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Burning of St. John’s. N.F.,
July 8th, 1892
The great fire of July 8th, 1892, which laid waste the whole of the eastern portion of the city of St. John’s and by which over $20,000,000 worth of property was destroyed, 12,000 people rendered homeless and several lives lost, will long be remembered, and will mark an important period in the history of Newfoundland. Just before 5 o’clock, on the afternoon of Friday July the 8th, an alarm of fire was sounded, and the firemen, hurrying to the scene of the outburst, found the flames proceeding from the stable of Mr. T. Brien, at the head of Carter’s hill, on the Freshwater-road. Unfortunately, the water-pipes were being cleaned that day, and though the water was turned on again at 3 o’clock, it had not reached the higher levels of the city when the fire started. 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. The locality was a most densely populated one, containing a large number of residences of the laboring classes, and masses of glowing wood blown hither and thither by the wind, set ablaze a number of houses within an area of two hundred yards. By 6 o’clock an idea of the magnitude of the outbreak had spread through the city and a large crowd gradually assembled to aid in the saving of property which was becoming endangered, and to remove into places of safety the furniture of the houses in close proximity. While it was seen that the fire was of more serious character than usual, no fears were entertained, even at this time, for the safety of the city generally, and it was believed the stone buildings of the main streets would withstand the fury of the flames, so beyond assisting in the immediate neighborhood, no thought was given to the great portion of the town. The Church of England Cathedral, and Gower-street Methodist Church were made the receptacles of large quantities of valuable property, and, the most cherished possessions of these around were piled in these places of fancied security. About 6.30 two wings of flame were steadily descending the hill, the western one burning in a direct line down Carter’s-hill to the water’s edge, while the eastern swept diagonally through Long’s-hill, swallowing everything in its way. The Methodist College was situated on the east side of this hill and stood pre-eminent among the public buildings of the city. It included a magnificent hall, furnished with a splendid and most valuable organ, the gift of the late lamented Hon. C.R. Ayre. The College was one of the most thoroughly equipped educational establishments in the country and was an object of much pride to the denomination. Soon a thin column of smoke was seen arising from the tower, and within a short time the whole place was ablaze. The flames quickly spread to the primary school and Methodist boarding-house near, and to the magnificent Masonic Temple which crowned a rising eminence within a few yards. This hall was erected only a few years ago at a cost or $40,000, and was a noble evidence of the generosity of the Fraternity in Newfoundland. A very short time sufficed to number these edifices with the things of the past, and after wiping away the Presbyterian Manse, the fire raged furiously down the hill and quickly fastened on Gower-street Methodist Church. Within a very short time this building was a ruin, and the Parsonage was also in flames, together with the Orange Hall, immediately opposite. But a few yards off stood the Rectory of the Church of England Cathedral, the residence of Bishop Jones, and directly fronting it was the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist itself. Stretching forth its horrible tongues the fire quickly turned the Rectory and the Girl’s Orphanage adjoining into a flaming mass, and with one fearful rush the demon of 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 labors and offerings of generous thousands for many years vanished in a cloud of smoke and dust. Having worked its will upon the Cathedral, the fire now rushed to the group of buildings congregated together at the foot of Church hill, and soon St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the Athenaeum and the Court-House were throwing masses of fire into the sky, though the Union Bank bravely withstood the assaults of the enemy. The Presbyterian Church was valued at $30,000; the Athenaeum, which contained a most beautiful hall, a library of 5,000 volumes, the Surveyor General’s, Government Engineer, Superintendent of Fisheries’ Departments and the Savings’ Bank, at $59,000; and the Court-house at $80,000. The Commercial Bank, not far distant, succumbed a few minutes later, and the Telegraph offices had been consumed long before, the operators having to fly from their keys. Communication was thus cut off with the outside world. Consternation now seized the populace; they saw with terror that the stone edifices were no more able to resist the attacks of the fire than the flimsiest wooden structures, and those whose houses were endangered fled, panic-stricken and breathless, beyond the reach of the conflagration, with that which was most valuable of their possessions. The western section of the fire eat [sic] its way swiftly and surely down to Water-street, throwing out, as it swept along, offshoots which seized upon and consumed the Star of the Sea and Total Abstinence Halls, Tasker Terrace and numerous other substantial buildings within that area. The height of all the above-named important buildings placed them in the direct power of the gale, and burning masses of fire were blown incredible distances, to drop in unexpected places, and render frantic the already bewildered people. Thus many places on Duckworth and Water streets were ablaze before the intervening sections caught, and Saint George’s Barracks, on Signal-hill, about two miles from the outbreak, was burnt before the Court-house. All along Water, Duckworth and Gower-streets the residents were deluging the roofs of their houses with water, in the delusive hope of staying the flames, while their wives and families got together at the street sides their portable possessions. All efforts were of no avail. William Campbell’s builders’ supply store caught fire early in the evening. It was a wooden building erected as a shed after the great fire of ’46, and, being filled with inflammable materials — paints, oils, tar, &c., — did not stand above a few minutes. One after another the houses and stores on Water-street took fire from the burning brands which were flying through the air. Before nine o’clock the walls of James Baird’s liquor and grocery store tumbled in and just after, the extensive warehouses of George Knowling were seized by the devouring flames. The first part of this premises to take fire was a warehouse at the rear, which Mr. Knowling was having enlarged to meet the growing requirements of his trade. Carpenters had been working there that day and had left their tools in the building, little thinking, that when they returned in the morning, the whole place would be a smoking ruin. The flames spread rapidly from the burning warehouses to the dry goods store fronting on Water-street when it was seen that the whole premises were doomed. Costly silks, and satins were regarded no more than the cheapest cottons, and people rushed to take freely what they pleased. The stock destroyed on this premises alone amounted to over $160,000. Quicker and quicker the flames advanced gaining strength and power with every foot; the solid masses of flame, sweeping piteously through the streets, soon formed an impassable barrier. With the strength of desperation the unfortunate people fought till the last moment, and it was only by the sacrifice of their burdens that many of them were saved, while the crash of falling chimneys and walls was as the sound of a mighty bombardment.
Like the line of march of a retreating army the thorough-fares were filled with goods, abandoned because of impossibility of conveyance, and fabulous sums were offered for carts and vehicles. All the arteries which led from the water to the higher portions of the town were crowded with the terrorized mob, and the screams and cries of the women mingled, with the wailing of children, the shouts of men and the trampling of animals, the whole being intensified by the ever-freshening mass 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. When the magnificent warehouses, stores and shops of Water-street were within the power of the fire, the flames fed by the accumulated contents, consisting in many instances of most inflammable materials, such as kerosene oil, butter, lard, gunpowder, and alcohol mounted to immense heights, and the whole horizon was one mass of lurid light surmounted by a thick pall of heavy smoke. About 10 o’clock the fire worked up Garrison-hill, and along Queen’s-road, where the Congregational Church was situated, and, although a wide street intervened, it was also doomed, and its bare walls alone stand in position today. In a spacious plot of ground, bounded by four wide streets, stood, just under the Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Hall, perhaps the most spacious and imposing public hall in the city, constructed of free stone and heavy stone from local quarries covered with cement. This building contained a large hall, four elegant school rooms occupied by the Christian Brothers, giving accommodation to 400 children, and a basement just being prepared as a billiard-room. It was thought that its isolated situation would save it, and every preparation had been made for its safety. A length of hose had been laid along the roof, and the Brothers, who worked heroically thereon, directed all their efforts to the protection of its western front, as the fire worked its way up Garrison-Hill. For over an hour the unequal fight continued, and at last a small patch of fire stuck under the overhanging wooden cornice of a roof window, and the water being unable to reach it, the flames quickly effected an entrance to the building. Its complete demolition was thenceforth a matter of time, and within an hour it was a total ruin. The safety of the Mercy Convent and with it Gorgestown [sic], Monkstown and the whole collection of magnificent structures which compose the headquarters of the Roman Catholic denomination, was threatened, but after a brave fight, the danger was overcome. A few yards lower down a collection of buildings on Rawlin’s Cross, also jeopardised the above flourishing suburbs, where numbers of those who had been previously burned out had taken refuge, and, as the flames gradually increased, in consequence of the burning of a large liquor store at the Cross, the feelings of the multitude may be better imagined than expressed. With the assistance of many volunteers, the firemen and police succeeded, after a severe exertion, in successfully combating the flaming elements. The flames which threatened this point had not come directly along Military-road, but had crossed Prescott-street lower down, and had then eaten their way up the hill to that portion of Military-road which lay between the bend of Prescott-street and King’s-road. A gallant fight had forced the flames to pass the Terra Nova Bakery and the Electric Light Works, and it was for a considerable time hoped they would be saved. But the tanks of water at hand were soon exhausted, and the water in the pipes was turned off to be used upon another locality, and soon it was seen that the long and gallant struggle had been all in vain. Both buildings were engulfed in the flames, their contents were entirely destroyed, and the city, save for the glare of burning stocks of coal, has been in darkness ever since. Another severe struggle took place at the head of King’s-road, where the security of a portion of Military-road depended on saving the Drill-shed, and already over-taxed energies were expended in fighting the flames. At the same time another corps was busily engaged at the western extremity of the conflagration, preventing it extending its ravages into the west-end of the town. Dougherty’s foundry, and several dwellings at the foot of Theatre-hill were torn down to make a firebreak, while at O’Dwyer’s cove an eventually successful struggle nearly resulted in the loss of one or two lives. All the shipping at the wharves had to make for the stream, and there anchor, out of reach of the flames, and all the wharves, in many instances with valuable contents, were destroyed. The coal hulk of the Coastal S.S. Co., moored near Chain-tuck, took fire early in the night. The steamer “Sharp-shooter,” belonging to Messrs. Harvey & Co., and a large vessel lying at John Woods & Sons’ wharf, were burning at the same time. All through the long night the crowds continued passing and repassing — those who had friends gladly availing themselves of the welcome shelter of their houses, while those who had no better places, settled themselves with their belongings in Bannerman Park, the R.C. Cathedral grounds and even by the road sides waiting for day to break. Few there were who closed their eyes that night — the homeless, too heartsick and too weary to seek relief in slumber, while those more fortunate found themselves burdened with relatives and friends, or gave way to the natural excitement engendered by such an occasion, and wandered aimlessly from place to place fascinated by a scene at once magnificent and awe-inspiring.
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 of 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. In the extreme north-east a small section of Hoylestown was standing, protected by massive Devon Row, but the remainder of St. John’s east had vanished. Of the immense shops and stores which displayed, such varied merchandise and valuable stocks gathered from all parts of the known world; of the happy homes, of artisans and middle classes, where contentment and prosperity went hand in hand; of the comfortable houses where laboring classes sought rest and refreshment; and of the costly and imposing structures and public buildings which were the pride and glory of the people, scarcely a vestage [sic] remained; and St. John’s lay in the morning sun as a city despoiled of her beauty, her choicest ornaments, presenting a picture of utter desolation and woe.
Since the fire, temporary shelters have been erected in Bannerman Park and other public places, and substantial provisions provided. From the Dominion of Canada, the United States and from Great Britain generous donations of food, clothing, lumber and money have been received, and arrangements for the relief of the people are being fully carried out. The total number of individuals burnt out, as far as can be ascertained, is 12,400, of which 2,700 are sheltered in Bannerman Park, 65 in the Drill Shed, 190 at the Railway Station, 154 camped near Quidividi lake, and the balance in private dwellings and school-houses in the end, Monkstown, Hoylestown and the suburbs.
FIRST TO RESUME
Among the first to resume business after the great fire was George Knowling, whose establishment destroyed was one off the largest in the city. With his usual enterprise he leased the premises lately occupied by J.J. & L Furlong, and next the store of C.F. Bennett & Co. This place he stocked with dry goods and groceries by the first incoming steamer, and it is now crowded with customers daily, though carpenters are still engaged in putting up places to stow away the large shipments of goods which continue to arrive.
During the time Mr. Knowling has been in business he has experienced much opposition to his endeavors to supply goods to the working classes at small profits. About two years ago, when several business people failed, and Mr. Knowling sustained losses to the extent of six or eight thousand dollars, efforts were made to injure his credit and a report was spread that he would be ruined. This was not done here alone, but in the foreign markets as well, and immediately after the fire similar malicious reports were set going. Judging, however, from present appearances it will not be long before Mr. Knowling will be carrying on as extensively as ever. The whole of his employees, sixty in number, have been retained in his service and these at the present moment are having a pretty brisk time; for so great a reputation has Mr. Knowling for “good quality and fair prices” that trade would follow him anywhere. In front of the building from Water-street, is the dry goods store, to the rear of this, the grocery store; upstairs, he has a millinary and dress-making department and the offices, in which a number of clerks attend to the direction of the general business. Further down town, at 366 Water-street, in the shop formerly occupied by J.L. Duchimen, pump and block maker, and over which the “golden eagle” once spread its wings, Mr. Knowling is fitting up his hardware store, which will be ready in a short time. His provision stores are at Browning’s premises, where he has also obtained wharf accommodations for his customers.
Transcribed by Norma Elliott (December 2003)
Page Revised: December 2003 (Don Tate)
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