1788 Great Fire of New Orleans remembered


Artistic rendering of the impact of the 1788 Great Fire of New Orleans. Photo from Public Domain

Out of 1,100 structures that stood in the New Orleans French Quarter, 856 were destroyed in a fire that changed the city forever on March 21, 1788.

At 1:30 p.m. that day, a fire broke out in the home of Army Treasurer Don Vincente Jose Nunez on Chartres Street, less than a block away from Jackson Square. Over the next five hours, it quickly engulfed the city and the wooden infrastructure that made up most of the city’s buildings at the time as strong winds from the southeast helped the fire spread.

Because it happened on Good Friday, priests would not allow the church bells to be rung as fire alarms, and even though the church, the public prison and almost every home and business were destroyed, only one person died that day.

After the fire demolished almost the entire city, the Spanish replaced the former wooden buildings with new brick-walled buildings featuring courtyards, arcades and wrought iron balconies.

“Much of the population was left homeless,” Dr. Cindy Ermus, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Lethbridge, said in her book “Reduced to Ashes: The Good Friday Fire of 1788 in Spanish Colonial New Orleans”.

“The Spanish government was left with the major task of aiding the victims, rebuilding the city and funding the entire enterprise,” Ermus said.

The St. Louis Cathedral was ruined and completely rebuilt. Another important building wrecked by the fire was the Cabildo, which was the seat for the colonial government during that time. Both buildings were rebuilt and remain standing to this day.

“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,” Colonial Governor Estaban Rodriguez Miro said after seeing the devastating effects the fire had on the French Quarter.