of encouragement to its neighbours.
On the other side of the street, the owners of Piatto Pizzeria tossed a message up on Twitter: “Our hearts go out to our NL neighbours and firefighters who (are) battling a blaze across from us. Stay safe everyone. Piatto NL is closed today.”
It may not have been the Great Fire, but the flames still burned as hot. Wednesday was a rough day for those directly affected. And a day of sombre reflection for those who weren’t.