It was Wednesday, 25 September 1935. Seventy-five-year-old Nicholas Smith of Brigus was in the middle of writing his memoirs. The book would be released the following year by the English firm, Arthur H. Stockwell, Ltd., under the title, Fifty-Two Years at the Labrador Fishery.
Humphrey T. Walwyn (1879-1957), Governor of Newfoundland from 1936 to 1946, wrote the foreword to Smith’s book, referring to it as “a work of great inspirational value and historical interest to those who today follow in his footsteps.” The Englishman enthused that the author “gives to the reader an insight into the sterling character of the Newfoundland fisherman. Greater indeed than the industry itself are the courage and undying optimism which inspire him to carry on in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties. Greater indeed than the mere commercial value of the total catch are the character and resourcefulness which go into the production of a single quintal of codfish.”
Suddenly, as Smith was buried in his manuscript, a fire started in a house halfway down Grave Hill, which was one of Brigus’ better residential neighbourhoods. Much of the town’s businesses, including the premises belonging to J. & G. Smith, Captain Azariah Munden and Captain Nathan Norman, were located there. Both captains owned homes not unlike English castles which were, Smith recalled, “a picture to see.”
The fire spread to the adjacent building, then the cooperage where R. F. Horwood had lived as a child. From there, the flames lit another house and coal shed, then quickly ignited the Pomeroy dwelling and stores across from Smith’s home. The fire jumped the street, a mere thirty feet from where Smith was writing his autobiography.
“It greatly affected my brain and ability,” Smith admitted. He facetiously added that he had not been “over-stocked with either before the accident occurred!”
During the following week, Smith could barely write his own name, let alone continue writing what would become a 56,000-word book!
The author, who was blessed with a keen sense of humour, acknowledged, “I fancy now that I have got things down here that I should have left out, and have left out some funny incidents that I should have included.” He encouraged the reader to “take the will for the deed and forgive my shortcomings under the circumstances.”
The fire was a disastrous and devastating one. Before the conflagration was brought under control, largely after the arrival of the pumper from St. John’s, sixteen structures were destroyed. Smith himself came to within a hair’s breath of losing his home and all his possessions. He and his family, he suggested, would then have “been on the street in my old days.”
As it stood, his daughter and son-in-law lost their home, which was, he wrote, “a fairly good one for a fisherman to possess.” The house boasted nine rooms and a grocery store on the ground floor; the basement stored 100 tons of coal. Fortunately, most of the furniture, as well as the items in the shop, were saved. Unfortunately, no insurance was carried. Some of the other people who had suffered loss were covered, but most were only partly insured.
Smith suspected that, if the residents of Brigus at the turn of the twentieth century could return, they would be grief-stricken to “see the once prosperous Grave Hill, now a place of fallen brick and mortar.” Smith hoped the buildings which had been destroyed by the fire would be rebuilt, but he was practical enough to realize that “time alone can tell.”