Today marks 125 years since “The Great Fire” on July 8, 1892, incinerated Newfoundland’s commercial hub and left about 11,000 people homeless.
The actual cause was never confirmed. It was blamed on a dropped tobacco pipe or match in a stable on Carter’s Hill overlooking the harbour and city centre. By the time it burned out 12 hours later, 2,000 houses and dozens of businesses were in smoking ruins.
“It was like a war zone, like something you might see if an atomic bomb had gone off in the city,” says St. John’s Coun. Sandy Hickman. “It really burned a lot of the eastern half of the city down.”
An investigation would later lambaste city managers and overhaul firefighting services.
Flames first erupted at about 4:45 p.m. and were soon whipped up by strong winds. They scattered hot embers like so many fireballs over the wooden houses below. St. John’s, then a city of about 30,000 people, had been baked dry that summer after a month with little rain.
“It was tinder dry,” said Larry Dohey, director of programming at The Rooms archives, art gallery and museum in St. John’s. “What could go wrong, went wrong.”
The fire raced down Freshwater Road, then split in two as it swept down Harvey Road and Long’s Hill. It picked up strength as clapboard homes and stores became powerful kindling.
A few strokes of bad luck and even worse planning hampered firefighters who then served as volunteers: water supplies had been turned off earlier in the day as new pipes were installed. Although it had been turned back on, pressure in higher elevations where the blaze broke out was weak. A nearby tank that could hold almost 114,000 litres had been drained during a recent drill and wasn’t refilled, Dohey said.
There was a lack of equipment, including hatchets. Old rope snapped as the men tried to use it to pull down a burning house in hopes of creating a firebreak.
Another peril was the way St. John’s was rebuilt after a previous massive fire in 1846. Regulations meant to avoid a similar catastrophe were often ignored in the rush of reconstruction. They set out that buildings should be made of stone or brick with slated roofs and protective firebreaks.
Instead, tightly packed wooden structures sprang up on narrow streets as before.
When flames once again engulfed the city, horrified residents tried to save what they could. They raced with their possessions into stone churches and other structures they thought wouldn’t burn.
“In fact, some would suggest that as they were running through the streets, embers were getting into blankets and clothing and they were actually bringing the fire into these public buildings,” Dohey said. “All of these churches would eventually burn.”
All but the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which towered on a hill above the fire and still dominates the St. John’s skyline today.
Four people died, according to archival documents. They were identified as a local woman and her daughter, another woman described as an “elderly girl, not married” and a “servant girl” whose name wasn’t immediately known, Dohey said.
In the days after the fire, residents who had lost everything huddled near the basilica “because they felt safe there,” he added. Thousands more stayed in tents or makeshift shelters in nearby Bannerman Park.
The massive blaze raged into the next morning, cutting a ruthless swath right down to the waterfront. Daylight laid bare the full extent of ruin: for blocks and blocks all that remained of gutted homes and offices were charred brick chimneys that eerily stood watch over the destruction.
Moses Harvey, a Presbyterian minister and writer, described his walk that morning: “Nothing visible for a mile from Devon Row but chimneys and fallen and tottering walls,” he wrote. “It made the heart ache to see the groups of men, women and children with weary, blood-shot eyes and smoke begrimed faces, standing over their scraps of furniture and clothing — some of them asleep on the ground from utter exhaustion — all with despondency depicted on their faces.”
Damages were estimated at $13 million, of which only about $5 million was insured, according to Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. The disaster threw Newfoundland, then a British colony, into economic turmoil.
Many of the colourful “Jellybean Row” houses that exist today in St. John’s date back to 1892 and were among the first homes rebuilt.
Government officials revamped the city’s previously volunteer fire brigades, hiring 22 paid firefighters and creating three new stations. A new force that included fire and police staff reported to the police inspector-general. Such changes stemmed in part from a scathing report by Judge D.W. Prowse, who investigated the disaster.
Municipal council, he bluntly concluded, had severely mismanaged firefighting volunteers and equipment.
“If this department is ever left again in the same hands, all I can say is that we deserve to be burnt.”