1857 The Great Conflagration

Via SaltWire, contributed by Leo J. Deveaux:

"On New Year’s Eve, a fire swept through Hollis and Prince Streets in downtown Halifax, destroying whole blocks of business establishments. Referred to as “The Great Conflagration,” an account in the Halifax Morning Journal, 7 January 1857, reported that, “Never did we witness or hear of a fire more rapid in its progress … As usual on such occasion, there was laudable exertion, unwearied … on the part of many …. Some actually stood to their burning work until their faces blistered - and this devoted zeal too, was not merely midst of the excitement, but on the distant wharves, where the ordnance and other engines were admirably worked - as did our military friends labour with untiring performance….” 

Following the fires, new buildings of stone and brick, three and four storeys high, were soon constructed, conveying a new business confidence in the community with “uniform architectural designs in freestone and cast iron with Italianate detailing… (and creating) coherent streetscapes….” By 1871, this was also evident in the many exterior photos taken of downtown businesses by Joseph S. Rogers."


(Reference: Buggey, Susan. “Building Halifax 1841-1871.” Acadiensis, Vol. 10, No.1, Autumn 1980, pp.90-112.)


Shortly after the fire, the city passed a law that required new buildings in the downtown area to be constructed of fire-resistant stone and brick rather than wood. However, this did not prevent another fire on the night of 9 September 1859, called the “Granville Street Fire,” which destroyed over “three whole blocks” of downtown, including 60 buildings.

Here is an account found in the Halifax Morning Journal of Monday, January 7, 1857:


"Halifax, Monday, January 5, 1857.


We only had time to write a few hurried lines in our last to announce the destructive fire which will long render memorable in Halifax, the first day of 1857. Never did we witness or hear of a fire more rapid in its progress, although there was comparatively little wind at the time. Not more than 40 minutes elapsed from the time that Donohue's corner was discovered to be in flames before St. Matthew's Church (across the street) was also burning, and in less than an hour the steeple of that edifice fell with a grand and awful crash, and the whole venerable pile in a few minutes more ceased to be. Then with unexplained rapidity, the devouring element turned its fury up Prince Street, soon consuming the houses as far as and including Somerset House, thence running Southerly until about every house on that side the square was either consumed, pulled-down, or emptied of its contents. On the East side of Hollis street it made a clean sweep until stopped by pulling down the house occupied by Mr. Drake. On the opposite or Western side all the houses between St. Matthew's and Mr. Lanzley's brick building were consumed. And never the advantage of brick or stone more conspicuous, than on this occasion, resisting as it did for 3 hours, the whole force of the fire. But for that material, the whole Square would have been swept clean; and for but the brick and stone end and sides of the House where the fire began, all the buildings Eastward, would have gone. So sudden was the mischief that several of those concerned knew not of the fire til their offices or dwellings were in ashes. The extent of the loss can not yet be ascertained. As usual much was destroyed in attempts to save. We fear Mr. Harrington has been a large sufferer - it is said the extent of £1000. Dr. Avery, too, lost some £300. Mr. H's premises were several times on fire, and, he lost much valuable stock under under St. Matthew's. Mrs. Carman, widow, lost every thing, but we are happy to hear that a liberal subscription has already been raised for her. Mrs. Anderson, widow, lost considerable. Dr. Almon had much valuable property destroyed. The Steam Press belonging to Messr. R.T. Kirk & Co. [...] consumed, and the press much injured, but through great exertion the engine was preserved. The building was insured for £50 and the Press for £350. Mr. Annand had a new Steam Press in the same building much injured but well insured. A poor man named Thomas Hood lost much, and who, we trust, will be remembered. We regret to hear that Mrs. Studley's Polley of insurance had only expired the day before. Her loss will therefore be very heavy. Among the sufferers is Miss Boland who it will be recollected is the daughter of a Newfoundland Clergyman, who perished on the ice last winter. She had just established herself in a school, when she was burnt out without knowing it, being at a friend's house in the South End. We trust her school will be largely increased, and her losses repaid, by the friends of the fatherless and the strangers.


Misses Power property was only insured to the extent of £200.


As usual on such occasion there was laudable exertion, unwearied labour - on the part of many - gaping, listless, culpable idleness and shrinking off work on the part of others. The crowd was immense, and half of them females. The brave soldiers did their duty well, as they always do. Some actually stood to their burning work until their faces were blistered - and this devoted zeal too, was not merely in the midst of the excitement, but on the distant wharves, where the ordnance and other engines were admirably worked, - did our military friends labour with untiring perseverance. We do trust that our City Authorities will mark the general sense entertained of their effective aid, by presenting to them some suitable testimonial. A Military Fire Engine was burnt. The Dockyard Fire Engine did good service. Honor them all. Honor to our own brave firemen, unsurpassed in fearlessness, agility and skill by any on this Continent. Shame upon every one who shrank from aiding his neighbours for fear of spelling his holiday hat or his shimming coat.


We sincerely sympathize with all who have suffered - with our brother of the Colonist, who must be put to great inconvenience, also with the Christian Messengers, and tho' last not least with our own dear self, whose loss is no joke. But there's "no use in crying over spilt milk".If our kind patrons will just pay up instanter, and double their favour, it will help up vastly in "getting up the steam" again. Thanks providence, we are young and strong and all we ask is plenty of work - plenty of paying subscribers - and then we shall soon forget our share in the general loss. St. Matthew's was insured for £1000. The site would probably bring £1,200 more, and we suppose 'ere long a substancial and  ornamental structure will probably be provided there or elsewhere by the many wealthy members of that congregation. Still, there will be many to mourn over the departed sanctuary where they, and their fathers before them have worshipped. They will lament for the "old seats," where for so many years they have listened to the words of life - for the Courts in which for probably three generations, the voice of prayer and praise has been heard. The very night of the fire, the bell was to have summoned the worshippers, as usual, to their Thursday evening lecture, - but 'ere that hour came, its tongue was licking the dust, and naught but burning cinders around and around it. We believe this is the first instance of a Church being burned in Halifax, We will be glad to publish any memoirs of the departed St. Matthew's, with which we may be furnished. It has long been the Church of many of our first families. There sat the Hill's.he Wallace's, the Foreman's, the Cochran's, the Fairbanks', the Thoms', the Archibal's, the Allison's, the Prescott's, the Grassie's, the Allan's, the Young's, and many other of days gone by, who have still their wealthy and respectable representatives in the elders and members of the auld kirk - men able and we dare say willing, to come down with their one,two, three or four hundreds, to replace their loss.


The congregation of St. Matthew's Church assembled yesterday morning, at 11 o'clock, in the Old Methodist meeting house, Argyle Street, in the afternoon at St. Andrew's. Our contemporaries of the Colonist, Presbyterian Witness, and Christian Messenger, have been compelled to suspend their regular issues in consequence of the late fire.


The late fire has fallen with particular severity upon the legal fraternity, and altho' as a class, we are afraid the sympathies of the public, could not easily be enlisted in their favour, yet we think in this instance their loss deserves commiseration, the more especially as the destruction of their papers affects not themselves only, but the public generally.


The following gentlemen have been burnt out of their offices, viz; John Skerry, (who we are sorry to learn has lost heavily) P. H.  Lenoir, S. P. Fairbanks, (who was absent in P. E. Island, but we trust his interests were attended to.) Henry Twinning, Hugh Hartshorne, (Books and papers, we believe were destroyed) James Stewart, Messrs. Tobin and Wallace, Hon. J. McCully, and William Howe, Esq. In the office of this latter gentleman, were contained all the wills and other papers connected with the Probate office, these were saved; but we trust the impropriety of risking such valuable public papers in wooden buildings, without ironsafes, has been fully proved on this occasion. Besides those burnt out, - the offices of J. W. Johnston & Son, J. W. Ritchie, James Thomson, and J. W. Johnston Jr. Esq., were sacked of their contents, on account of their vicinity to the fire. This calamity has thrown back the business of the Supreme Court which adjourned over until to-day, and the great case of Hill vs. The British Government has been interrupted for the last two days, but we believe will be resumed again this morning.


We are sorry to learn that some of the firemen suffered personal injury. Messrs. Samuel and William Caldwell were burnt in the hand severely. Some of the Military were badly burnt. A men belonging to the 62d Regt. fell through the roof of a house while it was in flames, and was burnt in a dreadful manner before he could be extricated. We believe the poor man's life is despaired of."

Have more information?