Saturday, August 17, 2019
Fairfield County, Connecticut, Neighborhood: Downtown

The Great Fire of 1845

The Great Fire of 1845

When Bridgeport first became its own city in 1836, one of the first orders of business was to regulate the fire-fighting practices of the day. Without a professional fire crew, chaos reigned at every fire, with no one in charge and no one quite sure what to do. The council’s solution was simple; each fireman was required to carry a five foot long white wand as a symbol of authority. No one else was allowed to give orders, but everyone was required to pitch in by hauling water in leather buckets when ordered to do so. And no citizen was allowed to leave the scene until they had permission.

This community organization, as crude as it seems today, helped save the city on December 12, 1845, when the cry of “fire” was heard throughout the downtown area at 1:30 am. George Wells’ oyster saloon on Bank Street had somehow caught ablaze. High winds that night blew the flames to nearby buildings and low tide put the water out of reach of the hoses. Mud from the harbor clogged the pipes in the hand powered fire engines.

The flames quickly spread down Bank Street, over to State Street, and up and down Water Street. Storekeepers tried to save furniture and goods by removing them from buildings in danger. On the wharf, huge barrels of molasses had just been off loaded, and they exploded, sending sticky sugar all over the docks and setting aflame the West India brig that had brought them to Bridgeport.

William Peet’s house on State Street became the keystone, and all efforts were made to stop the fire here by covering the outer walls with water-soaked carpets. This unusual method worked, and prevented the fire from reaching Main Street. People worked together frantically to stop the fire in other directions. William Wall donated crackers and cheese from his grocery to help hungry firemen. Women brought hot pots of coffee from all over town to keep the men awake. By four in the morning, the worst was over, and by day, all the remnants of the terrible fire had been extinguished.

The town took stock and mourned. Forty nine buildings had been destroyed, and forty families had lost everything. Property loss exceeded $150,000, a huge sum at the time, including not only the buildings but an entire lumber yard, 800 barrels of flour, 100 barrels of mackerel, leather goods, cordage, paints, meats, clothing, drugs, shoes, and of course the molasses. The struggling retail community in Bridgeport moved up from the docks to Main Street, and remained centered there for the next hundred years.

There were other fires in Bridgeport in the following decades, including the tragedy at P.T. Barnum’s mansion of Iranistan. In 1877 Bridgeport would face another destructive fire at the Glover hat factory, which would claim the lives of 11 men. But no other fire would destroy such a large swath of the town, nor change the landscape of the city’s growth, the way the fire of 1845 did. Let us hope that remains true in the coming centuries.

Eric Lehman
Eric Lehman
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport, and is the author of several books, including Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City; Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P.T. Barnum and the Dawn of American Celebrity; Afoot in Connecticut: Journeys in Natural History; and A History of Connecticut Wine; and ; A history of Connecticut food : a proud tradition of puddings, clambakes and steamed cheeseburgers. You may contact him at elehman@bridgeport.edu.