#68 - THE CONFLAGRATION OF 1820 IN CLARE
Yarmouth Vanguard, Tuesday, April 17, 1990
For many years, the people in Saint Mary's Bay have been talking of the great fire that took place in 1820 between Little Brook and Grosses Coques, for a distance of four miles, when 18 houses and 23 barns were burned to the ground.
It started in Little Brook, where is now located the bowling-alleys hall. It was early in September. A piece of ground had been cleared and branches had been set on fire. All having been consumed, no danger whatsoever was apprehended. Unfortunately, nobody realized that the peat underground was smothering. On the 10th of the month, a soft breeze from the south activated the embers which flared up. At first, on that Sunday evening, it did not attract much attention. But as the fire advanced slowly and reached the nearby forest, the alarm was sounded, especially a couple of days later when the wind got stronger and the flames started to lick a house, which was its first victim.
This took place on Tuesday, when the wind had changed slightly towards the northeast, with violent force and swift velocity, as it happens so often at this time of the year in our region. The forest, all along the coast, interrupted here and there by a clearing in which stood a house, a barn and cultivated fields, soon became a real inferno. The flames ran over the dry grass at a good pace and leaped from tree top to tree top, shooting sparks in the air that the wind carried further on, igniting in advance a new spot, that being the reason why the fire went so fast.
One can easily imagine the state of panic that overtook the people. Taking in haste with them whatever they could grab, food, clothing, they rushed towards the shore, some by foot, others in carts drawn by oxen, carrying in their arms infants and giving a helping hand to the cripples and the aged, pushing in front of them their cattle, sheep, swines and fowls.
When the fire broke out, Father Sigogne was in Meteghan, where probably he had gone for the Sunday services. When he was told that day, probably in the evening, of the fire, he did not realize how bad was the situation. He told the people not to get panicky, as there was no reason to be afraid. But when he arrived in Church Point, he saw that it was another story. Already, on that Tuesday, the fire was gaining rapidly towards the church and the rectory. He did his best to save those buildings at the risk of his life, but to no avail. He was able to carry away the sacred vessels, the church vestments and his books. The fire had caught him so fast, that he suffered a great amount of burns, especially to his hands. Nevertheless, he was able to carry everything to the point where stood the first church, from which Church Point got its name, where now stands idle the old lighthouse. For several days he was confined in bed, while nursing his wounds. It was only after several weeks that he was able to write to the Bishop of Québec to let him know what had happened. It was in this fire that the church bell of St. John the Baptist of Port Royal, that Mr. Troop had unearthed on the spot where stood the church at Granville and given to Father Sigogne, perished, as I said previously in sketch No. 58.
The fire did not stop here. It kept on towards Grosses Coques, up to a low laying ground, at a brook or bridge which used to be known as Placide Belliveau's, my cousin Felix Thibodeau tells me; for those who know the place, it is between the two roads which cross the main road, which used to bear the names of "Joppe" and of "Zidore."
On its path, there were only three houses which were spared, all in Church Point. It is said that Anselme LeBlanc's house, northwest of the small lake known as the "Lac-a-Isaac" (Isaac's Lake, who occupied the house many years later) known also as the "Lac-à-Seraphin" (Seraphin's Lake) was spared due to the fact that the violent wind over the lake spread a heavy mist on the walls of the house making it fireproof.
Was spared also the house of Jean Thibodeau (the maternal grandfather of my maternal grandmother) on the road known as the "Chemin-a-Patrice" (Patrick road). It stood too far inland to be touched by the flames. This house is still occupied.
The other house belonged to Frederic Belliveau, called "Tikine", just abreast of what the map gives as "Ticken Cove." It now belongs to Colin Campbell, M.P. for south West Nova. It was protected by the fact that the ground had been plowed all around it. The story goes that "Tikine," leaving the house, made a sign of the cross with his finger on the door and said: "To God the house; the rest to the fire."
Among the casualties there was an infirm colored man who died in his hut, close to the church, and "the family of Mr. Dennis Doucette, eight in number." (Beamish Murdoch, "History of Nova-Scotia," III, p 457.)
Those who were left homeless, took refuge at their relatives. It did not take long for succours of every nature to pour in. The Provincial government sent immediately blankets, clothing, beds and all the articles of prime necessity, like nails to rebuild the houses and instruments to plow the fields. New Brunswick sent potatoes, barley, corn. Help even came from as far as the United States.
In the meantime, the sawmills got to work, making boards and shingles, even from trees which had been blackened by the fire. It is said that within a month after the devastating fire, most of the houses had been rebuilt, more spacious and better lighted than the previous ones.
Father Sigogne rebuilt the church on the foundation of the one which had burned, in what is now the cemetery of the parish. It was built on the model of the Anglican Church of St. Paul in Halifax. It was more spacious and more elegant than the previous one. It was known in southwestern Nova Scotia as "La Grande Église," the Big Church. The rectory was also rebuilt; it still stands in Church Point, being now a home occupied by a local family.
In the neighbouring villages, as Meteghan and Belliveau's Cove, it is said that for a number of weeks people had to huddle themselves in bedrooms and that the dinner tables had to be stretched to accommodate everybody.
The memory that the victims of the sinister of 1820 have kept of the generosity of their neighbours mitigated somewhat the awesome thought of the conflagration that they had witnessed and have kept in their mind as the worst calamity ever to strike Saint Mary's Bay.
I may note here that, on that same month of September, on the 25th, another devastating fire occurred at the boundary between Digby and Yarmouth counties, when 12 houses were destroyed. See Isaiah W. Wilson, "A Geography and History of the County of Digby," p. 151.