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The most famous fire in the history of St. John's is undoubtedly the Great Fire of July 8, 1892, but there have been several other fires that did massive amounts of damage. The fire that took place in 1846 was one of those, and it was even more distressing because of subsequent events that compounded the suffering and brought additional loss of life. The 1846 fire occurred on June 9, and began in the George Street premises of a cabinet-maker named Hamlin. A pot of glue was left unattended on the stove. It ignited, and the building caught on fire. The flames soon spread to nearby establishments, and within an hour buildings on Water Street and Duckworth Street were ablaze.
As the fire consumed the warehouses that lined the waterfront, the heat caused huge vats of oil to explode, which in turn fed the flames. A fierce gale whipped the flames into great walls of fire so hot they prevented firemen from getting close enough to use water as a deterrent.
The military garrison, then in residence in the town, attempted to create a firebreak by blowing up a house in the path of the flames, but that added more fuel to the fire when pieces of the burning house went flying through the air and landed on buildings not yet ablaze. A soldier was killed in the process - the first casualty, but not the only one.
A second man was burned to death. He was a prisoner at the jail in the lower level of the Court House. In the confusion it was forgotten that he was there, and when the fire engulfed the courthouse he succumbed.
Other buildings destroyed in the onslaught included the Church of England cathedral, the customs house, the Presentation Sisters convent, the Bank of British North America, the Orphan Asylum school, the Roman Catholic chapel and the colonial treasury. The money had been removed before the fire reached the treasury, however, and was safely stored at Government House, considerably outside the fire's northern limit.
All public and mercantile establishments in the downtown core were burned, together with hundreds of houses stretching from Riverhead in the west end to Magotty Cove in the east.
The newspaper The Newfoundlander reported on June 18 that at Magotty Cove "the fire died out from the utterness of exhaustion, having nothing left to sustain it, and having laid the entire way for more than a mile in extent a barren waste.
" The property loss was tallied at almost $400,000. The downtown core was left a blackened waste. Luckily it was summer, and rebuilding began immediately.
As if the fire were not destruction enough for one season, on Sept. 19 the southeastern corner of the island was hit by a severe gale, the worst on record for 30 years.
In St. John's several buildings that had been outside the perimeter of the fire received the brunt of the wind. The Native Society Hall, near Bannerman Park, was toppled by the gale. Ironically, the hall was serving as a temporary home for a number of people who had been burned out by the fire. A 20-year-old girl and her five-year-old brother were killed by falling timber, and three other people were injured.
St. Thomas's Church of England church felt the wrath of the wind. The 10-year-old building was shifted off its foundation, which resulted in buttresses being added to both sides in 1851 to re-enforce the structure.
Two of the town's major bridges were affected. Job's Bridge, across the Waterford River at the western end of the harbour, received structural damage, but the King's Bridge, over Rennie's River in the eastern end of town, was completely washed away.
Many of the houses being built for the victims of the fire were blown down by the strong winds, while the tide in the harbour was so high that it flooded several of the newly constructed houses along the waterfront.
The damage caused by the September gale was not restricted to St. John's.
The Shamrock was lost in St. Mary's Bay, with all hands - Captain Patrick Murray and four crewmen. Joseph Kane and all his crew were lost at Cape Ballard. Eleven boats and 46 men were lost out of Burin.
The Native Lass, belonging to Richard Howley of St. John's, was lost at sea, while the Lavinia, belonging to a man named Hounsell, was destroyed at Pouch Cove with 3,000 quintals of fish on board, ready for foreign markets.
On top of all this destruction and loss of life came news that much of the island's potato crop had been infected with a blight and that the cod fishery, for the most part, was a failure.
Yet the citizens of St. John's and the outharbours would prevail. They constructed new buildings and new vessels, planted new crops and went fishing again.
They survived the winter and entered the new year ready to face any challenge it might bring.
Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...
This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (September 2000)
REVISED:29 May 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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