Rebuilding St. John's: Reconstruction after the 1892 Fire
On July 8, 1892, a large portion of downtown St. John's, NL, was destroyed by fire. This was the third 19th century fire to gut the city, the others occurring in 1816-1817 and 1846. The 1892 “Great Fire” was economically and socially devastating. Two thousand houses were destroyed and about 11,000 of the city's 30,000 people made homeless. Overall, property worth at least $13,000,000 went up in flames, only about one-third of which was insured. Even so, St. John's recovered quickly.
City Structure in 1892
Compared to today, St. John's in 1892 was very compact. The city was primarily a port whose economy depended on the harbour, and most people worked in offices, warehouses, factories, and wharves located near the water. People lived within walking distance of their workplaces, and within reach of shops and services. The town was therefore mostly confined to the area surrounding the harbour, between the Battery in the east, Riverhead (where the Waterford River enters the harbour) in the west, and Military Road in the north, although some larger merchants' homes were built as far north as Circular Road. The city consisted of narrow streets, row houses, and attached businesses, most of the latter concentrated on Water and Duckworth streets. The surrounding land, today comprising most of the city's area, was farmland, with summer homes and large private estates. Businesses were established around both sides of the harbour to take advantage of valuable waterside space. Many of the north side businesses were destroyed in the fire, which completely burned the area from the corner of Freshwater and Cookstown Roads (where the fire started), down Cookstown Road, Carter's Hill and Beck's Cove to the harbour, and then east along the harbourfront between Water Street in the south and Harvey and Military Roads in the north, as far east as the Devon Row.
In the immediate aftermath, the most pressing need was to feed and shelter the homeless. A relief committee was appointed by the colonial government (not the Municipal Council), officially by Chief Justice Frederic Carter, who was serving as Administrator in the absence of Governor O'Brien, who was in England. The Committee handled the donations which quickly began arriving from Great Britain, the U.S., and Canada, which came in the form of cash (eventually totaling $364,000) as well as food, clothing, and building materials. Although many of the burned-out families were able to move in with friends and relatives, the Committee erected temporary buildings at Bannerman Park, including cookhouses and a hospital, and built other temporary structures near the railway terminal. The Royal Navy supplied 87 tents which were pitched at Quidi Vidi Lake, and some families were housed in an empty warehouse. In total, about 1,900 people were provided with temporary shelter. Most families were able to find new accommodations in the city by December 1892, but the Relief Committee built 98 temporary houses for those who could not.
That the city was able to rehouse its citizens so quickly was largely due to the donations received. Donations included nails, shingles, felt, glass and lumber. The Relief Committee also purchased over 6,000,000 board feet of lumber, most of which was used to build new houses. About 400 were under construction by September, and over the next year the Committee provided supplies for 1,037 new houses containing 1,540 tenements, on condition that the owners would house some of the homeless for one year. Although the fire risks of wood construction were clear, the pressing need to build new houses before winter set in worked against the establishment of new building regulations in residential areas. Using brick and stone would have greatly increased the time and expense involved.
1892 Reconstruction Act
The same was not true of the commercial areas of Water and Duckworth streets. Legislation passed after the 1846 fire required buildings on Water St. to be built of stone or brick with slate roofs, and provided for fire breaks. An emergency session of the legislature immediately after the 1892 fire passed a Reconstruction Act, which included laws that all buildings on the south sides of Duckworth and George streets were also to be built of stone or brick. West of the end of George St., all buildings within 200 feet of Water St. were to be of fire resistant material as well, creating a wide stretch of stone and brick construction the entire length of the north side of the harbour. Firebreaks at King's Bridge Road, Hill O'Chips, King's Beach, Prescott St., Codner's Cove, McBride's Cove, Beck's Cove, Queen St., Stuart and Rennie's Cove, Flower Hill, Gas Works (Patrick St.), and Church Hill were created and/or reinforced.
Despite the haste, street layouts were somewhat improved. The Municipal Council straightened Duckworth St., extended Darling St. to become part of Bond St., and lengthened George St. to serve as a fire break. Portions of Water St., which no longer followed the shoreline as wharf and warehouse construction had infilled the harbour, were widened and straightened as well, so that the ruins of the Customs House at King's Beach are now located beneath the War Memorial and the section of Water St. in front of it.
Several other streets were widened, straightened, or otherwise realigned, but the Government rejected any large scale redesign of the city on a grid plan. Premier (as the Prime Minister was usually called at the time) William Whiteway argued that “perfectly straight streets running parallel and at right angles to each other were not the most beautiful” and that curved streets gave “a greater means of shelter to pedestrians on a stormy day.” There was also a problem with absentee landlords, who owned large amounts of property in St. John's but lived abroad, often in England. They had often inherited their property and rarely (if ever) visited Newfoundland. This made significant changes impossible.
The St. John's Municipal Council had been created in 1888, but it did not have a great deal of power. Friction between the Council and the colonial government soon arose after the fire. In effect, the Government took over responsibility for rebuilding the city, creating and enforcing fire regulations, and sorting out land ownership and compensation problems. Even so, the Government charged the $370,000 it spent on rebuilding between 1892 and 1895 to the Council's debt, which was not forgiven until 1937.
The Council retained responsibility for parks, and for water and sewer services, though the Government did install some new water works without Council's approval. Shortly before the fire, the Council had built a new interceptor sewer beneath Water St. to replace the sewer outfalls, most of them covered streams, that emptied into the harbour (parts of the egg-shaped brick sewer were uncovered during the 2006-2009 construction of the new harbour interceptor sewer*). The Reconstruction Act made it illegal to build new houses without sewer connections. Water services were restored relatively quickly.
The 1892 fire also hastened the transition from gas to electric lighting. Much of the St. John's Gas Light Company's infrastructure in the east end was destroyed. Although the gas works in the west end survived the fire, the destruction of half the town cost the company 60 percent of its business. The St. John's Electric Light Company's generating plant on Flavin's Lane was destroyed, but it was quickly rebuilt at the intersection of Bond and Flavin streets and operational by September 1892. Electricity was available in the burnt area by November. Gas customers, however, had to wait for the streets to be cleared of rubble and new gas mains to be laid, which in some areas took nearly two years. Thus many customers switched to electricity, which soon became the primary light source for buildings and streets. The Gas Company therefore focused on selling gas appliances and fuel for cooking, heating and industry, and operated into the 1960s.
Much of the architecture in the downtown core dates from the immediate post-fire period. The influence of the Gothic Revival style is evident in buildings like the rebuilt Church of England cathedral and St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church (The Kirk) on Long's Hill. The “Southcott style”, brought to Newfoundland by the contracting firm J. & J. T. Southcott in the 1870s, is especially important in post-fire construction. It is characterized by mansard roofs, hooded dormer windows and ground floor bay windows. The Queen Anne and Second Empire styles, also common in houses from the period, have similar design elements, but many houses were simply designed with flat roofs and bracketed eaves.
An interesting comparison can be made at the intersection of Beck's Cove. and Water St., which marks the western boundary of the 1892 fire. Buildings west of the intersection have saddle (steeply angled) roofs and stone walls containing chimneys, typical of pre-fire construction. Those east of the intersection, along Water St., tend to have flat roofs, which were cheaper and easier to construct and common in the post-fire buildings.
Rebuilding was largely complete by 1895, and the city generally retained its land use patterns, with commercial buildings concentrated around the harbour and residential areas climbing the hill. Reconstruction after the 1892 fire did create some changes, however. The western portion of the city survived, but rebuilding the eastern half introduced new architectural styles and accelerated the installation of sewerage and electricity. There was also a shift in concentration of commercial and residential properties, as businesses, anxious to reopen, relocated to the west end.
According to census data, the east end contained just under 50 percent of the city's “mercantile premises” in 1891, but only about 20 percent of “commercial premises” in 1901. Some streets, acting as firebreaks, were wider and straighter. There was more brick and stone construction, although wood was still the dominant building material. By the late nineteenth century the population of St. John's was rapidly increasing as people were drawn away from the fishery to work for the railway or in city offices and factories. The rapid rebuilding of St. John's demonstrates the city's importance, and that increasing urbanization was already underway when the Great Fire razed half the town.
*A talk delivered by Gerald Penney and Associates, who were responsible for the archaeological interpretation of the interceptor project, is available online through the City of St. John's website, and contains photos and information about the archaeological finds uncovered. You can find the site at:
https://www.stjohns.ca/sites/default/files/files/publication/Under the Streets of St. John's 2010.pdf