‘Like an atomic bomb had gone off’

The sum­mer night St. John’s, N.L., burned down, 125 years ago, July 8, 1892

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - ATLANTIC - BY SUE BAI­LEY

It was a blaz­ing tor­nado that ripped through homes and build­ings in St. John’s, N.L., torch­ing ev­ery­thing it crossed as res­i­dents ran for safe ground with all they could carry.

The city will this week­end mark 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,” said St. John’s city 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 to 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.


The Great Fire of July 8, 1892 de­stroyed the com­mer­cial heart and left 11,000 home­less in St. John’s, N.L.

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