The day New Orleans burned (the first time)
It was Good Friday, so of course a candle was burning in the Chartres Street home of Don Vincente Nunez, the military treasurer of the province. New Orleans had changed hands from the French to the Spanish 20 years earlier, but that didn’t change its Catholic core. But Good Friday of 1788 turned out to be a bad Friday for New Orleans. That candle caught the drapes on fire in the Nunez home. It quickly spread. Five hours later, most of the city lay in smoldering ruin.
We still call it the French Quarter, but there’s very little French about the architecture of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood. That’s because of the Fire of 1788, which burned 856 of the city’s 1,100 buildings, including stores, homes, the church, Charity Hospital and the military armory. (But not the muskets. The muskets, they saved.)
- Because it was Good Friday, priests refused to ring the church bells in alarm. That, along with strong south wind, gave the fire a chance to spread.
- Among the French-era buildings to have survived the 1788 conflagration is the Old Ursuline Convent, completed in 1752-1753, and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, built 1722-32. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places.
- With several hundred people lacking food and shelter after the fire, Gov. Esteban Miro — the guy after whom the street is named — approved erection of a tent city on present-day Jackson Square to house them and threw open the government’s store of food. In addition, he dispatched ships to Philadelphia to bring back provisions and lifted restriction on trade to the city in order to speed relief efforts.
- The fire of 1788 was one of two to cripple New Orleans in its first century. The other came just six years later in 1794. While the second fire burned just 212 buildings, the financial losses were reportedly greater.
- Architecturally, the 1788 fire might have done New Orleans a favor, according to Grace King. In her 1895 book “New Orleans: The Place and its People,” she wrote: “What lay in the ashes was, at best, but an irregular, ill-built, French town. What arose from them was a stately Spanish city, proportioned with grace and built with solidity, practically the city as we see it to‑day.”
From the fires of 1788 and 1794 to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and 2010’s BP oil spill, New Orleans is a place familiar with disaster. But it’s also one familiar with picking itself up, dusting itself off and persevering. They call it the City that Care Forgot, but they might as well call it the City That Won’t Bow Down. It didn’t then, and — if history is any guide — it won’t the next time disaster strikes.