Grateful American® Foundation

What sparked the Great New Orleans Fire?

March 21st

660px-New_Orleans_fire_of_1788_mapMarch 21, 1788 — The Great New Orleans Fire today blew through 856 of the 1,100 structures in New Orleans, Louisiana (aka: New Spain). The blaze spanned the south central Vieux Carré from Burgundy to Chartres Street, and nearly touched the Mississippi River front buildings.

The Good Friday blaze began about 1:30 p.m. at the home of Army Treasurer Don Vincente Jose Nuñez, at 619 Chartres Street, corner of Toulouse — less than a block from Jackson Square. But because the fire started on a holy day, priests refused to allow church bells to be rung as a fire alarm. Within five hours, it had consumed almost the entire city as it was fed by a strong wind from the southeast.

The fire destroyed virtually all major buildings in the then-city (which is now known as the French Quarter), including the church, municipal building, army barracks, armory, and jail. Colonial Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró set up tents for the homeless.

Within six years, Colonial officials had replaced the wooden buildings with masonry structures that had courtyards, thick brick walls, arcades, and wrought iron balconies.

However, on December 8, 1794, another 212 buildings were destroyed in the “Great New Orleans Fire of 1794.” Rebuilding continued in Spanish style, and much of the French-style architecture that once was prominent disappeared from the city.

Words of Wisdom

If the imagination could describe what our senses enable us to feel from sight and touch, reason itself would recoil in horror, and it is no easy matter to say whether the sight of an entire city in flames was more horrible to behold than the suffering and pitiable condition in which everyone was involved. Mothers, in search of a sanctuary or refuge for their little ones, and abandoning — their earthly goods to the greed of the relentless enemy, would retire to out-of-the-way places rather than be witnesses of their utter ruin.

Fathers and husbands were busy in saving whatever objects the rapidly spreading flames would permit them to bear off, while the general bewilderment was such as to prevent them from finding even for these a place of security. The obscurity of the night coming on threw its mantle for a while over the saddening spectacle; but more horrible still was the sight, when day began to dawn, of entire families pouring forth into the public highways, yielding to their lamentations and despair, who, but a few hours before, had been basking in the enjoyment of more than the ordinary comforts of life.

The tears, the heartbreaking sobs and the pallid faces of the wretched people mirrored the dire fatality that had overcome a city, now in ruins, transformed within the space of five hours into an arid and fearful, desert. Such was the sad ending of a work of death, the result of seventy years of industry.

— Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró (1744 – June 4, 1795), summarizing the suffering that occurred during the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788. The Spanish army officer was governor of the Spanish American provinces of Louisiana and Florida. He was one of the most popular of the Spanish governors largely because of his prompt response to the 1788 fire that devastated New Orleans.

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