It may seem strange that a devastating fire that consumed houses and treasures and ruined lives would be noted as one of the greatest things that ever happened to Newburyport.
I know that at the time of the fire it felt like the final nail on the City’s coffin.
There was the terrible Embargo of 1807 in which there was no trade between England and the United States. This was President Jefferson’s idea of ‘punishing’ the British for seizing our ships but the only people getting punished were sitting on rotting ships on our docks. Then came an unusually dry spring.
Then arrived the fateful night of May 31st, 1811. A hard westerly wind was blowing that evening. The fire was started around 9:30 in a stable by an arsonist. Even though a fire watch had been doubled due to suspicious fires in that area; the building was a blaze before hardly anyone could react. The wind pushed the fire in different directions and it spread so fast that many barely escaped with just the clothes on their backs. It raged through the night and actually caught some of the ships on fire on the wharves. Over 250 buildings were engulfed causing a firestorm that made it hard to endure the heat and making it hard to breath. The fire went as far as Fair Street and large portions of Middle Street on the east and westerly from Inn Street and all around Market Square. Sixteen acres were taken. Help came to put down the fires as far west as Haverhill and as far south as Beverly and Salem.
Before the fire, Newburyport was considered the fifth wealthiest city in the United States. After the fire, the wealth just drained out and businessmen drained out right along with the money. Prominent men such as Bromfield, Peabody, Perkins and many others went elsewhere. The War of 1812-15 found Newburyport suffering even more. Worst, after the War was over, Europe was no longer interested in obtaining goods from a neutral country like America. Our ships ended up not going anywhere.
So why do we celebrate this horrible thing?
Because of two important documents that were issued that sealed the renaissance of Newburyport:
The Brick Act of 1811
The Brick Act of 1812
The reason that we are the prettiest little town in all of New England is due to these acts.
They mandated that between Market and Federal Streets, stone and brick be used for construction and that firewalls be built between sections of the buildings. They also limited the height of the structures so fireman could more easily reach the top stories.
It was the first unified urban plan outside of Washington DC in the country. It was the first serious effort to establish a fire-resistant downtown. What was once a collection of wooden buildings was transformed into the beautifully themed Federalist downtown that we have today. We have visitors far and wide who come and visit and invest in our City because of our unified construction – its beauty makes us a favorite location.
Newburyport is like a Giant Redwood. These giants can not germinate their seeds unless a forest fire engulfs their cones. Out of it a mighty tree is formed.
If Newburyport had not had this fire, our wooden buildings would have long passed away for more modern structures and our appearance would have been mediocre.
Out of the fire has come a Phoenix* – A Lovely Newburyport.
* Hence the appropriately named Phoenix Room!