Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Great Fire of 1805

On the morning of June 11, 1805, the city of Detroit caught fire. The blaze began when John Harvey, the local baker, failed to extinguish the ashes when he knocked tobacco out of his pipe. One of the first buildings that caught fire was a nearby barn and the flames spread quickly to other wooden structures. The population of Detroit at the time was about six hundred.

The city lacked a paid, professional fire department and would not acquire the first steam engine fire truck until mid-century. Thus, Detroiters attempted to save their city by engaging in what was called a ‘bucket brigade.’  A line of people formed between the river and the burning buildings, with citizens passing bucket after bucket of river water to throw on the fire. Nonetheless, even direct proximity to the river could not save Detroit. With the exception of one stone fort and the brick chimneys of wooden houses, the city was leveled to the ground by that afternoon. Shockingly, no one died in the Great Fire of 1805.

After the destruction, Detroiters did not abandon their city. Territorial Judge Augustus Woodward created a street plan modeled after Washington, D.C. The layout of the nation’s capital had been designed by a French architect named L’Enfant, and featured diagonal streets that radiated like the spokes of a wheel. Although Woodward’s plan for Detroit was not fully executed, the beginnings of this layout are evident in the diagonal streets that extend from the Detroit River including Fort Street, Michigan Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Woodward Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, and Jefferson Avenue.

Today, the legacy of the Great Fire of 1805 is evident in the flag of Detroit. Two women appear in the center-one who weeps over the loss of the fire and another who looks ahead to the stronger, brighter city that will replace it. Thus, the Latin motto reads:  "It will rise from the ashes.”

 


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