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Nantucket’s Great Fire

“There are three things that are never satisfied—no, four that never say, ‘Enough!’: the grave, the barren womb, the thirsty desert, the blazing fire” (Proverbs 3015-16, nlt).

The power of fire is hard to wrap our heads around, not until it touches your world with its unquenchable appetite. It can alter reality in the blink of an eye. I live in northern California, where summer wildfires have had devastating effects on our beautiful state. Think of the 1871 Chicago Fire started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.


Or the devastating fire that followed the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

And then there’s the fire that destroyed over a third of Nantucket on the night of July 13, 1846, and formally ended its reign as the wealthiest port in the world.

On a hot dry July night, a fire started in the stovepipe in William Geary’s hat store on Main Street. It spread quickly, raging out of control, consuming everything in its path. Fed by high winds and wooden buildings, it made its way to the waterfront. When the fire reached a warehouse of whale oil, the burning whale oil flowed into the harbor, described by one man as a “sea of fire.” Three of four wharves were destroyed, over 250 buildings, a dozen warehouses, seven factories that processed whale oil, a dozen warehouses, and many homes. Over a third of Nantucket burned on that long night. By dawn, the beautiful downtown was reduced to smoking ruins.


The Great Fire of Nantucket had lasting consequences. It struck the final blow to the island’s sagging economy. A sandbar had built up in the harbor, creating complications for unloading cargo, Salem and New Bedford were better ports with access to railroads, the whaling grounds had been overfished, and kerosene was replacing whale oil.

And then came gold! The young men of Nantucket left chasing whales to chase gold in California.

The economy of Nantucket didn’t recover until decades later, in the 1880s, when the invention of the steamship brought in an age of tourism, and that has only intensified over the last one hundred and forty years. Today, Nantucket is an exclusive—and expensive!–vacation destination.

But the best of Nantucket—its dynamic history, natural beauty, wildlife, beaches—it’s there for everyone, and it doesn’t cost a penny.

Interested in learning more about Nantucket? I hope so! ‘The Nantucket Legacy’ series is a great place to start. I’ve got a special offer going on right now: Buy one of the books, then pop over to my website and enter your receipt number in a form, and I’ll mail you a signed book of Amish Christmas novellas! Click here for more info.

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