Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Great Fire of 1805

On the morning of June 11, 1805, the city of Detroit caught fire, and nearly everything was destroyed. The blaze is believed to have begun in or near the stables of John Harvey, the local baker. While no official cause was determined, it was rumored that hot ashes from a pipe started the fire. One of the first buildings that caught fire was a nearby barn, from which flames spread quickly to other wooden structures. The population of Detroit at the time was about 600 people.

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 Detroit River and the burning buildings, with citizens passing bucket after bucket of river water to throw on the fire. Even direct proximity to the river could not save Detroit. With the exception of the old British fort located on the north side of the Savoyard stream and a few brick chimneys of wooden buildings, the city was leveled to the ground by that afternoon. Fortunately, no one died in the Great Fire of 1805.

After the destruction, Territorial Judge Augustus Woodward created a street plan modeled after Washington, D.C. The layout of the nation’s capital was designed by French-American architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, and featured diagonal streets that radiated like the spokes of a wheel.

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 town’s destruction and the other who looks ahead to the stronger, brighter city that will replace it. The Latin motto on the flag, reportedly stated by Father Gabriel Richard, reads: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,” which means “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”



Flag of Detroit, depicting the Great Fire of 1805 in the center, 1950s

Hudson's Department Store display featuring the Great Fire of 1805, 1946

View all items related to the Great Fire of 1805