Friday, March 30, 2018

Detroit's Great Fire of 1805

"The Detroit Fire: June 11, 1805" painting by Robert Thom (1965).

Detroit's history is forged in fire. From the furnaces of its steel industry to a history of blazing civil unrest, Detroit is as familiar with fire as Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco. From the senseless arson of Devil's Night to the vigilante urban renewal of more recent years, fire has been an agent for change and part of the city's destiny.

Major General Arthur St. Clair
Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair approved Detroit's city charter on February 1, 1802. On the 23rd of the month, the Michigan Board of Trustees adopted a fire code requiring all residents and business owners to sweep their chimneys regularly, have a large barrel full of water, buckets at the ready, and a ladder that could reach rooftops. The code compelled all residents to turn out to form fire brigades when necessary, carrying water from the banks of the Detroit River to the three acre timber stockade where the wooden homes were crowded together separated by narrow lanes. 

At about 9:00 am on June 11, 1805, the only fire-fighting equipment the city had were wooden buckets. Although no official cause for what history notes as the Great Fire was ever determined, it was widely believed that baker John Harvey carelessly tapped out some hot tobacco ash from his pipe catching some straw on fire. The fire quickly consumed his barn and spread embers throughout the city. It soon became evident that the fire brigade efforts were useless. The fire spread too quickly. Residents saved what they could and fled from the stockade. By afternoon, every home and building was razed except for the stone fort along the waterfront and some brick chimneys.

Father Gabriel  Richard
Fortunately, nobody was killed. Jesuit Priest Gabriel Richard comforted his parishioners in Latin before the smoldering embers of St. Anne's church, "Speramus Meliora Resurget Cineribus." Those words became the official motto of the City of Detroit in 1827.

Judge Augustus Woodward
The legacy of the Great Fire is still evident in 21st century Detroit in two ways. First, when Detroit was rebuilt, Judge Augustus Woodward took on the task of city planning by laying out a street plan that radiated spoke-like from the riverfront with broad avenues--Fort Street, Michigan Avenue, Grand River Boulevard, Woodward Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, and Jefferson Avenue reached inland to the outskirts of the city and beyond. The new municipal code called for larger lots for commercial development as well as a military parade ground named Campus Martius and a public park named Grand Circus Park anchoring what became Downtown Detroit.  

In the days of horse-drawn carriages and wagons, the street arrangement may have seemed elegant and sophisticated. After all, the street plan was based on the urban layouts of Washington D.C. and Paris, France. But in our modern fast-paced society of high speed automobiles, the eighteenth-century arrangement of diagonal streets is difficult to navigate by car and not particularly pedestrian friendly.

The second way Detroiters are reminded of the Great Fire is emblazoned on the city's official flag reflecting its early history. The flag's field is divided into quarters. One panel represents the city's French heritage with five golden fleurs-de-lis on a white background. One panel represents British rule with three golden lions on a red background. The other two panels represent the United States. One has thirteen stars on a blue background and the other has thirteen red and white stripes. The city's emblem and motto are centered on the flag. A woman weeps while another comforts her with the words of Father Richard, "We hope for better times. It will rise from the ashes." In our time, these words are prophetic.

Link to post about St. Anne's Catholic church:

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