The St. John's Fire of 1892

Late in the afternoon of 8 July 1892, a small fire broke out in a St. John’s stable after a lit pipe or match fell into a bundle of hay. Although containable at first, the flames quickly spread due to dry weather conditions, a disorganized fire department, and poor planning on the part of city officials. Within hours, the fire had destroyed almost all of St. John’s, leaving 11,000 people homeless and causing $13 million in property damage.

St. John's after the fire, ca. July-August, 1892. St. John's after the fire, 1892
View of St. John's from Duckworth Street east following the Great Fire of 1892.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 05.01.005), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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With its capital city and commercial centre in ruins, all of Newfoundland and Labrador experienced a sudden economic downturn. Rebuilding efforts dominated the months following the fire, and cost the government more than $300,000. A local Relief Committee distributed clothes, food, and other goods among the homeless, while a large influx of foreign aid also helped the city recover its losses. The fire prompted government officials to restructure the city’s fire departments and to provide firefighters with better training and equipment.

Fire Breaks Out

At about 5 p.m. on Friday, 8 July 1892, word reached the St. John’s Central Fire Hall that a stable at the top of Carter’s Hill was on fire. The property belonged to Timothy Brine and was close to the corner of Freshwater and Pennywell Roads – an elevated location near the city’s centre. Firefighters arrived at the scene 15 minutes later, but were helpless to contain the blaze because of a water shortage. Although a 113,650-litre water tank was located just metres from the stable, it was almost empty because firefighters had forgotten to refill it after a recent practice drill.

Ruins after the Great Fire, 1892
Some unidentified St. John's buildings destroyed in the fire.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 05.01.008), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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Ruins after the Great Fire, ca. July-August 1892.

Hydrants were also useless because of low water pressure. Earlier that morning, Municipal Council Chairman Thomas Mitchell ordered the city’s water supply shut off to lay down new pipes; he did not inform other councilors of his decision, nor did he consult a city engineer. Although workers had turned the supply back on at three o’clock, the water pressure was not strong enough by five o’clock to force water up to the city’s more elevated regions, including the one where the fire began.

Hot dry weather conditions and strong winds further compounded the situation. For about a month leading up to the fire, St. John’s had received no rain, but had experienced high temperatures. Several forest fires had broken out in the surrounding country and the city’s many wooden houses had grown dangerously dry. A strong wind was also blowing on July 8, which fanned the fire and carried sparks and burning debris from one rooftop to another. Unfortunately, firefighters had neglected to bring their hatchets, and could not tear down any buildings in the area to make a firebreak.

Fire Advances

From Brine’s farm, the fire swept down Carter’s Hill and along Freshwater Road until it divided in two at the intersection of Harvey Road and Long’s Hill. Its rapid progress alarmed city residents, and by six o’clock many began storing their valuables in the Anglican Cathedral, Gower Street Methodist Church, and other stone or brick buildings they believed could withstand the flames. As the fire made its way downtown, however, it also gutted many of these structures; the Anglican Cathedral suffered so much damage that it took workers more than 10 years to complete its restoration.

Ruins of the Anglican Cathedral, 1892. Ruins of the Anglican Cathedral, 1892
The Anglican Cathedral suffered so much damage it took workers more than 10 years to complete its restoration.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 05.01.001), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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By eight o’clock, the fire had reached the core of the city’s downtown, where it caused much panic and disorder. Looters ransacked many of the shops and businesses lining Water and Duckworth Streets, while residents in the buildings’ upper levels ran from their homes with as many belongings as they could carry. Vessels in the harbour, meanwhile, sailed out of reach of the advancing flames which quickly destroyed all of the wharves and their contents.

Water Street stores in ruins, 1892
Damaged buildings on the south side of Water Street.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 05.01.011), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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Water Street stores in ruins, 1892.

The fire burned into the night and did not end until about 5:30 the following morning. Many people camped out in Bannerman Park or on property surrounding the Roman Catholic Cathedral, which was one of the few buildings the fire did not destroy. As the sun rose on 9 July, more than two-thirds of St. John’s lay in ruins and 11,000 people were homeless; many had lost everything they owned, except the clothes they were wearing. In just 12 hours, the fire had killed three people and caused $13 million in property damage – only $4.8 million of which was insured.

Relief Efforts and Government Response

The Newfoundland and Labrador government swiftly acted to help fire victims recover from their losses. Workers built temporary accommodations at Bannerman Park, the Railway Depot, Quidi Vidi Lake, and other suitable spaces. Chief Justice Frederick Carter also organized a Fire Relief Committee on 11 July to coordinate disaster response. Alongside distributing food, clothes, and other goods, the committee helped find employment or provide training for those left jobless following the fire. It opened a “school of industry” for unemployed women to teach them spinning or knitting, and also covered travel costs for many women wishing to work in Canada or the United States. Construction workers who lost their tools in the fire could also apply to the committee for new ones.

Sizeable donations also poured in from Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. Newfoundland and Labrador Governor T.N. O’Brien was vacationing in England at the time of the fire and managed to raise $113,705 in public donations; the British government also gave $72,000. A group of Newfoundland expatriates living in Boston, Massachusetts launched a successful fundraising campaign there, which earned the Fire Relief Committee an additional $16,000. The first foreign country to send aid, however, was Canada. On Saturday July 9, the HMS Blake departed Halifax for St. John’s with a large cargo of tents, food, and other provisions. In the coming days and weeks, the country shipped more supplies to the island and also donated $20,000.

By the end of August, the Newfoundland and Labrador government and the St. John’s Municipal Council had agreed on a rebuilding scheme for the city. Government officials ordered workers to widen and straighten many downtown streets, but decided against restructuring the city on a grid pattern – such an undertaking would require a significant amount of time and money. By the end of 1895, building costs had totaled $370,786.

Downtown St. John's after the fire, 8 August 1892 Downtown St. John's, 8 August 1892
The city's downtown and harbour looking west from Temperance Street a month after the Great Fire.
Photographer: S.H. Parsons. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 05.01.007), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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The fire also prompted government officials to reorganize the city’s fire departments. Before the disaster, only volunteer fire brigades operated in St. John’s; by the end of 1895, the Newfoundland and Labrador government had hired 22 paid firefighters and established three new stations throughout the city. It also created a mixed fire and police force, which it placed under the control of the Newfoundland Constabulary’s Inspector-General. This was partly in response to recommendations from Judge D.W. Prowse, who government officials had asked to investigate the fire. In his 1892 report, Prowse stated that the Municipal Council had severely mismanaged the fire department and suggested that it be placed under new leadership. “If this department is ever left again in the same hands,” wrote Prowse, “all I can say is that we deserve to be burnt.”

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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