New Brunswick-born author wants to spark interest in the Great St. John’s Fire of 1877

It’s been 145 years since a raging fire, blinding smoke and thick layers of ash suffocated the city of Saint John, destroying 200 acres of the city.

The Great Saint John Fire changed the city forever, according to author Mark Allan Greene. Despite this, he said few people really know much about it.

“It ended up being one of the worst urban fires in North America in the 19th century. It was bigger than the Boston fire and everyone heard of the Boston fire, and proportionally bigger than the Chicago fire,” said Greene, who grew up in Saint John. but now lives in Edmonton. “It becomes a lost story.”

In 2016, Greene took a trip to Saint John where he asked tour guides where the fire started, but they all had different answers. Greene said this was not because the fire was not well documented. In fact, two books were written right after the 1877 fire. He said the authors had two weeks to write them due to demand.

“I wanted to bring the story to life,” Greene said.

So that’s what he did. Greene’s book, The Great St. John Fire of 1877: The Rise, Destruction and Recovery of Canada’s Principal Port Citywas released on October 18.

Greene’s book, “The Great Saint John Fire of 1877: The rise, destruction and recovery of Canada’s Leading Port City,” was published October 18. The book features archival footage and captions that guide readers through the events that took place in 1877. (Submitted by Mark Allan Greene)

The book contains archival footage and captions that guide readers through the events that took place in 1877.

“To me, a picture is worth a thousand words, but a picture and about 150 or 200 words with it tells a story.”

Greene said Saint John started out as a barren rock, but some exiled Loyalists worked hard to become Canada’s third-largest city.

Wooden houses and wooden warehouses filled the town after its 70-year rise, Greene said.

Before and after the Great Prince William Street Fire on Prince William Street. (New Brunswick Museum Collections)

He said there was criticism after the big fire for not thinking about fire prevention – an important consideration in a wooden town. He said there were even warning signs, 13 major fires leading up to the big one of 1877.

“What if a spark hadn’t landed on that haystack that day? Probably a few years later, same thing, because it was set up for disaster just like the town was built.”

Rebuild, reinvent

Greene said the fire caused a lot of casualties and people suffered. He said often when people look back on historical events, they see people as being tough and tough enough to handle the loss. But he said those who lived through the fire endured the same psychological trauma that people would experience now – trauma that would stay with them for life.

Greene said Saint John has gone through many stages of rebuilding and reinvention, from the Loyalist landings to the aftermath of the Great Fire, and other rebuilding and reorientations since then.

Before and after the Great St. John’s Day fire at the head of King Street. (From the collections of the New Brunswick Museum)

He said the Loyalists set out to build a city that would rival Boston and New York, but as a Saint John native, Greene is happy not to see skyscrapers everywhere while walking around.

“What I’ve always loved about Saint John is that it loves its history and it retains that charm,” he said. “He clings to his peak and he tries to preserve his story.”