‘Like an atomic bomb had gone off’
The summer night St. John’s, N.L., burned down, 125 years ago, July 8, 1892
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.