Let Me Remind You…About the Great Fire(s) of New Orleans
It was 1:30pm, on March 21, 1788, the sun was starting to warm the Mississippi shores of Louisiana, or then known as “The Territory of Orleans”. Spring was warming the air and bringing birds to sing their song in the budding trees. It also brought a cool, but very strong wind from the Southeast.
Near Jackson square, at the home of the Spanish army treasurer, Don Vincente Jose Nuñez (say that five times fast), the family gathered for a Good Friday meal. A prayer was said and many candles were lit on the alter to pay their respects. Somehow during this meal, the candles managed to catch the home on fire. The wooden structure caught flame like a match struck with a flint.
Don Vincente and his family escaped the home, screaming for the neighbors to get out of their homes. Like many ‘great fires’ throughout history have shown us: wood was a New-World way of building and it was far from fireproof. Unfortunately, when the French settled the New Orleans area, that was their main building material of choice and the French quarter was pretty much one big stack of timbers.
The strong wind carried the lick of the flames to the homes adjoining the Nuñez’s. Many of the women and men ran into the streets, carrying their children and only what they had on their backs. They watched as one-by-one, houses were engulfed by flames; smoke billowing into the sky, blotting out the sun; flames shot out of the windows like a dragon’s tongue tasting the air. The smell of burning timber filled their senses as they ran to get away from the heat of the flames, leaving behind everything they knew of their life just an hour before.
Pedestrians frantically ran to the churches, which would normally ring their bells to alert the residents of the French Quarter to emergencies, but they were denied. The priests refused to ring the bells because it was Good Friday.
Over the next five hours, the flames continued to spread like magnets to metal shavings. More and more homes and businesses catching fire, forcing more people into the streets to watch the destruction, choking on tears, sweat and smoke until finally the fires rescinded to the embers throughout 856 of the 1100 structures in New Orleans. 80% of the city was lost that day. The damage stretched between Dauphine and Chartres along the Mississippi; from Conti to St. Philips.
During the fire, men grabbed whatever they could and moved Her Majesty’s Treasures, any of the auditor’s papers and ammunitions or weapons they had stored. But many people had their own stash of guns and gun powder hidden in their homes, which exasperated the flames, combusting at every chance they got. The only two fire trucks that were in the city were burned as well.
Just like in the normal, New Orleans spirit, people who were unaffected by the fire stepped up and offered to help. Even crowd funding to rebuild the city. The people who lost their homes could apply for a tent to stay in just outside the city, if they had no family to stay with.
When Governor Esteban Miro Wrote to the Queen in Spain, he stated that the damages were estimated to be at $1,080,000, or $3,000,000 including personal belongings. Today, that would equal to over $59,000,000. Never-the-less, they rebuilt and continued on with living… Until 1794, when the second Great fire struck New Orleans.
Less is known about this fire, or how it started, but it happened on December 8, 1794, just a mere six years after the first. New Orleans had already been hit by two hurricanes that year and was not in the mood for something like this. Though this fire did significantly less damage, it still took 212 of the 1100 structures. Among those structures was the jail, where the inmates were moved to a schooner that was held offshore called the Nuestra Señora Del Carmen. They would remain there until February.
A notable man in this story is Andres Almonaster y Roxas. He was born of a noble family and once in New Orleans became the Notary Public. He solely funded the rebuilding of the Cabildo after both fires, along with providing funds for many other charitable endeavors to help the residents of the city.
Some of the structures that escaped both fires are still intact today, unaffected by the fire or time. One of them is a popular bar at the end of Bourbon St. called Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. It has remained mostly unchanged inside and out. Another is the Ursuline Convent, which has been renovated due to the disintegration of the aged building materials.
After the second fire, that was the last straw. New Orleans developed and continues to have strict fire codes. When the buildings were rebuilt, they are what you now see: wrought iron balconies, courtyards and brick or stucco facades. This look has become traditional New Orleans style.
To this day you must have a permit for things like, cutting or welding on your property, fumigation, and many more obvious open-flame permits. The houses must be made of more fire-proof materials like brick and abide by a strict building code to avoid repeating history.