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The Wall Street of Saint John

For the week of Monday June 16, 2003

On the afternoon of June 20, 1877, a fire started at York Point in Saint John, New Brunswick. Fires had been commonplace in the city since the first in 1784, but “Black Wednesday,” as it came to be known, was the last and worst of them all. Although other Canadian cities, such as Montréal and Halifax, also suffered great fires during the 19th century, Saint John was by far the hardest hit.

A period lithograph showing the Great Fire at its peak

A period lithograph showing the Great Fire at its peak
© E.J. Russell / Library and Archives Canada / C 41022

Saint John’s Great Fire began when sparks from a lumber mill landed in nearby hay, which was always kept handy for horses. A strong northwest wind fed the flames, pushing them towards the city’s densely built wooden buildings. The fire ravaged Saint John for nine hours, causing nine deaths, leaving 13 000 homeless, and destroying 290 acres of land including more than 1 600 buildings. Almost the entire south end of the city was destroyed.

Today, Prince William Street's buildings are a great example of Victorian architecture.

Today, Prince William Street's
buildings are a great example of
Victorian architecture.

© Parks Canada / J. Butterill / 1995

Saint John immediately began the rebuilding process, with most new structures respecting the new building code implemented after the fire. This code severely limited wooden construction and encouraged the use of fire-resistant brick and stone. Prince William Street saw the lion’s share of development, with 44 new buildings constructed within a year of the fire, and more money spent than anywhere else in Saint John. Most new construction on the street was done in the eclectic styles of the Victorian period. In a few short years, a variety of businesses and banks, the post office, city hall, and the customs house were built. This wave of rebuilding gave the street a high degree of consistency, an exceptional architectural feat that is rarely accomplished. By using different patterns, colours and textures of brickwork and stone on the façades, architects gave each building its own unique character without disrupting the streetscape's harmony. Since the new buildings were mainly commercial and financial, Prince William Street soon gained the title “the Wall Street of Saint John.”

Prince William Streetscape was designated a National Historic Site in 1981, and was the first street to hold this honour. Its rare concentration of Victorian architecture, as well as its importance to the city of Saint John and Atlantic Canada, earned the streetscape this distinction.

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