On Good Friday, 1788, at 1:30 in the afternoon, Vicente José Núñez, the army’s paymaster, stood before the altar he had erected in his house on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, lighting candle after candle. Only after more than fifty flames burned did he relent. A letter published a few months later in The London Chronicle would claim that Núñez lit the wax tapers “as if his prayers could not ascend to heaven without them.” As the members of his household pressed their palms together and closed their eyes in devotion, perhaps they initially mistook the growing warmth they felt as a divine response. Or more likely, they left the candles burning to mark the sanctity of the day when they sat down to dinner. Whenever they finally did turn their attentions once again to the private chapel, its ceiling and the shingles above it, which were probably wooden, had caught on fire.
A particularly strong wind from the South fueled and spread the developing inferno. The wooden houses of the city drew the conflagration onward. As families scrambled to save loved ones or what material goods they could manage, frequent explosions punctuated the roar of the flames as the fire uncovered private (and illegal) supplies of gunpowder. There were no firemen or even an organized plan to form a bucket brigade.
The fire consumed nearly eighty percent of the city (the same proportion ruined by another terrible disaster in 2005). Though it destroyed almost every shop, most houses, the church, the arsenal, and even the public prison, only one person died that night.
Governor Esteban Mirò and Intendant Martìn Navarro acted decisively and immediately. The morning after the fire, the local officials issued a general order preventing anyone from raising the price of provisions above their former value. They sent messages to planters up and down the Mississippi River from New Orleans to send their crops to market and distributed the goods among the newly poor. They borrowed from the royal coffers (Louisiana was a Spanish colony in 1788) to send three ships to Philadelphia to buy flour so as to prevent famine. Within twenty-four hours they managed to find shelter for every last resident. Mirò was even said to have spent part of that day standing in front of his house handing out money to those in greatest need.
Ably cared for by a conscientious and forward-thinking government that recognized that “the loss caused to His Majesty by the fire is of slight consideration,” New Orleans sprang from the ashes renewed. Others contributed to the rebuilding as well. Don Andrés Almonester y Roxas built the cathedral as a gift to the city and financed the Cabildo and other public buildings. Eleven days after the fire, Madame Gravier and her husband, Don Beltran Gravier, drew up a plan that subdivided their plantation and allowed the city to expand upriver into what would become the American Sector. The center of the new suburb included a public plaza that would later be named Lafayette Square. Despite continued obstacles and another large fire just six years later, New Orleans grew and even thrived.
Most New Orleanians now know Mirò merely as a street that winds through parts of the city, following the curve of the river. They drive down it without remembering that the man for which it is named, along with Navarro and others of the time, were responsible for the recovery from the Good Friday Fire of 1788. It was those leaders’ competence, cooperation and imagination that prevented a population loss and set the city on a path to becoming an important and prosperous financial hub. As one account eloquently explained, “In place of the flourishing city of the day before, one could see nothing more than ruins and debris; still smoking. . . . [But,] we found all the compassion that could be expected in our governor’s generous heart and quickness of perception to dry our tears a little and supply our needs.”
For a more detailed account, please see the sources upon which this article is based: Lauro A. De Rojas and Walter Prichard, ed., “The Great Fire of 1788 in New Orleans,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. 20, Issue 3 (1937); “Report of Governor Esteban Miro and Intendente Martin Navarro on the Fire Which Destroyed New Orleans March 21, 1788,” found in Publications of the Louisiana Historical Society, Vol. VIII, 1914-15; Jon Kukla, A Wilderness So Immense (Anchor Books, 2004); Mary Louise Christovich, et al., New Orleans Architecture: the American Sector (Pelican Publishing, 1998).
Nicole Biguenet Pedersen, a native New Orleanian, studied history at Brandeis University and went on to obtain a law degree at the University of Chicago. Her current research projects focus on historical perceptions of New Orleans. She is a special contributing writer to GoNOLA.