Great Fire of 1892

The Great Fire in St. John's on July 8, 1892, is remembered as the worst disaster ever to befall the city. The following brief essay on the conflagration is taken extensively from a booklet written by W. J. Kent in 1892 and an excerpt from another eyewitness to the disaster, Rev. Moses Harvey, as published in the internet version of the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador.

At approximately five o'clock in the afternoon on the July 8, 1892, a dropped pipe in Timothy Brine's stable at Freshwater Road at the top of Carter's Hill began what would become the worst fire in St. John's history. Initially the fire did not cause any widespread panic, however a series of catastrophic coincidences caused the fire to spread and devour virtually all of the east end of the city, including much of its major commercial area before being extinguished.

Rev Moses Harvey witnessed the initial stages of the fire and remarked to his friend that it "was a bad day for a fire. A high wind from the north-west was blowing, hurling the sparks far and wide on the roofs of the clusters of wooden houses. For a month previous hardly any rain had fallen, and the shingled roofs were like tinder." The situation was exacerbated because of work completed earlier in the day on the water mains. Although water flow was re-established by 3 p.m., two hours before the fire began, water pressure was insufficient to force water up into the higher sections of the city where the fire began. W. J Kent remarked that the "flames therefore made headway before water was procurable, and as a very high westerly wind was furiously fanning the fire it began to spread rapidly."

An hour into the blaze the people of St. John's realised that the fire could not be contained in the area of Brine's farm. Because locals believed stone walls would withstand the flames, residents moved valuables into numerous stone buildings in the city. One of the most common refuge areas was the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The nave and transepts of the church were filled with valuable property belonging to numerous families including that of the Anglican bishop of the day, Lleweyn Jones. Unfortunately the cathedral also fell victim to the ravenous fire. Kent described the burning of the cathedral as follows:

with one fearful rush the demonic fire seized upon the doomed cathedral, and sooner than tongue could tell the immense edifice, a gem of Gothic architecture, the masterpiece of Sir Gilbert Scott and the pride of every Newfoundlander, was a seething mass of flame. With a crash, heard even above the din of the elements the roof fell in, and the result of the labours and offerings of thousands for many years vanished in a cloud of smoke and dust.

The fire was far from finished; the wind caused offshoots of the main fire to consume new sections of the city while the main fire continued its destructive trek towards the city's commercial centre, Water Street. The businesses that lined Water Street and Duckworth Street were destroyed as the fire spread throughout the downtown area. Rev. Harvey stated

The beautiful shops, full of valuable goods; the stores behind, containing thousands of barrels of flour and provisions of all kinds; the fish stores; the wharves, which it had cost immense sums to erect, - disappeared one by one into the maw of the destroyer the whole of Water Street, on both sides, was `swept with the besom of destruction.'

The fire continued to burn into the night and the early hours of the next morning. Rev. Harvey's description of the restless night stated that "the terror-stricken inhabitants flying before the destroyer, the cries of weeping women hurrying with their children to places of safety -- all constituted a scene which not even the pen of Dante could describe." Similarly, Kent said of that night,

All the arteries which led from the water to the higher portions of the town were crowded with the terrorised mob and the screams and cries of the women mingled with the wailing of children, the shouts intensified by the ever-freshening masses of livid fire and the glare of the burning buildings, contributed to make a scene the like of which it is not often given to the lot of many to witness. Few there were who closed their eyes that night.

Daybreak on the morning of July 9, 1892 revealed the full extent of the fire's devastation. Kent described the sight of local residents viewing the desolation.

When morning broke the thick clouds of smoke still ascended from the burning ruins, and it was hours before it had cleared sufficiently to admit a view of the track of the desolating scourge. A walk through the deserted streets demonstrated that the ruin was even more complete than seemed possible at first. Of the whole easterly section, scarcely a building remained of the costly and imposing structures and public buildings which were the pride and glory of the people, scarcely a vestige remained; and St. John's lay in the morning as a city despoiled of her beauty, her choicest ornaments,presenting a picture of utter desolation and woe.

Rev. Harvey presents a similar description of the devastation and plight of the victims of the fire.

The next morning I took a walk around the awful scene of devastation. It was heart rendering. Nothing visible for a mile from Devon Row but chimneys and fallen and tottering walls. The thick smoke, from the smouldering ruins still filled the air The wrecks of the fanes of religion stood out, then [sic] broken walls pointing heavenward, as if in mournful protest against the desecration that had been wrought.

And the poor inhabitants, where were they? 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. They filled the park and grounds around the city. Many hundreds escaped with nothing but the clothes they wore. At least twelve thousand people were burnt out.

Less than $5,000,000 of the total estimated losses of $13,000,000 were covered by insurance. A large influx of financial aid from Great Britain, Canada and the United States helped the city recover from its devastating losses.

It is from this reconstruction era that many of the present day registered heritage structures were either built or re-built. The most prominent architect of the reconstruction era in St. John's was John Thomas Southcott. He designed numerous Second Empire styled buildings that had distinctive mansard roofs with bonnet-topped dormers protruding from the concave-curved roof surface. Southcott's prolific works were evidenced by the development of the term the "Southcott style" which became associated with the architecture in the re-built city. Each year in Southcott's honour the Newfoundland Historic Trust presents the Southcott Award for excellence in the restoration of heritage structures.

Registered Heritage Structures Table of Contents