Nfld. & Labrador

The St. John's you know would look a lot different, if not for the Great Fire of 1892

It might be hard to believe, but downtown St. John's was rebuilt a lot roomier after being razed by fire 125 years ago.

After devastation, roads were made wider and homes further apart, says historian Dale Jarvis

Historian Dale Jarvis says St. John's in 2017 is a lot more spread out than it would have been if the city hadn't been devastated by the Great Fire of 1892. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

St. John's was left in ruins after a devastating fire 125 years ago, and the capital city would look very different if most of its buildings hadn't burned to the ground.

July 7 marks the 125th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1892, and the city has a number of events planned to commemorate the event.

But walking around the St. John's you know today is a stark difference to how St. John's could have looked, says historian Dale Jarvis.

View of St. John's from Duckworth Street east following the Great Fire of 1892. Photographer unknown. (Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website)

"The reason why St. John's looks the way it does today is largely because of the great fire," he said.

"We think of St. John's as kind of being a historic place, we think about the historic architecture. Because the town was destroyed in 1892, the town that arose like a phoenix from those ashes was a very, very modern city."

Ruins of the Athenaeum and part of the Union Bank in downtown St. John's after the Great Fire of 1892. The Union Bank was one of the few buildings left standing, says Dale Jarvis. (Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website)

The Great Fire razed the city, destroying hundreds of homes and leaving anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 people homeless and causing millions of dollars in damage.

We complain about the streets in St. John's, but they're a lot better than they were in 1892.- Dale Jarvis

But that levelling of the city brought in repairs, Jarvis said, and with it, new architectural styles that made downtown St. John's roomier and more spaced out.

"The fact that we have streets that aren't narrow and close together like you would see in European cities, it's because after the fire the city planners were able to straighten out some of the streets, widen them and kind of make St. John's the city it is today," Jarvis said.

Damaged buildings on the south side of Water Street in downtown St. John's, looking toward the harbour, after the Great Fire of 1892. (Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website)

For anyone trying to get around downtown St. John's now, Jarvis admits that it might be hard for people to believe it could get more crowded and condensed.

'It led to mass destruction'

But Jarvis said the congestion of homes before the 1892 fire was the reason the devastation reached such a height.

"There had been a fire in 1846 and there were recommendations that said we need to build the houses further apart, we need fire breaks, the streets need to be a minimum width, and people said, 'Ah we're never going to have a great fire, it doesn't matter,'" he told CBC's Here & Now.

This sandstone medallion is still on display on the face of the Kirk, after it survived the Great Fire of 1892. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"They built the houses back close together, [with] narrow streets, so when the fire swept down the hill it just led to mass destruction. So yeah, we complain about the streets in St. John's, but they're a lot better than they were in 1892."

Of the few things that survived the great fire, Jarvis highlights a specific bit of decoration on the Kirk, or St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, on Queen's Road.

That item is the sandstone medallion that is still seen on the church's face.

Historian Dale Jarvis points to the sandstone medallion on the face of the Kirk in downtown St. John's. (Sherry VIvian/CBC)

"It's the symbol of the burning bush — a bush which was not consumed by the fire. The medallion was actually part of the old Presbyterian church, which was down at the bottom of Cathedral Street," he said.

"It was destroyed in the fire. The Presbyterians saw this as a symbol of St. John's kind of rising from the ashes and they brought it back up here when they rebuilt their church. They incorporated it into their new building."

The Anglican Cathedral suffered so much damage after the Great Fire of 1892 it took workers more than 10 years to complete its restoration. (Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website)

Jarvis will highlight the medallion during a walking tour of the main sites of the Great Fire taking place on Saturday.

The walk starts at the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Military Road around 3:45 p.m. and follows the same route down Long's Hill the fire took to sweep through and devastate the downtown core.

With files from Here & Now