miramichi fire 1825
Miramichi Fire of 1825
From Redcoat Sailor by R. S. Lambert
Excerpt from Pages 127 to 146
“… In 1824, when he was 48, Sir Howard Douglas found himself facing a new kind of adventure. He was offered the appointment, by his Majesty’s government, of Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, with command, as Major-General, of all troops in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Bermuda. … As he went about the province, Sir Howard soon made himself popular by visiting the settlers in their homes and discussing their grievances with them … during the first year of his governorship he gave a stimulus to progress. But then suddenly and without warning, the whole advance was interrupted by one of the most appalling natural calamities in the history of Canada – the great Miramichi fire of 1825.
From late July to early October, 1825, no rain fell over most of New Brunswick. The province sweltered under a hot sun that parched farm and forest alike in an unparalleled drought … 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. By prompt action, Lady Douglas was able to save not only herself and her children, but all the Governor’s papers and books, and most of his furniture. Hardly were Douglas and his family settled in a temporary residence than his misfortune was forgotten in a disaster that affected the whole community. The beginning of October saw no let-up in the drought. Day after day the thermometer stood at 86 degrees in the shade, and the atmosphere became thick, overcast, and oppressively sultry … numerous fires were already blazing along the banks of the St. John River in the south, and along the Miramichi River to the northwest. But it as not till October 7 that the wind began to blow from the southwest, and to spread the local fires into a great conflagration. At eleven o’clock on that day a messenger rode up to Douglas’ headquarters to say that a fire had broken out near the house of Mr. Baillie, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, about a mile and a half outside Fredericton. At once Douglas ordered out the fire-engines and troops, and galloped off to the rescue, followed by most of the male population of the city … By having the engines play water on the house, and by clearing the undergrowth around it, Douglas succeeded in saving the property after about an hour’s effort. Suddenly a second messenger spurred up to him, coming from the direction of Fredericton itself … “The town’s on fire. For God’s sake, sir, come at once!” … The governor ordered his troops to return to the city at the double, and himself led the way. By now the wind was blowing with hurricane force, and he realized that there was no time to be lost, if the little city, built all of wood and surrounded by thick forests, was to be saved. On approaching the city, he saw that the mischief had already gone too far. Smoke was rising from two or three houses. Even while he looked, about a dozen more took fire – and before he could reach the spot, a whole street was ablaze … the wind veered in a direction which, while sparing part of the town, threatened to burn down the barracks and with it all the stores, fuel and ammunition of the garrison … The wind veered still further, and at last began to blow in the opposite direction from its start. Over one-third of all the dwellings in Fredericton had been destroyed by the flames; but the rest were spared … the air everywhere was so thick and hot, it was difficult to breathe. As he looked around the outskirts of the devastated city, the governor could see that the conflagration, far from dying down, was growing much worse. From the forests south of Fredericton a continuous roar like thunder could be heard. This was shortly followed by the rise of a thick column of smoke, and the outburst of a series of extraordinary explosions, like those caused by an artillery barrage. Giant tongues of flame shot up to heaven, as if a volcanic eruption was in progress. Spouts of fire rained down on tree-tops, ran up and down the trunks, and kindled he branches. All along the banks of the St. John River, rows of huge trees, centuries old, caught fire, and made the water beside them crimson with their reflection … Panic seized the unhappy people of Fredericton, as the hurricane began wrenching up burning trees and boughs and hurling them through the air. The livestock of the farmers, and the horses of the military, were driven mad with fear, and galloped crazily through the streets or along the banks of the river. Many people, being fairly convinced that the end of the world had come, threw themselves on their knees, and began to pray for deliverance on the Day of Judgment, … Throughout that dreadful night Douglas kept his head, and methodically distributed his troops to key points throughout the city, ready to operate at the first alarm … Douglas therefore called together by proclamation a meeting of all citizens of Fredericton, and appealed to the richer and more fortunate among them to contribute generously to a central fund. He himself opened the fund by subscribing £200 out of his own pocket. Next he sent for the most prominent wholesale merchant in Fredericton, and ordered him to set out at once for Quebec, to buy there all the food and clothing he could get. Payment for this was to be made in credit notes drawn on the New Brunswick treasury by the governor himself, at his own risk … At the end of the week, when the embers had died down, Douglas announced his next step. “Fetch me a good country wagon and a couple of fresh cart-horses. I intend to drive through the forest and visit the outlying settlements” …
Now began for Douglas a heart-rending journey. The devastation he encountered far exceeded his worst fears. Most of the settlements that he went to visit had ceased to exist! His way led northward from Fredericton till he struck the upper waters of the southwest Miramichi River. There he followed this river northeast down its course till it reached the sea just beyond the towns of Newcastle and Chatham. The total distance between these points was 150 miles … The town of Newcastle bore the main brunt of the disaster. On the same afternoon (October 7) as the outbreak at Fredericton, clouds of dense smoke enveloped Newcastle, its neighbour Douglastown and district, blinding and stifling its inhabitants. This was followed around 8 p.m. by a terrifying thunderous roar coming from the neighbouring forests. Suddenly people realized that the blaze was less than a mile and a half away, and that there was barely time to escape by flight. A confused mass exodus took place, in the direction of he Miramichi River. Unhappily, at this hour many people were fast asleep in bed. Others were lying sick of typhoid fever, of which there had recently been an epidemic. These poor people were all devoured by flames, or suffocated in their sleep. Others leaped from roofs or windows of their houses, ran startled into the forest, lost heir way, caught fire and blazed like human torches … Some of the refugees found safety by launching boats on the Miramichi River, and staying there til the fire died down. Others huddled under improvised shelters on the banks, half in and half out of water. There they remained, nearly naked, exposed to the cold, and with nothing to eat, for the next day and a half. The hurricane, as it gained force, made both land and water precarious. On land, it tore up burning trees and threw them about. On the water, it lashed the river into waves, snapped the anchors off small ships and drove them on the rocks. At Chatham, in the estuary of the Miramichi, two large vessels were set alight by burning trees tossed on their decks by the wind. They blazed like floating mines and burned to the water’s edge … the cattle belonging to local farmers also resorted to the river, and stood there in herds, with only their heads and horns showing. In one instance, a bear joined the cattle, staying there with them till all the danger was over, and then quietly walked off without doing any harm. 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. In Newcastle itself ten persons were drowned, a hundred and thirty were burned to death, and twenty more succumbed to the effects of wounds or exposure. Property to the value of a million dollars was destroyed there. Out of 200 houses in the town, only twelve remained standing, and not one escaped damage. In nearby Douglastown, only six out of seventy houses escaped the fire. Fortunately, Chatham, on the opposite side of the Miramichi River, was spared by the conflagration. Its inhabitants were able to take in many of the refugees from Newcastle. As Sir Howard Douglas drove slowly through the blackened and devastated area between Fredericton and Newcastle, he saw at one tiny homestead after another, signs of the pitiful tragedies that had taken place … “Any poor soul”, he reflected, “who was caught in the forest and could not reach the Miramichi River in time, was doomed to death” … At last the total loss of life added up to over 300. The number of buildings destroyed was almost 600, and the number of cattle 875. Nearly all the property that had been burned was uninsured … At last Douglas drew near to Newcastle itself – a heap of smouldering ruins. The roadside was strewn with black heaps, which proved to be the ashes of men and women … Douglas remained in Newcastle till the worst of the suffering was over. He distributed 1,000 barrels of flour, 500 barrels of pork, and £1,700 worth of clothing – all purchased on his own responsibility. He could not, however, make good the severe loss of trade which the whole province suffered. The pine forests of Miramichi had normally been responsible for about one-half of all the exports of New Brunswick. They were destroyed for the time being, and it took several generations to grow what had been lost. The total extent of the Miramichi fire has been made the subject of many estimates and arguments. The area affected extended from Fredericton due north to the coast of the Bay of Chaleur, at the opposite corner of the province. In the east, it embraced the Richibucto River, and on the west it reached to the top of the watershed from which flowed the various sources and tributaries of the Miramichi River. Not the whole area was burned. There were five or six separate large fires which were driven together by the wind, but left unscathed many tracts of land in between. … New Brunswick lost ‘nearly four million acres of the best lumbering region of the province’. As a result of the appeals made by Douglas on behalf of the sufferers, £40,000 was collected in England and her colonies.”
From The Miramichi by Esther Clark Wright
Excerpt from Pages 35 to 38
“… Among the Irish immigrants in 1824 was Robert Cooney, …with a good education, who became chief clerk in one of the mercantile establishments on Miramichi, went into newspaper work, and eventually became a Wesleyan Methodist parson. The Miramichi fire occurred a year after his arrival in New Brunswick and he describes it very vividly in A Compendious History of the Northern Part of the Province of New Brunswick … For early history of Miramichi, Cooney’s account is most untrustworthy but his pictures of contemporary northern New Brunswick are valuable.” …
“… the summer of 1825, was unusually warm in both hemispheres, particularly in America, … In Miramichi, and throughout the northern part of New Brunswick, the season had been remarkably dry; … Very extensive fires were observed in a north westerly direction; along the south side of the Baie des Chaleurs; in several parts of the district of Gaspe; in the neighbourhood of Richibucto, and thence in a southerly direction towards Westmorland. These fires, however, being rather ordinary circumstances, as burning the trees and roots is the common system of clearing land, no danger was anticipated … On the sixth, the fire was evidently approximating to us; at different intervals of this day, fitful blazes and flashes were observed to issue from different parts of the woods, particularly up the north west at the rear of Newcastle, in the vicinity of Douglastown and Moorfields; and along the banks of the Bartibog. On the seventh the heat increased to such a degree, and became so very oppressive that many complained of the enervating effects. About 12 o’clock, a pale sickly mist, lightly tinged with purple, emerged from the forest, and settled over it. This cloud soon retreated before a large dark one, which occupying its place, wrapt the firmament in a pall of vapour. This incumbrance, retaining its position, till about three o’clock, the heat became tormentingly sultry. There was not a single breath of air. The atmosphere was overloaded; an irresistible lassitude seized the people; and a stupefying dullness seemed to pervade very place but the woods which now trembled and rustled and shook, with an incessant and thrilling noise of explosions rapidly following each other . . .
A little after four o’clock, an immense pillar of smoke rose in a vertical direction at some distance north west of Newcastle for a while and the sky was absolutely blackened by this huge cloud; … About an hour after, or probably at half-past five o’clock, innumerable large spires of smoke issuing from different parts of the woods, and illuminated by flames that seemed to pierce them mounted to the sky. All these palpable indications of the approaching ruin were unheeded, probably because the people had never yet experienced the dreadful effects of fire, or had not sufficiently considered the change, wrought in the forests, by the protracted heat of the summer … About nine o’clock, or shortly after, a succession of loud and appalling roars thundered throughout the woods. Peal after peal, crash after crash … The tremendous bellowing became more and more terrific. … The harmony of creation appeared to have been deranged and about to revert into original chaos. .. The river, tortured into violence by the hurricane, foamed with rage and flung its boiling spray upon the land. The thunder pealed along the vault of Heaven; the lightening rent the firmament in pieces. For a moment, and all was still, a deep and awful silence reigned over everything. All nature appeared to be hushed into dumbness; – when – suddenly a lengthened and sullen roar came booming through the forest, and driving a thousand massive and devouring flames before it.”
“… Cooney says that the fire extended more than 10 miles and that 6,000 miles of country became enveloped in an immense sheet of flame, but he exaggerates the extent. Actually, it has been computed by more careful investigators, the fire reached from Bartibog, the tributary on the north side of the river, to the Northwest Miramichi, a distance of about fifteen miles, and did not connect with the fire on the Nashwaak, which occurred at the same time. In one or two places it crossed the river and burned comparatively small areas at Napan and elsewhere. Moorfields, Douglastown, and Newcastle were in the path of the flames. Of the 260 houses and stores in Newcastle, only 12 remained; of the 70 in Douglastown, only 6 were left. The loss of life was very great, and at least 160 people were known to have been burned to death or drowned. There are many pathetic memorials in the burying grounds on the Miramichi.”
From These Are the Maritimes by Will R. Bird
Excerpt from Pages 272 and 273
“… Everything seemed to be going well until tragedy struck on the afternoon of Friday, October 7, 1825. People outdoors saw a dense column of smoke rising in a vertical direction a considerable distance from Newcastle. The wind was moderate, but shifting, and appeared to carry it to the leeward of the river so no apprehension of danger was entertained. It was supposed that an extensive forest fire was raging and there had been a long period of dry heat, but strangely, not a person seemed to be alarmed. In evening the breeze smartened and all at once ashes and cinders showered down and almost suffocated those outside their homes. An hour later a loud roaring was heard and the falling ashes darkened he area and nothing could be seen. Then the wind blew a hurricane and the roaring noise became tremendous. Flames burst in masses from darkness and then the whole sky was illuminated by an immense sheet of fire that in a moment enveloped Newcastle and Douglstown. Within three minutes from first appearance of flames most of the houses in that area were on fire.
The night became a hell on earth. The screams of the burned, mingled with cries of domestic animals, was terrifying. Men helped sick and aged, women ran with infants in their arms, as all tried to reach the river. The majority plunged in up to their necks but others got into boats or canoes, on rafts or floating logs, and drifted with the current. Hundreds took refuge on marsh lying near river half a mile from Newcastle. There was little more than dried mud in the area and proved the safest retreat 8,000 square miles of forest were consumed. 3 vessels burned. 100 – 200 persons perished; 300 – 400 badly burned. 2,000 left destitute. Many cattle reached river and submerged, avoiding death, and a large bear was in their midst. Most of wild animals in district perished. Immense numbers of salmon, bass and trout were found on shores after, suffocated from substances which fell into water. Snakes tried to escape to clearings and were found dead in twisted heaps. Moose ran for their lives and many reached settlements 40 miles away, still in panic. The magnificent pine forests which had furnished masts and square timbers to Britain for over 50 years were gone, and the masting industry was at an end, but trees in the unburned areas and juniper which sprung up after the fire furnished material for shipbuilding.”
From Pioneer Profiles of New Brunswick Settlers by Charlotte Gourlay Robinson
Except from Pages 127 to 130
“… It was the year 1825. The summer had been very hot; wells had dried up and parched ground grew dry and dusty. Even mighty Miramichi had receded, leaving long stretches of pebbly beaches along shores … October 7 dawned hot and still. Even the floors of the cabin were too hot for comfort … that morning James Wright had walked the streets of Newcastle beating his drum and calling to the people, warning them of approaching fire. Erect and friendly, despite his seventy years, he stepped out briskly, well remembering the days he had drummed for the Volunteers long ago. Clerks in the shipping office paused their quill pens and wandered to doorways to see what it was all about. They laughed when the old drummer told them the Indians had fled the forest and were gathering up the river banks, and advised them to do the same. ‘Old Scaremonger’! they said. … Back in the cabin it was getting darker and gentle wind began to blow; but instead of bringing relief, it brought only scorching heat as if a huge furnace door had suddenly been opened. Sky was dark now with great rushing black clouds. The wind came again acrid and pungent now with smell of wood smoke. Terrified Eizabeth rushed to cradle and snatched up her baby and a blanket, shouting to girl to bring William. Down the trail they raced. Frantic animals crashed out of the forest and ran along beside them and overhead the wind roared like thunder … Elizabeth tripped and fell a dozen times before she reached the outskirts of Newcastle. Choking haze took her breath away, for her the smoke was so dense she couldn’t see a dozen feet ahead; the fences were her only guide and even some of them were on fire … Terror-stricken Elizabeth joined crowds in mad dash to marshes above town. The river was lashed to fury by the gale, and those who had tried, too late , to get away in canoes were tossed about like chips in a millrace, while many were drowned. In marshes crowds scrambled on logs or anything they could get hold of … Elizabeth heard her husband calling. He staggered waist-deep through reeds and reached out strong arms to hold his son … Young people stood neck-deep in the water holding up feeble and sick, while cattle and wild animals struggled beside them trying to keep their heads above water. All night long the flames swept on. Forests, farms and houses disappeared as if they had melted. Smoke-embers were carried to Newfoundland. Warm cinders fell in streets of Halifax. In the morning everything for miles and miles in that green and pleasant land was black desolation. For days hollow-eyed men and women wandered around homeless, or searched for their scattered families. Nothing was left of town of Newcastle but gaunt, ruined chimneys and heaps of still-smouldering ashes. No food, no clothing except what they stood in, … But Elizabeth Russel remembered the field of potatoes that had not been harvested. Back along trail the little family went as soon as the ground was cool enough for travelling and there, sure enough, they found potatoes all roasted in the ground. But nothing was left of their home but timbers and chimney standing over ashes … John Russel found a canoe floating inshore on Miramichi. He paddled to Beaubear’s Island, where a few dilapidated shacks stood, remnants of Davidson’s once prosperous lumbering settlement, but long since deserted. He brought Elizabeth and children to cabin. Back in town of Newcastle other sufferers covered cellars of their burned homes and crowded into them for shelter. Few came to Beaubear’s Island. Perhaps they were afraid, for there were weird tales of the place.”
From The Ganong Papers Box 37 New Brunswick Provincial Archives
“… upwards of one hundred miles or more of the shores of Miramichi are laid waste including the North West Branch, the Bartibogue and the Napan settlements, … It is not in the power of language to describe the unparalled scene of ruin and devastation which the parish of Newcastle at that moment presented, out of upwards of two hundred and fifty houses and stores, fourteen of the least considerable only remained. The Court House, Jail, Church, Barracks, Messrs. Gilmour and Rankine Co. and Messrs. William Abrams and Co.’s Establishment were reduced to ashes …
Some distance from Newcastle two men were surprised by the fire, and betook themselves to a brook for safety. They immersed themselves in the water, and thus were saved, while the flame passed speedily over them. One of them had his face partly burned, as he had not succeeded in entirely covering it with water.
A coloured girl had been committed to jail for making away with an illegitimate child. When the doors were opened she ran out but finding the fire had communicated to every part of the town, and perhaps supposing that to remain in a stone building might prove as safe as to be exposed outside, she ran in again, by this time the stone had been heated as a furnace, and she was compelled to retire a second time, in attempting she was burned to death. This girl was taken and put into jail by Mr. Hugh Murray of Tabusintac, and the late Lewis Robicheau of Neguac, who were (appointed) constables at the time.
Of a family nine in number not one escaped, and out of another seven perished. Some had their heads burnt off, some their brains exposed to view, some their bowels bursting out, while all other parts of their bodies were burnt as though it were tinder, and others were so much burnt that the human form could scarcely be distinguished.
An inhuman wretch, and the father of three children in the parish of Newcastle left them at home, and in the midst of the confusion, resorted to plunder. His children were burnt to death, and he himself barely escaped.
A man named Carroll (on the Big Bartibogue) to save his life went down into his well, and was suffocated and three others also perished.”
From The History of the Maritime Provinces by John Harper
Excerpt from Pages 109 and 110
“.. All summer the people had complained of the great heat but were further surprised with its return in the last of September. … no special alarm was shown, until the first five days in October told their progressive tale of evil. …night showed the danger in its approaching glare, in a wall of fire all behind, from which could be distinctly heard, in the awful calm, the crackling of the brushwood, and the loud reports from the giant pines yielding up their strength to the flames. Then down burst the storm of fire from heaven and earth. … ‘To the marsh’, shouted the people of Newcastle, as they rushed from the ruin of their houses towards a flat point of land running out into the river. The others pushed their way to the nearest beach, and there, on log or plank, or with head above water, they awaited the passing of the destroyer. … At Douglastown one house escaped, that wherein lay the body of one who had died a day before. The strength of a mother’s love was witnessed in the living infant found protected by the charred remains of a woman. Twelve houses alone stood in Newcastle and the blackened chimneys of 200 others.”
From The Burnt Church Relic by Louise Manny Published in The Maritime Advocate
“… The foregoing account contains all that I can discover at present about Relic and its container. Madame Paul made several brave attempts to add to my stock of information and her remarks follow”:
“… the Church at Burnt Church is fourth built there – two before Miramichi Fire and two since – not in exactly same spot. At time of Miramichi Fire Indians took Relic into Church – all Indians went inside and locked door, fire came rolling over and over down to them, and shot to this side, and to that side, away from Church, and did not burn Church. My old man’s mother was young married woman at time of Fire and often told him about it. Priest came and lived with Indians and learnt their language. Every Indian in Burnt Church knows where old Churches were. Old Church was built with great big timbers hewn by Indians. Long ago some sailors landed here – before Miramichi Fire – and when Indians saw them coming they ran away to woods. Sailors saw wigwams all empty, and they put some spruce boughs and things that would burn into Church and burnt it. Relic was always thought by Indians to have miraculous healing powers.”
From The Miramichi by Esther Clark Wright
Excerpt from Page 41
“… Alexander Rankin came out to the Miramichi in autumn of 1812 with James Gilmour, an older member of the firm … They arrived at Chatham … Gilmour and Rankin selected for their headquarters a site further up the river. … A sawmill was built at Douglastown and a shipbuilding yard was set up as well. Firm of Gilmour and Rankin prospered exceedingly and was able not only to survive the disaster of 1825 but also several depressions. Alexander Rankin, who remained in Miramichi in charge of affairs, worked hard and built wisely; rated employees fairly and earned their respect and devotion by his justice, integrity and kindness. His memory remained among Indians for generations: only a few years ago an old squaw said to Louise Manny:
“There was once a white man who was kind tothe Indians, and because of that, when the Fire was sent to destroy the white men, who were bad to the Indians, his house was spared. His name was Rankin.”
After the fire, Alexander Rankin’s house was a refuge for hundreds of destitute people, to whose relief he contributed generously from his own pocket in addition to acting as chairman of committee for distributing relief sent in from outside.”
From Description Miramichi Fire of 1825 Published in the Union Advocate
“… The following account of the great Miamichi Fire is said to have been written by an eye-witness, a sister, probably the eldest, of Samuel Thomson and daughter of the Rev. James Thomson, Presbyterian Minister in Chatham at the time of the Fire. … “
“ … The wind blew a violent hurricane from the northwest and brought with it from Douglastown and Newcastle and the surrounding country, such immense clouds of flames and ashes that it became extremely difficult to retain any position or to breathe. At Chatham the appearance of the heavens was awful representing as far as the eye was capable of extending one unvariable body of flames, the effect of which was frightfully increased from the appalling roar of the fire in all quarters, he wind blowing with such violence as to occasion the air to resound with one incessant thunder, among the vessels in the river a number were cast on shore, three of which namely the Ships ‘Concord’ and ‘Canada’, together with the brig ‘Jane’, were consumed, others were fortunately extinguished after the fire had attacked them. At Douglastown scarcely any kind of property escaped the ravages of the fire, … Chatham at present, contains about 500 of the unfortunate sufferers who have resorted to it for relief, having no means of subsistence, … At this scene the heart sickens to witness the widows and orphans that are without clothing, homes or the means of subsistence … The lower part of the town, altho’ suffering severely from the fire was not such a complete ruin as many other parts. Houses and outbuildings in this locality were mostly consumed by the brands of fire, blown across the river by the terrific hurricane, as an instance of the awfulness of the scene, the manse of the only minister in the place, Rev. James Thomson was crowded with terror-stricken women, who clung round his neck and seized his knees begging him to pray for them and crying, the last day has come”!
From Through Flame and Tempest by Jesse E. Lincoln New Brunswick Museum
“… Among the old people at Miramichi, the date from which events in local history are reckoned is ‘the great fire’. Such and such an occurrence happened ‘the year before the fire’ or ‘four years after the fire’ so they say with simple unconsciousness that the visitor may not know what they mean. … sixty-nine years have elapsed since that night of flame and tempest … Most of those who saw and survived the fire have since died. Not all of them, for recently I found one ‘oldest inhabitant’ who witnessed it. He now resides at Indiantown, and is a dark-skinned wrinkled little French-Canadian. When asked him if he remembered the ‘fire’ he looked up with sudden interest and answered in quaint Canadian French, that he did distinctly, as if it were but ‘day before yesterday’. He was only a boy then, he said, and his life was saved by taking refuge in a pit in which potatoes were stored, or in provincial English, a ‘potato hole’. The old man told his story with much spirit and fidelity to details. His name he told me was Louis Bubier. At the time of the fire he lived with his family in a small house of squared logs on the slope where the newer town of Newcastle now stands. The cabin was a little distance below the hill where a large Presbyterian Church, called the ‘Douglas Church’, had been erected that year, 1825. Already the village was the centre of a flourishing lumber business.
Acole Bubier, Louis’ father, worked in one of the sawmills and also cultivated a few acres of land, where he raised potatoes, garden vegetables and buckwheat. Besides Louis, then about twelve years old, there were seven other children, One, a girl named Marie, was a year older than Louis. The boy next younger was called Narcisse, the mother Gadelle; the grandmother was always known either as La vielle – the old woman – or Grandmere Bubier.
“Ah! But it was droughty that autumn”, said the old provincial, as nearly as I can translate his words, “very hot, very dry. The grass and the weeds had withered in the heat, so that they would crumble to tinder when one took them in his hand. The brooks and wells were all dry, too – we had to fetch all our water from the river, which was also very low. No rain fell in all the month of August; and only one little shower, just a few drops, in September. It grew so dry that when one would go out to walk in the woods, every little twig would snap and dust fly up under one’s feet. The marshes became all hard-baked, with great sun-cracks across them, and the bog-grass and reeds turned yellow. Our potatoes were no larger than little hen’s eggs in size, and turned green in the hills. All the sawmills stopped, but the men said, ‘There will soon be fall rains’, and they made up the gangs to go into the woods to cut timber, as usual. I remember that when one of the gangs went past our small house, my grandmother went to the door and called to them not to go into the forests. ‘If you so much as throw down a match when you light your pipes’, she said, ‘you will all be burned up’. They laughed, and she went back into the house, her head rocking from side to side. She was very old.
On the first day of October it was still as hot as August, and my grandmother said to my father, ‘Acole, this is the good time for you to dig a well’. So that day father and I dug a great hole not far from our house door. Next day we dug deeper still, and threw out great heaps of fresh gravel; but the gravel was dry. On the third day we had a large hole many feet deep. Every hour my grandmother came out to look down into the hole – she could not sit still in her chair long, but often came to the door and looked at the sky and the bay, for she had second sight. By and by, that day, we saw her fetching boards from the mill-yard. She dragged them, one at a time, and laid them in a little pile near our door. Father said to her, ‘Old mother, you must not do so’. But she put her palms against her forehead, and said, ‘My son, Acole, I know what I see’. We said nothing more to her, and that evening she laid the boards over the hole which we had dug. Then, with the ash-pan she scraped gravel over the boards. She was very old, and we thought her mind was disordered, so we let her do as she pleased. Next day we dug our potatoes and when Narcisse and Marie had picked them up from between the rows of hills, father carried them into the pit, which was a hole in the ground, eight or nine feet deep, covered with logs and turf, all but one small hole at the top.
I remember that day very well, for it seemed hotter than any before it. All the afternoon the sun was red as blood and looked larger than I ever saw it before, or since. Grandmother Bubier was still all the time going to and fro, and often stood long at the door of our house, looking at the sky. Toward night we believed that a rainstorm was at hand, for a great black bank of cloud rose over the forest in the west. The sun went out of sight in it. We thought there would soon be a shower, and everyone was glad. The black cloud rose very slowly, and some said it did not look quite like clouds. When father and I went in to our supper we found that my mother was very angry, for my grandmother had taken many of the things in the house and put them into the new well, even the tin dishes.
The first black man I ever saw was then in Newcastle, preaching, and that night he held a meeting by candle-light in the house of a man named Hardwick. I stood outside where I could look in through a window and see his black face and wooly hair. The evening was very dark, for the cloud had risen over nearly all the sky. Yet in the west there was a light – the northern lights, some said, for we often saw them there and supposed they betokened a change of weather. It was a tawny kind of light, and I heard a lumberman say that it must come from woods on fire far up the river. But most of us were listening to the black man and were much amused to see his thick lips and wooly hair. After a time we outsiders heard a drum a good way off up the river, and some said that a platoon of soldiers was coming into town, or that a man-of-war had anchored in the bay. Also a low, rumbling noise, which we took to be distant thunder, came to us whenever the preacher stopped talking. As we went toward home this roaring noise sounded more plainly, and seemed too steady for thunder. I thought it was a shower coming from the other side of the hill, and ran home. It roared strangely, and the wild light in the west looked very strange, too. But of all the strange sights the strangest was the forms of animals vaguely outlined on the hilltop against that queer light – animals that we believed to be deer and bears coming from the woods.
When I got to our house our folks were standing out-of-doors. None of he children were abed. Grandmother Bubier was dragging the feather-beds out to the new well. Now the air had a smoky smell, and all the world seemed darker for that amazing and yet dull light in the west. Then, as sudden almost as a flash of lightning, a great sheet of fire rose over the top of the hill! Immediately o’her sheets of flame streamed up into the sky, around to the west and northwest. In an instant all was bright as day. It was the most terrifying sight which I ever witnessed. Everyone who saw it shouted or screamed – it seemed as if the whole town cried out at once. Dogs barked and howled, horses snorted and galloped, cattle lowed and bawled in as great a terror as the people. Some shouted, ‘It’s the Judgment Day! The world’s on fire! The Judgment Day has come’! Many cried, and some fell on their knees, praying aloud. So frightened that I knew not what to do, I stood staring at the flames that darted far up into the sky behind the hill. The new church on the top of the hill burst into flame and in a moment was all ablaze. Till this we had felt no wind, but then a tornado struck the place suddenly. Boards, beams and shingles from the church, all ablaze, were whirled high into the air and fell over the whole village. The sky seemed full of flaming clouds, for such was the violence of the wind that great branches from pine-trees along the hilltop were twisted off and carried hundreds of feet into the air. Like birch bark they burned, and wherever they fell, they wrapped houses, mills and lumber piles in flames. In three minutes all Newcastle was on fire, and the peole, many of them in their night-clothes, fled shrieking, some toward the river, some to the marsh.
Narcisse and I were so frightened by the glare, the roaring and the flaming fire-clouds in the sky, that we started to run away headlong, but my father seized us and by main force dragged us to the potato pit, where my grandmother and mother had already put the smaller children. When we were all in there my father closed the hole at the top, all except one little crack, for the air was full of sparks and brands, and our house, shed and fences were burning with the rest of the village. Down in the hole we still heard the roaring; it seemed to come nearer and we feared that we should suffocate, or be baked by the heat. A little dog came whining, scratched at the hole, and jumped down among us. Smoke and a few embers drove into the hole, but we quenched them and were wonderfully preserved there, while more than a hundred of our fellow-villagers perished. A great many put out on the narrow bay in bateaux, or on rafts, which were swamped by the fury of the wind and waves. Not a few were obliged to run into the water with nothing better than a plank or a log to float them. Several swam across to the south shore. The idea that the end of the world had come took possession of a great many, and some, thinking it was useless to try to escape, sat down on the earth and were burned in their own door-yards. Very few saved anything not even their money, which was burned in the houses and stores. It was thought that a thousand head of cattle and horses perished, and the next day the charred bodies of many deer, moose and bears were found about the site of Newcastle.
In less than an hour the town, as also the surrounding forest, was wholly burned up, and so great had been the fury of the fire that there were few smoldering beams or trees left behind. All were burned up at once. Of our house nothing remained save a few white ashes, but the household things in the well were saved, for Grandmother Bubier had drawn gravel over the boards that covered it. Above ground the air was scorching during the entire night, and we kept to the pit for the most part; but before noon the next day the wind changed, and fog, with cooler weather, set in from the sea. We had our small potatoes left us, and did not suffer so much from want of food as many others. Some of the people were compelled to eat the flesh of animals that had perished in the fire.
The entire Miramichi country was a blackened desert. Its great pine forests had disappeared. Literally nothing was left except ashes, and but for the kindly supplies of breadstuffs sent us from other districts of the province and from the United States, a great many of the survivors would have died from starvation during the following winter”.