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Saint-Jean, a district forged by fire

A district forged by fire

Québec City was struck by a series of blazes in the 19th century. The fires of 1845 and 1881 left their mark in particular on the layout and architecture of the Saint-Jean district. Direct consequences of the fires can still be seen in the streets between Rue Saint-Jean and Lower Town, while others are scattered throughout the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood.

The great fire of 1845

Around midnight on June 28, 1845, a fire broke out on Rue D’Aiguillon. Powerful winds immediately spread the flames from wooden house to wooden house until the whole of the Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis districts had been devastated. The blaze was so intense that people living in Trois-Rivières, 125 kilometres from the city, could see the glow in the sky.

Victims of an equally large fire that had razed Saint-Roch in Lower Town one month earlier once again found themselves on the street. This time there was precious little help available to them or the 10,000 people most recently made homeless. Soldiers put up hundreds of tents on the Plains of Abraham as temporary shelter, and the government provided an emergency fund for the victims—some two-thirds of the city’s population.

A city at risk

There are a number of reasons to explain why Québec was one of the cities in North America most afflicted by fire in the 19th century. Narrow plots of land and no alleyways increased housing density, for one thing, while many of the homes were made of wood. The water supply was also deficient.

Seven years after the disastrous summer of 1845, the city began building a new waterworks system to boost the water supply, which until that point had been provided by public fountains and water carriers. The waterworks was completed in 1865, then enlarged three times to meet the city’s needs.

Next the city prohibited using wood to rebuild homes in the three devastated districts, but many residents were too poor to comply. In other places in the Saint-Jean district, the city was broadening and straightening certain streets, as well as creating two new streets that would act as “fire walls”: Deligny and Sainte-Marie. Starting in 1849 night patrols began to keep watch in the district. Then in 1866 the city set up its own fire department. The first permanent firefighters worked in the Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis districts, based in a fire station at the Berthelot market.

Return to order

The city was ultimately unable to ban the many wooden homes in the Saint-Jean district. It did, however, force some owners to move their houses because lot and street boundaries were not being respected, a situation that led to quarrels between neighbours and also blocked traffic, an additional hazard if fire broke out. In 1875 Paul Cousin drew up a detailed survey plan that the city used to restore order to the district, arranging the streets in straight lines that are still evident today.

The great fire of 1881

But another blaze broke out on June 8, 1881. Starting in a stable on Rue Sainte-Marie, the fire spread with lightning speed to 1,000 buildings in the Saint-Jean district, including Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church. Five thousand people were affected, but fortunately the area east of Rue Sainte-Geneviève was spared.

Rebuilding work was carried out quickly. This time only brick and stone were used and in many cases mansard roofs replaced gable roofs, which were less practical and had fallen out of fashion. On Rue Richelieu to the east and west of Sainte-Geneviève, the differences between the houses rebuilt after 1845 and spared by the second fire (wooden walls, gable or mansard roofs) and the homes built after 1881 (brick walls, flat or mansard roofs) can still be seen today.

The city has since been spared other major fires.

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