Mar 21 1788: The Great Fire of New Orleans

fire N O 1788

The massive scale of historic urban fires really makes you appreciate unsung amenities like smoke alarms and fire hydrants. Back in the olden days, when a fire started in one building, the whole block often went up, perfectly fueled by plenty of dry timber.

In the case of New Orleans, the city in fact weathered two great fires, just six years apart. 1788 was the first one. Then, after the city managed to mostly rebuild itself, another huge blaze tore through it in 1794.

The 1788 fire was by far the worse of the two. It started in a private home — that of army paymaster Don Vincente Nunez — on Good Friday around 1:30pm. While there doesn’t seem to be any explanation anywhere of how the fire started (a lit candle probably had something to do with it), historical accounts do note that “A wind from the south, then blowing with fury, thwarted every effort to arrest its progress.”

The flames quickly raced from building to building, and might have been brought under control had the local Catholic priests not decided that, given the day, church bells could not be used as a fire alarm. 

We can take consolation in the fact that, of the 856 buildings that went up in smoke — of 1,100 in total — the Catholic church was one of them.

The Great Fire of London, 1666  “The people of London who had managed to survive the Great Plague in 1665 must have thought that the year 1666 could only be better,” observes the website Historic UK. However, while the 1666 fire was indeed a doozy — leaving only one-fifth of the city standing — in fact, London’s fire of 1212 was far worse in terms of fatalities, killing upwards of 3,000 people. Amazingly, only six people died in 1666. This clever animated mini-documentary tells us how the fire of 1666 happened. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Er3GKw8Z3R4  (3 min, 42 sec)

Great Fire of Toronto, 1904  As a near-lifelong Torontonian, I had to give my fair city a nod with this actual footage of the blaze that someone managed to capture long before phone cameras. Here’s an interesting tidbit from Wikipedia on where the blaze started: “The flames were rising from the elevator shaft of the E & S Currie Limited’s neck wear factory at 58 Wellington Street West, just west of Bay Street (now the TD Bank Tower). The factory was situated in the centre of a large industrial and commercial area. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but a faulty heating stove or an electrical problem is suspected.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLA-fNhylIc  (2 min, 30 sec)

Kantō Fire of Tokyo, 1923  In a list of top-10 worst-ever fires, this was number one. Much of Tokyo had been flattened by an extreme (8.2) earthquake, and fires erupted across the city in its wake. Whipped into a frenzy by high winds, the fires became a giant blazing twister that tore through the city and killed tens of thousands of people.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b3cql8QsIY (1 min. 54 sec)

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