The story below was printed with permission of Susan Butler, Director of the Miramichi Folksong Festival and from the book Songs of Miramichi by Louise Manny and James Reginald Wilson.
On October 7, 1825, a great fire, usually known as the Miramichi Fire, laid waste 6,000 to 8,000 square miles of Northern New Brunswick. It destroyed one-fifth of the total land area of the province.
The heaviest destruction was in the Miramichi area of Northumberland County, especially in the 400 square miles of Newcastle Parish.The Great Fire was the worst disaster that ever befell Miramichi. It was the largest fire in extent ever recorded up to that time. The song says it was "forty-two miles by one hundred" but there were scattered fires in Glouester, Kent, York and Sunbury Counties as well.
The whole fire burned so fiercely that it was all over in ten hours. It swept down from the Nor'West River, burning a mile a minute on a 30-mile front and rushed down the north side of the main river. It jumped the river in three places, and roared past the new St. Paul's Church at Bushville, destroying all before it. Ships in port burned to the water's edge and sank.
The settlers and their families rushed to the river, if they could make it and stood in the water up to their necks all night. Their livestock and the wild beasts of the forest stood with them. Babies were born on Strawberry Marsh at Newcastle and on rafts in the river.
No one who lived through it ever forgot that awful night and people still tell stories of the fire as if it had happened yesterday. The legend persists that the fire was sent on the country for its sins. People say that their grandparents described how the heavens opened and the fire rained down. They were convinced the country had been smitten by the hand of God.
The summer of 1825 had been unusually hot and dry, the ground was like tinder. Once the fire started, it would create its own draft and literally roar along on the wings of the wind. The whole Miramichi Valley was a white pine forest and as the fire gained momentum, it leaped from one pine-tree top to another, until the countryside was blazing.
The scenes along the river as the morning of the eighth of October dawned have passed into legend. As far as the eye could see there were the million blackened spires of the pine trees and the dreary and desolate landscape. There were heaps of cinders where the houses had been. There, if he were lucky, the settler might find some potatoes roasted in the heat of the fire, or some porridge, in a heavy iron pot, not too scorched to eat.
Everywhere there were the burned bodies of animals, beginning to cause a dreadful stench in the October air. It was never known how many people had perished in the woods, but it was supposed at least 200.
In this devastation the settlers lost all they had. Their homes were completely demolished. In many cases the small stores of money which they had concealed in their houses or buried in their gardens could not be found, as the buildings and grounds were reduced to heaps of hot ashes.
The potential lumber exports for fifty years to come were greatly depleted. The fire had burned so rapidly that in many cases the tops of the pines were destroyed and the trunks left standing. The trunks were salvaged for building, and that is why many old Miramichi houses have such fine lumber used in their construction.
The fire destroyed all the food that had been stored for the winter. The settlements which had not been burned were faced with the problem of providing food and shelter for the homeless. There wasn't much time to get supplies to the stricken people before the river froze over. But help was sent from Halifax, Saint John, St. Andrews, Eastport, Boston, New York, Montreal and Quebec. People roofed over their stone cellars and spent the winter in them. Food was doled out by a committee and somehow the settlers survived.
Poetry and Song
A few days after the disaster, John Jardine of Black River wrote his narrative in verse of the Great Fire. Sung to a slow, dirge-like tune, the ballad is still well known in Miramichi. Besides our homespun poet, men with more literary ability were inspired to write of the catastrophe. There is a long poem by an anonymous author, who signed himself "Benevolence." George Manners, British Consul in Massachusetts, wrote a poem, which he published in pamphlet form, and sold for the benefit of the sufferers.
There is in St. Paul's Churchyard at Bushville, Miramichi, a monument to Ann, wife of John Jackson, and her six children. The mother and three of the children perished in the fire, the three others died from its effects.
The memorial inscription ends:
"Forests were set on fire, and hour by hour,
They fell and faded and the crackling trunks
Extinguished with a crash,
All earth was but one thought,
And that was Death."
We have four recordings of this well-known song with three different tunes, but the words of the four recordings are identical or nearly so. Probably no Miramichi song was written down as often when it was first composed, and probably none has appeared in print as many times. Only one line of John Jardine's song appears to have been altered by copyists. The original song read "Just out back of Gretna Green." "Gretna Green" was the old name of Douglastown; it was changed to honor New Brunswick's Governor, Sir Howard Douglas. Sir Howard's house in Fredericton was threatened by fire, and there were scattered fires on the trail to Miramichi, but he rode over on horseback to offer help and sympathy to the stricken people.
The members of the thirteen families who lived in the "back lots" - that is the lots furthest from the river, were all destroyed except one person. Someone who copied the song much later, to print it in a newspaper, did not know about the early name, so decided that the line meant that the families had just come out from Gretna Green. About 1890, the Newcastle Union Advocate printed the song as a broadside, of which Miss Hannah Miller of the Miramichi Historical Society, has preserved a copy. This time the copyist altered the line to: "Just out back of Britain's green" - perhaps he considered the phase was an obscure reference to the settlement founded in 1812 by the Scottish firm of Gilmour, Rankin & Co. However, this time tradition is stronger than print, and we always hear the line as "Just out back of Gretna Green."
When Edmund Robichaud was a young man, he lived for a time with Rev. B.J. Murdoch at Bartibogue Station. Father Murdoch enjoyed hearing Edmund read and sing, and gave him a printed copy of the song. Edmund had never heard it sung, but he composed a sort of speaking chant, which he felt suited the tragic story.
The fortitude of the Miramichi people has never been better shown than in their recovery from the Great Fire. The following year saw the rebuilding of Newcastle and Douglastown. Plans were made for a revival of trade, though the situation in the Old Country was very unpromising. The firm of Fraser and Thom built a ship at Beaubear's Island. William Abrams, at Rose Bank, who had lost two vessels in the fire, laid down the keel of another, which he named Phoenix, after the fabled bird which rises from flames. The Phoenix, a fine stout ship of black birch, hackmatack, elm and pine, was still registered at Lloyd's in 1850. (The information about the extent of the Miramichi Fire is taken from J. Clarence Webster's Historical Guide to New Brunswick 1941. The remainder of the description was culled from old documents and local tradition).