July 8, 1892
Late in the afternoon of 8 July 1892, a small fire broke out in a St. John’s stable on Freshwater Road 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. Within hours, the fire had destroyed almost all of St. John’s.
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 (now Basilica), 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 12,000 people were homeless; many had lost everything they owned, except the clothes they were wearing.
One of the accounts written about the fire was penned by W.J. Kent who wrote:
“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.”
Four persons were burned to death. The devastation that struck the city was recorded by one of the priests on staff at the R.C. Cathedral (the Basilica) who wrote on Sunday July 10, 1892”
“There was no publications today in consequence of the great calamity that has happened in our city on Friday evening and night, when the best part of St. John’s east was entirely destroyed by fire which caused such a panic that everyone is excited and frightened and nearly 12, 000 persons are left homeless, over 2000 houses were burned besides stores, wharfs…”
At the Last Mass, Father Scott preached a very touching sermon about the fire and those who were its sufferers from its effects. Four persons were burned to death, namely:
Mrs. Catherine Stevens }lived on Meeting House Hill
Her daughter Louisa Stevens
And the servant girl – name not known
Also Miss Catherine Molloy, Bulley’s Lane, and elderly girl not married
Rev. Moses Harvey at St. Andrews Free Presbyterian Church on the day following the fire walked about the city, he 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-rending. 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… .”
Recommended Reading: St. John’s, City of Fire, by Paul Butler, Flanker Press, St. John’s. 2007.
Recommended on line account: The St. John’s Fire of July 8, 1892: The Politics of Rebuilding, 1892-1893 by Melvin Baker (c)1984. Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXIX, no. 4 (Winter 1984), pp. 23-30. http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~melbaker/1892fire.htm
Recommended Archival Collection: Take some time at the Archives Division of the Rooms to look at MG 596 this item consists of map showing area of city affected by the 1892 fire. A number of photos of the Great Fire of 1892 that document the extent and devastation of the fire are also held in the photograph collection of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division.