One hundred and twenty-three years ago today, on July 8, 1892, at about five o’clock in the afternoon, somebody happened to drop a lit pipe into a pile of hay in a stable on Freshwater Road in the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, now a part of Canada. The flames spread to the rest of the stable, but at first there was not much cause for alarm as it seemed the fire was containable. Unfortunately, a series of coincidences, bad luck and bad decisions conspired to make this little flicker much worse than it should have been. By the end of that hot July day, the blaze had consumed almost all of the central city of St. John’s, melting its economic and cultural life into hopeless ashes in a crucible of fire. The Great Fire of 1892 was the worst disaster that ever struck St. John’s and continues to be remembered today as a significant milestone in its history.
A carelessly dropped pipe shouldn’t have the potential to annihilate the largest city of an entire province, but such is the nature of fire in urban environments, especially before the 20th century. A lot of things went wrong in St. John’s that day, some caused by environmental factors, some human. For one thing, Newfoundland was in the midst of a drought. Though a seaport with a maritime climate, St. John’s had received no rain for months prior to the blaze, and as the city’s buildings were mostly wooden with shingle roofs, they were dry as tinderboxes on July 8. A wind was also blowing that day which had the effect of spreading the sparks from the stable to neighboring buildings. The experience of London in 1666 shows what can happen when an urban fire gets going during a protracted drought. But unfortunately St. John’s residents and municipal authorities made things even worse. There was a fire department in the city, and even a large reservoir very close to the site of the fire, but firefighters had neglected to refill it following a recent training exercise. And Thomas Mitchell, the city manager, had chosen that particular day to shut off the water in the central city so new pipes could be laid. Though that work had been completed at 3:00 PM and the water turned back on, there wasn’t enough water pressure built up yet to power the hydrants when the fire broke out at 5.
Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist as it appears today. The church was so damaged by the 1892 fire that it took the city 10 years to complete its rebuilding.
As the fire spread from the farm where it had started, fanned by the warm wind, firefighters discovered they lacked the equipment they needed–axes and hooks, principally–to tear down buildings to create firebreaks in its path. Thus, the blaze advanced down Freshwater Road and split as it consumed several more streets. Within an hour area residents realized they had a major disaster on their hands. The wealthier residents of St. John’s began carrying valuables out of their wooden houses and stacking them in the Anglican Cathedral, which was built of stone and which they expected would survive. However, again as the 1666 London fire proved, stone buildings are hardly impervious to fire. In fact the flames were soon licking at the doors of the cathedral, and the loot stored inside provided a repository of fuel. When it exploded, the cathedral became a pyre. People ran screaming through the streets, looking for any refuge from the flames.
Almost as if it was a sentient being intent on destroying the heart of the town, the fire consumed one after another of St. Johns’s key buildings. Newfoundland has always been a heavy fishing center, and when the fire touched the long wooden wharves they went up too, burning to the water line. The fire then laid waste to the city’s commercial district of shops, merchant houses and other businesses. By 5:00 AM, twelve hours after the blaze began, St. John’s was a charred ruin smoldering under a halo of smoke. Eleven thousand residents were homeless and three were dead. The damage was estimated at $13 million–a lot of money in 1892 dollars.
As soon as the physical disaster was complete, the financial disaster began. It was more than just the fact that without its wharves, warehouses and shops St. John’s economy was crippled in the short term. A ripple of financial ruin spread out from the disaster, manifesting itself first in an insurance disaster; less than a quarter of the damage had been insured, and the survivors lacked the funds to rebuild. The province in which St. John’s was located, Newfoundland and Labrador, was not part of Canada in 1892. Its residents had rejected the idea of joining the Canadian nation in 1869–they did not join until after World War II–so the province was technically a “Dominion” of Great Britain, nominally attached but still very autonomous. The province simply did not have the resources to deal with the aftermath.
Stunned residents wander the streets of St. John’s after the fire. The 1892 blaze was the worst of three fires in the 19th century, the others occurring in 1819 and 1846.
Fortunately, however, smart governance and humanitarian compassion, both within Newfoundland and outside its borders, started to make amends. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador set up a number of relief programs which tried to do more than just throw money at the city. For example, one program sought to train women to get jobs to help their impoverished families, and to help them travel to jobs in Canada or the U.S. Other groups set to work trying to reorganize and increase the efficiency of the fire department, and to plan the rebuilding of St. John’s in a less fire-prone manner. Meanwhile, stories of the disaster captured the attention of the Anglophone world, and donations poured in from Canada, the United States and Great Britain proper. By the late 1890s St. John’s was back on its feet again, having demonstrated a highly rational and effective response to a catastrophe that could have easily proven the end of the community.
In the vast catalogue of urban fires throughout history, there are lots of stories of incompetence, bureaucratic bungling, environmental myopia and just plain bad luck. The Great St. John’s Fire of 1892 has all of those qualities. But, while it doesn’t really have a “happy” ending, at least it’s less bad than many other urban disasters. As devastating as large-scale city fires always are, something good usually comes out of them. Cities are living things, and sometimes it takes the heat of a crucible to melt away their former incarnations and bring about change.