New Brunswick

Digging into a disputed remnant of the Great Fire of Saint John

Geologist's view may help history buff's campaign to protect chunk of metal in King's Square

Ben Silcox - CBC News

August 11, 2017

Described by a plaque as a chunk of metal, this monument is allegedly the remnants of a machine shop that burned down in the Saint John fire of 1877. (Ben Silcox/CBC)

On the edge of a tree-shaded square in uptown Saint John lies a partly buried chunk of metal, the remnant of a machine shop destroyed in the Great Fire of 1877.

Overgrown with moss, the chunk blends in with many of the nearby flower beds of King's Square, and one history buff wants it to be better preserved.

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'Most people in Saint John don't know what it is, let alone visitors to our city.' - Doug McLean, history buff

"When I was growing up, I didn't know it was more than a rock — but years and years ago my wife told me, 'No, that's a piece of metal from the Saint John fire,'" Doug McLean, a lifelong Saint John resident, said.

A tourism website, See Saint John, describes the chunk as "a piece of melted metal found in a hardware store after the Great Fire." 

An engraved tablet next to the chunk says the same thing, completing the monument to a fire that killed almost 20 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings in uptown Saint John 140 years ago this summer. 

But the origins of the black-grey chunk in the ground have long been disputed in Saint John.  

The granite plaque marking the site where an alleged piece of metal melted in the Saint John fire lies. (Ben Silcox/CBC)

McLean penned a Facebook post suggesting the city give it some attention.

"I think they should dig it up, put a concrete slab there, put it on there, protect it and put a proper sign with a description," he said.

"Most people in Saint John don't know what it is, let alone visitors to our city."

The post has garnered more than 150 shares, but it was only the latest episode in a debate in the Saint John history community about what the grey-black mass really is.

Rock or metal?

Author David Goss, who gives walking tours of historic Saint John and knows local lore, says he does not believe the monument is what people claim it is.

He believes it is a rock, and its reputation as a relic of the fire has simply become inflated over time.

But he once did some research on the monument and found certain elements of the story convincing, particularly the chunk's association with an old machine shop in the city, he said.

'I think it's more part of our folklore than part of our history.' - David Goss, author

Before the monument was in King's Square, it sat outside the old Irving Oil Golden Ball building at Union and Sydney streets.  

"We found that there was a machine shop or a blacksmith shop in the area where the Golden Ball was built," Goss said. "If there's any credibility to the story at all, it's probably a heap of metal from that shop. But I don't think it's a heap of metal. I think it's a rock."

No one seems to know when the mass was moved to the square, and there is no date on the tablet.

A mark resembling a gear in a monument that sits in Kings Square in Saint John. (Ben Silcox/CBC)

But Goss said it was "not right" and just too convenient that the Great Fire created a lump of metal perfect for a monument.

"That's preposterous, I just don't believe it," he said.

Even if the mass were made of metal, he said, there is no proof it was made in the Great Fire itself.

McLean not only believes the mass is metal but that it also shows clear signs of man-made elements, including rusty spots and an imprint of a gear.

Lack of documentation

Kathy Wilson, president of the New Brunswick Historical Society, said that for many people, the skepticism comes from a lack of written material about the monument.

She said she has looked, and can't find any historic documents to verify the story behind it.

'It does look like the remnants of a rather nasty occurrence.' - Lucy Wilson, geologist

"I don't think anything was ever written about it per se," she said. "It's just general knowledge."

Goss said sometimes a good story deserves credit, however.

"I think it's more part of our folklore than part of our history," he said. "But the tourists do enjoy the story."

The science

Lucy Wilson, an associate professor of geology for UNB Saint John, said the science checks out, even if the story doesn't.

"With the holes and pores, it's not unlikely that would be the result of a large fire causing a lot of objects to fall together and then get partly melted into each other," Wilson said after inspecting it.

She said there are small imprints of bolts, screws and a gear that are indicative of it being made of metal. 

Lucy Wilson, an associate professor of geology at the University of New Brunswick, tests a Saint John monument's veracity. (Ben Silcox/CBC)

The porous appearance of the monument is likely the result of gases being released from man-made metals as they melt, she said.

With "clearly man-made elements," she said she would believe the story shown on the plaque in front of the rock based on its features.

"It does look like the remnants of a rather nasty occurrence," she said.

Refurbishment

The City of Saint John does not have a formal program for caring for plaques and monuments, and deals with refurbishment needs "as they arise," according to an email from city spokesperson Lisa Caissie.

She said city staff will look into McLean's suggestions, however.

"Regarding the metal piece and plaque in King's Square, it has been cleared of moss in previous years," she said. "We will look to have a crew clear the plaque again while doing regular maintenance in the square."

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