"The Great Fire
" of 1811
. In one night much of the town's wealth was destroyed. It reaped over a million dollars
in damage. The fire affected the most crowded and wealthiest part of town, destroying about 250 buildings including the offices and shops of the most prominent citizens. It weakened the town right before the War of 1812
nearly bankrupted it. Between these two occurrences Newburyport
lost over half its wealth. The town dropped from one of the wealthiest to just average.
It was Friday, May 31, 1811. The weather had been very dry for a couple of weeks and there was a strong westerly wind
blowing. The fire was believed to have been started by an arsonist that night at nine-thirty. It started in an unoccupied stable on Inn Street, the very center of the downtown
. Around this stable there had been fires started for a few weeks, but all the previous ones were stopped immediately. Because of these the fire
watch was doubled.
This didn't help contain the "Great Fire" however. By the time the fire was spotted, the flames had already engulfed the entire building. Citizens
of downtown who were awakened by the cry of "Fire!" had ,in some cases, only minutes to get everything and everyone out of their homes. The fire was unable to be stopped and immediately headed toward the most crowded part of downtown.
By one o'clock in the morning of June 1, the fire was at its peak. It burned in unpredictable directions on account of the strong wind and buildings which were at first deemed safe from it were destroyed. One of the biggest casualties was the Baptist
meeting house in Market Square
which had in it the valuables of many people which had been put there for safety. Around this time the fire was burning in almost 16 acres. The flames were so high that help came immediately from Salisbury
. Rowley, Ipswich, Danvers
, Beverly, Haverhill, Topsfield, Bradford, and Salem
all sent help which arrived shortly. Buildings around the fire were blown up during it to help slow down its progress. The streets were described as an oven where it was hard to even walk because of the temperatures
. The sounds were described as what it must sound like in the Earth before a volcano erupts.
The fire was finally taken under control by six in the morning of June 1st. After the fire sixteen and one half acres were gone. The entire business center of Newburyport
, virtually all of downtown
was destroyed. Including every printing office, four bookstores, many stores and offices, and the library. Citizens of Salem stayed and kept watch
the next night over the area because the Newburyporters had been up all night. Immediate efforts were started to help the victims of the fire. Most wealthy Newburyporters were suddenly in poverty. Two, William Bartlett and Moses Brown, were not hit hard and gave a combined forty five hundred dollars. From other cities came more money. Boston
sent the most with $24,315.25, followed by Philadelphia
with $13,000, Salem
with $10,000 and clothing, and Charlestown with $1,744.55. Donations were also received from Hingham, Waltham, Marlborough, Brighton, Attleborough, and Medford. Many donations were sent for the sole purpose of rebuilding the Baptist church. The Shaker
communities of Enfield and Canterbury, N.H. sent clothing, bedding, food, and furniture. One hundred and thirty thousand dollars was the total amount collected.
When the money received was distributed to the citizens
, it was kept from those with a worth of five thousand dollars or more. This may have hurt the town in future years because some of the most enterprising men now had no more money than the least enterprising. If they could have been given enough money to start their businesses again they would have been able to make good their losses and employ the others. As it was, there was suddenly a majority class of citizens in Newburyport
who could just manage to live on their property and had no money to risk in investments. For five years previous to this fire there had been an embargo
placed on American
ports by the British
navy which had already hurt the economies of port cities and towns like Newburyport
. There was frequent fighting between American
vessels which was leading to war. The brig "Hannah" run by a Newburyport
captain, Captain Dennis, was on a run to Russia
and was seized by a British
sloop-of-war and sent to Yarmouth, England
. A ship from Newburyport
, the "Alert", captained by William Nichols of Bordeaux
, was boarded by a British
vessel and ordered into Plymouth, England. Captain Nichols and his men regained control of that ship, but then lost it again to a British
man-of-war and sent to Portsmouth, England.
After the fire, the town's valuation dropped a million dollars
to $6,074,600. In 1815, after the War of 1812
, the town's valuation dropped to $3,853,200. The overall loss had reduced Newburyport
's wealth to half that of 1807
. The average person's wealth went form $5,089 before the embargo, fire, and war to $2,716 afterwards. The median of wealth dropped from $1,600 to $500. The number of men worth more than $25,000 dropped from thirty-six in 1807 to just twelve in 1815
. Those with at least $10,000 fell by half. One man, Zebedee Cook, had watched his worth go from $30,000 in 1807 to $2,700 eight years later.
When the war was over and Newburyport
had rebuilt it's downtown shipowners rushed to get their vessels out to sea. Ships rushed out of Newburyport
for the familiar West Indies
, came back and didn't set out again. Direct runs from Newburyport
weren't needed any longer because the European
countries were now at peace and didn't rely on American
neutral trade any longer. There were no longer any business opportunities in the town. It has been said that Newburyport
has been a prolific exporter of young men ever since the "Great Fire." Many port
cities and towns were hurt by the embargo
and the War of 1812
, but all recovered in time. The one thing which made Newburyport
different was the fire. The unlucky timing of that fire hit the citizens
at a time when they could do little to regain what they had lost. When the commerce of the city, then town, was slowed by the embargo
it was all but stopped by the "Great Fire" then shut down after the War of 1812
. No other event has ever changed the city as much or as long as the Great Fire of 1811.