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Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846

Updated: Jul 13


Like so many other New England communities, Nantucket suffered a terrible conflagration that gutted the heart of the island’s business district. Although less devastating the other “great” fires in New England in terms of buildings burned, Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846 had a long-term detrimental impact far greater than any other “great” fire of the period.


The island of Nantucket is about 30 miles south of Cape Cod. The first European settlers arrived in 1641. The island was a proprietary colony that initially was owned by 20 “proprietors.” These partners offered additional ownership share to bring tradesmen to the colony. By around the 1660 settlement of Nantucket had begun in earnest. The initial industries were agricultural. In the early 1700s, Nantucket’s economy shifted to whaling. Nantucket soon became the most important port of the American whaling industry. Trade with England helped Nantucket flourish through the 18th Century. The village that overlooked the island’s harbor was called Sherburne until 1795, when its name was changed to Nantucket.


In an era when the fastest and cheapest way to transport goods was by water, being an island with a large port was an advantage for Nantucket. The population of the Island reached 9000 as of the 1840 Census. By that time, 75 whaling ships were sailing from Nantucket and the island’s industry was at it peak. This industry included the many industries and businesses that supported this large fleet and the commerce it generated. Most of these enterprises were concentrated in the dense downtown of Nantucket. This was a congested collection of wooden buildings on narrow streets. There were few brick buildings scattered about the town. Like many other urban areas of the period, Nantucket