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Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846

Updated: Jul 13, 2022


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 was ripe for a conflagration.


On July 13, 1846, there was a strong easterly wind sweeping Nantucket. At around 11 p.m., a watchman on the south watch tower spotted a fire that had erupted from the hat shop of William Geary on Main Street. The island’s ten volunteer fire companies were called out promptly. It did not take much for the fire to jump the narrow streets and extend to more structures. The wind pushed the fire from building to building and rained burning embers across downtown creating additional fires ahead of the main body of flames.


By time the first fire companies could start putting water on the fire, it was well advanced and had extended to several other buildings. The response of the volunteer firefighters was reported to be uneven at best. Some companies held their ground bravely against the conflagration. However, at least two companies were reported to have abandoned their engines, which were destroyed in the fire. The island’s water supply for firefighting was entirely inadequate for such a large fire. The fire quickly overwhelmed the firefighters. When the fire reached warehouses filled with whale oil, it burned even more fiercely.


The fire destroyed all the buildings on the South side of Main Street, between Orange Street and Straight and South Wharves. When it crossed Main Street, the fire extended in all directions. It consumed all the buildings on the East side of Centre Street between Main Street and Broad Street as well as many buildings on the West side of Centre Street and Quince Street. The fire then crossed Broad Street and consumed all the buildings on the North side of North Water Street.


When the sun rose on July 14, the air was still thick with smoke. Spot fires continued to burn, and the ruins of Nantucket’s commercial heart smoldered. The devastation sprawled over 36 acres. Around 400 buildings were destroyed. These included most of Nantucket’s business district and its waterfront facilities. The map above shows the extent of the devastation. Geary’s hat shop, the point of origin, is marked in red. Beyond the lost businesses and commercial buildings, more than 200 homes burned leaving hundreds of residents homeless. The damaged was estimated to be more than a million dollars. Remarkably, there were no deaths reported.


The devastation caused by the fire was a terrible blow to Nantucket’s whaling economy, which already was in decline. The island’s transportation advantage was being negated by the railroads that soon would eclipse water as the superhighways of the period. New Bedford on the mainland had become the leading American whaling port and was the home port to more than 300 whaling ships. The fire accelerated Nantucket’s decline. The Great Fire of 1846 had a long-term detrimental impact on Nantucket that was far greater than other conflagrations of the period in cities like Boston (1711 and 1760), Fall River (1843), New York (1776 and 1835), Portland (1866), Portsmouth (1813). About one-third of Nantucket’s population left the island before the start of the American Civil War. By 1900, the island’s population was one-third of what it was at its peak. Nantucket’s population would not return to its pre-fire level until 2000. For more information about Nantucket’s history and the history of whaling, visit the website of the Nantucket’s Historical Society, www.nha.org.


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