170 years ago today, Great Fredericton Fire left 2,000 people homeless

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Today marks the anniversary of a disaster that wiped out three city blocks and left thousands of people homeless in the province's capital city.

The Great Fredericton Fire started on Nov. 11, 1850, in the area of modern-day Carleton Street downtown.

One of Fredericton's newspapers at the time, the Head Quarters, reported that the fire broke out at about two o'clock — historians are unclear if it happened in the a.m. or p.m. — in the rear of a Carleton Street doctor's office.

Cameron Montford, an intern at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick who has researched the fire, said the blaze destroyed a significant portion of the city.

"It did spread eventually to cover three entire blocks right in the city centre," said Montford.

"The area was from Carlton Street to St. John Street, as well as from Queen Street to Brunswick Street. After the fire, there were only a few properties that did remain."

According to historical records, the fire appeared to be the result of pure carelessness.

"A spark from a workman's tobacco-pipe had been the agent in the destruction of property spread over many acres," Thomas Watson Smith wrote in a history of Methodist churches published in 1877.

GNB
GNB

The fire quickly spread from the Carleton Street house to the Methodist church, which sat on the site of the current Wilmot United Church.

The fire began at the same time a strong northwesterly wind kicked up, hampering any attempt to stifle the blaze.

"The military, the firemen, and the citizens generally worked as men should work for the preservation of life and property," wrote the Head Quarters.

"Still the flames rushed on consuming nearly three entire blocks in the very centre of the city."

Aftermath

By the time the fire was extinguished it had destroyed 122 residences housing 177 families. Damage was estimated at £30,830, or the equivalent of more than $7.2 million today.

An early estimate by the paper said 2,000 people were left homeless.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

"The number of families requiring immediate aid is eighty-nine, and there can hardly be a doubt that the Government of the country will interfere to protect those who have no means of protecting themselves."

Smith said the loss of the church was especially hard.

"Some of our friends who saw their own uninsured residences in flames without an expression of sorrow, sat down and wept when they heard of the destruction of the beautiful building in which for years they had worshiped," church superintendent William Temple was quoted as saying.

Rivalries and rip-offs

It was not an easy time for Fredericton residents who not only lost their homes but access to many shops and services.

This wasn't helped by some business owners who saw an opportunity to make an extra buck.

"Several of the bakeries, for instance, had been destroyed as a result of the fire," said Montford.

"Some of the bakeries who had not been affected actually took it as an opportunity to raise the price of bread. Now, that may be due to the shortage, but they may have also just taken it as an opportunity as well."

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

In an interesting postscript, it appears the fire reignited a longstanding rivalry between Fredericton and Saint John.

The Head Quarters wrote about a suggestion made in the Saint John newspaper the Saint John Observer that because of the fire, the legislature meet in the port city instead of Fredericton.

Saint John had been the capital of New Brunswick before it was moved inland for strategic reasons.

Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada

The Head Quarters responded that there was enough room to accommodate members of the legislature and reminded the Observer of the help Fredericton offered Saint John after a large fire in that city in 1839.

"There was an element of the rivalry between Saint John and Fredericton there for sure," said Montford.

"But it was also mentioned that a lot of merchants from the Saint John area who did conduct some of their business in Fredericton, did travel to the city to offer their assistance."

Rebuild

Documents from the time show how the city and its residents rebuilt after the blaze.

"There were a lot of people who were concerned as well because the fire had occurred in November with the approaching winter months," said Montford.

"They were fairly concerned whether for lodging as well as, you know, what they were going to do for food and things of that nature as a result of the fire."

The day after the fire, a community meeting was called. It was chaired by Sir Edmund Walker Head, who later was named lieutenant governor of New Brunswick, and included Charles Fisher, who became a father of Confederation.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

A committee was formed to solicit donations to help the people displaced by the fire.

"At the close of the meeting, a subscription list for the relief of the sufferers was opened," said the Head Quarters.

"His Excellency the Lieut. Governor headed the list with £30 [$7,023], four other gentlemen present contributed in the aggregate, £50 [$11,706]."

In the aftermath of t,he fire, Fredericton city council petitioned the lieutenant governor for a loan of £500, the equivalent of $117,077, "to meet the needs of the suffering poor in view of the difficulty of collecting this year's assessments due to the recent fire in the city."

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

After the fire, the Royal Commission on Fredericton Fire Relief was struck to offer loans and assistance to Fredericton residents left destitute by the blaze.

Letters at the provincial archives show how these loans helped rebuild the city but also had long-lasting effects.

One of the letters is from Margery Johnson, who wrote a letter to the lieutenant governor asking to be removed from further liability from a loan she took out to rebuild after the fire and had been paying £120 [$28,097] a year on.

"This letter is dated from 1865," said Montford.

"So it kind of gives you an idea of the scale of the fire and the effect that it did have on the Fredericton community at the time. It was being felt 10, 15 years later."