The Great New Orleans Fire’s of 1788 & 1794
The fire began on a Good Friday around about 1:30 p.m. at the home of Army Treasurer Don Vincente Jose Nuñez, 619 Chartres Street, corner of Toulouse. The priests refused to allow church bells to be rung as a fire alarm because it was Good Friday. Within five hours almost the entire city was ablaze. There was a strong wind from the southeast which helped spread the flames. Around 856 buildings were destroyed.
The fire area stretched between Dauphine Street and the Mississippi River and between Conti Street in the south and St. Philip Street in the north. The fire destroyed virtually all the buildings in what is now known as the French Quarter. It spared the riverfront buildings including the Customs House, the tobacco warehouses, the Governor’s Building, the Royal Hospital, and the Ursuline Convent. Colonial Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró set up tents for the homeless.
The Governor summarized the tragedy:
“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.”
After six years of rebuilding, on December 8, 1794, another 212 buildings were destroyed in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1794. Still a colony of Spain, rebuilding continued in Spanish style, and most French-style architecture had disappeared from the city. The Mississippi River front buildings were sparred.