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The Great Miramichi Fire


The Great Miramichi Fire

October 07, 1825 was a sad day for everyone on the Miramichi.  It was the day of the great Miramichi Fire.  This was a fire that destroyed six thousand square miles of land in the Miramichi area, in the span of eight hours.  The summer of 1825 had been a dry warm one and there had been a large crop yield that year.  The barns were filled with the bounty of these crops.  Most barns and homes were built of wood and as we all know, wood burns easily.  The weather was very warm that October and people were hoping for a good winter.  No one knows the real cause of the fire but is is suspected that the Spruce Bud worm may have caused the forest to become dry and thereby provide perfect tinder for the fire.

On the morning of October 7th, the lives of those who lived in the Miramichi, changed.  A large fire broke out in NorthWest Miramichi, killing twenty two people.  The flames burned at a speed of one mile per minute.  There were violently strong winds that day that helped the flames to spread quickly.  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.  When the townsmen saw the flames, they felt that God was angry with them and had rained the flames down on them.  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.

Moorefield and Douglastown were the next to be destroyed.  At that time, Douglastown was a village that was almost as big as Chatham. When the fire was finished, only six of its seventy buildings remained.  The village burned in an hour and one of the remaining homes was that of Alexander Rankin.  The Rankin House still stands today and is being restored to stand as a monument to the great man, Alexander Rankin.  For many years the house was used as a school and now it is a museum of sorts.

The Indians in the area thought that the fire had been sent to kill the white man.  Alexander Rankin had been a good friend to them 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.  He was a good friend to one and all in the Miramichi.

As the fire progressed along the Miramichi, many ships were burned.  Some of them carried the flames to the South shore of the River as the ships tried to escape the fire.  As well, the fire jumped the River in many places and burned the village of Bushville along with the other communities.  Only St. Paul's Church on the south side of the Miramichi River, was left standing.  Napan and Black River were also destroyed with the loss of life in Black River totalling sixty people. 

The town of Chatham and the Village of Nelson were untouched by the fire.  Nearly five hundred people from the north side of the River made their way to that area, trudging through deep ashes as they went. 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.  To escape the flames, many people stood in the river for what seemed to be an eternity.  Due to the extreme heat, they stood in water up to their necks and and frequently put their faces into the water to keep cool.  Many of the forest animals survived by staying in the water.  Because of their fear of smoke and fire, many domestic animals could not be lead to the River. It is said that about eight hundred and seventy five head of cattle died in the fire.

When speaking about the Great Miramichi Fire, there are many well known human interest stories.  One story tells of a man from Bushville who thought St. Paul's Church would burn. He went to the church to see what he could do to save it when it did not burn, returned home.  Sadly, his home had burnt and his family had perished in the fire.  Another story tells of two brothers who saw the flames coming and ran into the woods thinking they would be safe there.  Their bodies were found together, the next day. They died while hugging each other.  The last tale is of a black woman being held in the Newcastle Jail.  She was in jail for killing her daughter.  When the fire attacked the jail building, people heard her crying out for help but by the time they got to her, it was too late. The jail burned with all of the prisoners inside.

Those who lived through the Great Fire never forgot that awful time.  The next day they found their homes destroyed and nothing left for food but potatoes.  They had baked in the ground from the extreme heat.  Many people, at that time, did not keep their money in banks - instead they buried it in the ground.  Because of the ash that covered the ground, some of the money was never found.  In all, the fire destroyed five hundred and twenty buildings..

Approximately one hundred and sixty people perished in the fire and their bodies were buried where they were found, for the most part. The Miramichi Fire burned an area of fifteen miles between Bartibog and Northwest Miramichi. About one fifth of the province was damaged. 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.

Winter was quickly approaching and the people needed help before the river iced up. Alexander Rankin led a group of fifteen men and 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 became the Lieutenant-Governor of Canada during his life time. Money, food and clothes began to arrive by ship and by land.

The towns people needed shelter before winter came and construction began with the people using what was left of the burned trees for wood. One year later, the towns of Newcastle and Douglastown had been rebuilt.

Before the Miramichi Fire, people made their living in the forests and obtained their food by hunting and trapping. This all changed after the fire. The tops of the trees had burned and the bottoms were used to build cabins and shelters for the homeless. The tallest of trees that survived were sold to the ship builders for masts. Fortunately enough of the forest survived for the lumber industry to carry on. The firm of Gimore, Rankin and Company went on to make a lot of money in the area. For many years after this tragedy, on October 7th, the people of the area did not eat for the day and all shops closed in remembrance. Today people still tell stories of the Miramichi Fire as if it happened yesterday.