Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Great Miramichi Fire

The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at

File this article under “history.” It also may explain why your ancestors left New Brunswick in the late 1820s.

We often forget just how difficult life was for our ancestors. Oh, we may talk about their "trials and tribulations," but what does that mean? Just how tough was it? For thousands of residents of New Brunswick, Canada, the summer of 1825 and the succeeding years were indeed terrible. I had ancestors in Miramichi, New Brunswick, at that time, and apparently so did tens or even hundreds of thousands of today's citizens.

Miramichi is the name of a city, a river, and an area, all in northern New Brunswick. In 1825 the town was called Newcastle, but the name was changed to Miramichi some years later. (Miramichi is pronounced Mir-ra-mah-SHE' with emphasis on the last syllable.) What is now the city of Miramichi is the terminus of the Miramichi River at the point where it empties into Miramichi Bay in the St. Lawrence River. The surrounding area is known as the Miramichi Region.

The thin, acid soils of the Miramichi are not conducive to agriculture; thus, the lumber industry and Atlantic salmon fishery were the region’s mainstays in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Overseas lumber exports became the predominant industry, and the Miramichi Region was well known for supplying straight, tall masts for the British navy. All that changed on October 7, 1825.

The summer of 1825 had been dry and warm, and the crops did well. No rain fell from July until October 8. On September 19 a fire had broken out in Government House, Fredericton, and burned the whole place to the ground. Fortunately, it took place in daylight and caused no loss of life. Other fires broke out in the forests and sometimes burned many acres, but they seemed to avoid the populated regions.

While the land in the Miramichi Region was not suitable for large scale farming, almost every family had a garden, and their crops were generally good that year although the lack of rain meant smaller vegetables than normal. Much of the farming centered on cattle: both dairy farms and beef cattle. Many of the crops and almost all the cattle feed were stored in dry, wooden barns.

As autumn advanced, the leaves turned brilliant colors and then dried. The woods were tinder dry, and the dried leaves on the forest floor were waiting for a spark. The spruce budworm, a periodic pest that, like locusts, visits every few years, descended on the region in 1825. The worms attack the spruce trees, which then die, become dry, and thereby provide perfect tinder for a fire.

Nobody knows the cause of the fire that started on October 7, but everyone soon knew of it. The forest was quickly ablaze, and the flames moved forward with the wind at an estimated one mile per minute. That's sixty miles per hour. The telegraph, telephone, and two-way radio had not yet been invented, so there was no way of warning residents of the impending danger.

The flames engulfed the northwest Miramichi area, first killing twenty-two people. A gentleman named William Wright worked in the woods and was the first to warn of the fire. He ran into Newcastle and warned the people by beating a drum. Unfortunately, no one listened; they all thought it was a rain storm. Because the flames were not seen by the townspeople, no one worried. By ten o'clock in the morning, the flames had burned the whole north side of the Miramichi River. Newcastle, a town of one thousand people, was burned to the ground in less than three hours. Out of two hundred and sixty buildings, only twelve were left standing.

Miramichi_Map At one point, the wall of advancing flame was believed to be fifteen miles wide and advancing at one mile per minute. Wooden ships anchored in Miramichi Bay caught fire as the crews desperately tried to weigh anchor and escape the flames. They were unable to hoist sails because of the flames and high winds, so the burning ships drifted with the wind, spreading the flames to the other side of the river. Soon the houses, crops, and forests on the opposite side of the river were burning as fiercely as on the original shore.

The tales of human suffering are immense. Those who were lucky enough to be near a river walked into the water, often trying to coax their farm animals with them. Most of the domesticated animals were confounded by the smoke, the flames, and the confusion, and refused to enter the water. Most farm animals perished.

On the other hand, the wild animals had no such fear of water. The humans in the river found themselves surrounded by wildlife, including raccoons, deer, bears, and even large moose. All the creatures seemed to cooperate with one another, fearing the common enemy: the flames. Even the bears left the other creatures alone.

Due to the extreme heat, the humans stood in water up to their necks and frequently put their faces into the water to keep cool. Temperatures above the water were estimated to be 140 degrees or higher while the water itself in October was probably quite chilly. At least ten people drowned. The flames passed, and most of those who sought refuge in the icy rivers did survive.

Those who were not near a river typically were not so fortunate. Every town lost fifty or even one hundred citizens that afternoon. Larger towns lost more. The prisoners in the Newcastle Jail all perished as no one nearby had a key to let them out. The jail was made of stone and did not burn. However, it became a stone oven, and nobody survived.

A man from Bushville who thought St. Paul's Church would burn rushed to the church to see what he could save. In fact, the church did not burn. When he returned home, he found that his house had been destroyed and all his family members had perished in the flames.

New Brunswick was in the midst of a typhoid fever epidemic at the time, and many people were at home, sick in bed. Many perished by not leaving their beds. There were many similar stories that day.

During the flames, the winds reached hurricane force (70 miles per hour or more). It was October, and the air had been cold but now became super-heated. Once the wet people crawled out of the rivers, the temperatures dropped below freezing that night, and people in wet clothes with no place to go suffered from exposure. Many stood by still-burning buildings and trees for the warmth.

Lieutenant Governor Sir Howard Douglas drove through the blackened and devastated area in the following days. He wrote, "Any poor soul who was caught in the forest and could not reach the Miramichi River in time, was doomed to death."

The fire was felt far out at sea in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The master of a sloop that traded along Northumberland Strait, between the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island coasts, reported that, while he was running before the gale, the heavy fall of ashes and cinders caused the sea to hiss and boil around his deck, while the smoke on his deck was so heavy and thick as to affect both his sight and hearing. He had great difficulty in saving his ship.

About one fifth of the province of New Brunswick was damaged. An exact count was impossible, but estimates place the loss of human life at more than 300 with approximately 600 buildings destroyed and 875 cattle lost.

On the night of October eighth, it rained hard, and this helped to douse the fire. Most of the trees had burned by that time, so there was no where for the fire to go. In the following days, the surviving residents often trudged through deep ashes as they went about their lives. The ashes landed in many far off areas of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and even as far away as Bermuda! The ashes also fell into the water, killing many of the fish. The crops had been destroyed, and even wildlife had been decimated, making hunting and fishing for food very difficult for several years. In a single day New Brunswick lost "nearly four million acres of the best lumbering region of the province" along with most of its food supplies.

At Douglastown, only one house escaped the flames and remained standing. Strangely, that house contained the body of a person who had died the day before the fire and had not yet been buried.

As bad as the flames were, perhaps the cruelest fate still awaited the survivors. Many covered the cellars of their burned homes and crowded into them for shelter. All the crops and all the seeds for the next year's crops had been "safely" stored in wooden barns, but most of the buildings were destroyed, along with their contents. Many families lost their homes as well as their barns, their livestock, their food, and even the seeds for the following spring planting. It was late October, and winter would soon arrive. In 1825, there was no Red Cross, no Salvation Army, and no other relief organizations.

For a few days the local residents had food in the form of baked potatoes. The potatoes were still in the ground but had been baked by the heat of the fire. The locals were able to dig up the potatoes and eat them immediately. However, this supply ran out within a few days. In the following months, many people starved to death or died of complications caused by malnourishment.

The Mik-maq Indians in the area thought that the fire had been sent to kill the white man. Alexander Rankin had been a good friend to the Indians, and they surmised that this was why his home did not burn. After the fire, Alexander Rankin opened his home to those who were in need, Indians and whites alike. He was a good friend to one and all in the Miramichi Region. His house still stands today and now contains a museum of the Great Miramichi Fire.

Rankin led a group of fifteen men who set out to build houses and perform other acts as needed. Sir Howard Douglas arrived on the scene from Fredericton to offer his help. The town of Gretna Green, now Douglastown, was named in his honor. Sir Howard called on England, the United States, and other parts of Canada to come to the aid of the people. He later became the Lieutenant-Governor of Canada. Money, food, and clothes began to arrive by ship and by land although transportation required weeks. Winter and deep snow were upon the survivors before the first goods arrived.

Construction began with the people using what was left of the burned trees for wood, supplemented later by the newly arrived lumber from distant locations. One year later, the towns of Newcastle and Douglastown had been rebuilt.

Food was still in short supply. Although the following year saw mild weather, the fire had parched the land and burnt the plants that provided nutrients to the soil. Seeds were in short supply although some seeds were shipped in by the government. The surviving citizens did manage to grow some crops the following summer.

My ancestors left Miramichi a couple of years later and moved to Maine. I do not know of any family stories handed down over the years about their move, but I suspect their reason was related to the fire and its aftermath.

In all, the fire destroyed more than five hundred buildings (an exact count was never made) and also destroyed millions of acres of woodlands and settled towns and villages alike. Of the hundreds who perished in the fire, their bodies were mostly buried where they were found. There are almost no tombstones for the people who died in the fire as local tombstone carvers were either overwhelmed with work or perhaps also perished in the flames. In later years, many sad memorials were erected in the burying grounds along the Miramichi.

Entire towns were destroyed. Some of them were rebuilt as new towns in different locations that had escaped the flames and provided better soil, including the new towns of Campbellton, Dalhousie, Belledune, and the southern Gaspé coast. It is also probable that some of the displaced persons established a community in the Ottawa Valley formerly known as Miramichi, now known as Pembroke, Ontario.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, but it was probably caused by humans. This was in the day when houses were heated by wood, cooking was done on wood stoves or over open flames, and lumbermen often kept flames burning for cooking purposes or to drive away insects. Open flames were everywhere, and the woods were tinder dry.

A large fire occurred in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on the same day: October 7. Fredericton is more than 100 miles from Miramichi. It is believed that the two fires were not connected, other than by the fact that all of New Brunswick had very dry forests at the time. More than one-third of all the dwellings in Fredericton were destroyed by the flames; but the rest were spared.

For many years after, on October 7th, the people of the Miramichi area did not eat for the day and all shops closed in remembrance. The Great Miramichi Fire ranks among the three largest forest fires ever recorded in North America. Today people still tell stories of the Miramichi Fire as if it happened yesterday.

No comments: