John’s Believe It Or Not… June 20th

* 1877 – Great Fire of Saint John destroys business district. * 1789 Third Estate makes Tennis Court Oath * 1900 Boxer Rebellion begins in China * 1977 Oil flows in Alaska * 1975 Jaws released

Jaws: Billboard ad picture of shark rising in the water to attack a female swimmer on the surface.

It’s Hump Day Wednesday! Did You Know…

* 1877 – Great Fire of Saint John destroys business district.

In late June 1877, Saint John, New Brunswick, was laid waste by a devastating fire.

It began about 2:30 on the afternoon of 20 June when a spark fell into a bundle of hay in Henry Fairweather’s storehouse in the York Point Slip area, which in present day is in the vicinity of Market Square. It is unknown where the spark originated. It may have come from McLaughlan & Son’s boiler shop next door or may have been carried from a nearby sawmill. The month of June had been warm, with fine weather and little or no rain. Wooden structures predominant in Saint John at this time were tinder dry and highly flammable. When the fire was discovered it was already burning rapidly in large bundles of hay and aided by a fresh, strong breeze it rapidly escalated into a major conflagration. Within two minutes of the alarm sounding, Engine #3 was dousing the fire. Although other engines followed immediately, the fire had already spread by means of heat and sparks to other wooden structures nearby. At times, the fire reached temperatures perhaps so high some buildings exploded into flames without actual contact with the fire. This prompted fearful rumors that the fire was intentionally set.

When it was over, the fire had destroyed over 80 hectares (200 hundred acres) and 1612 structures including eight churches, six banks, fourteen hotels, eleven schooners and four wood boats in just over a nine-hour period. Nearly all the public buildings, the principal retail establishments, lawyers’ offices and all but two printing firms were burned in the inferno. To make matters worse, less than one-fourth of the $28 million in losses was covered by insurance.

Nineteen people died as a direct result of the fire and there was an undetermined number of injuries. While some people managed to save a few of their possessions, many residents and business owners lost everything they owned. Starvation and disease threatened as nearly all the food and medical supplies were destroyed when the business and warehouse districts burned. Shelter was an urgent need. Although several thousand people moved to nearby Portland or simply left the Saint John area altogether, a considerable number of city residents had nowhere to go. The Victoria Skating Rink on City Road served as a temporary shelter for several days. Tents were erected on the Barrack Green and shanties were rapidly erected on King Square and Queen Square as homes for people and businesses.

This Provincial Archives of NB photograph shows the devastation of the Great Saint John Fire
This Provincial Archives of NB photograph shows the devastation of the Great Saint John Fire

* 1789 Third Estate makes Tennis Court Oath

In Versailles, France, the deputies of the Third Estate, which represent commoners and the lower clergy, meet on the Jeu de Paume, an indoor tennis court, in defiance of King Louis XVI’s order to disperse. In these modest surroundings, they took a historic oath not to disband until a new French constitution had been adopted.

Louis XVI, who ascended the French throne in 1774, proved unsuited to deal with the severe financial problems he had inherited from his grandfather, King Louis XV. In 1789, in a desperate attempt to address France’s economic crisis, Louis XVI assembled the Estates-General, a national assembly that represented the three “estates” of the French people–the nobles, the clergy, and the commons. The Estates-General had not been assembled since 1614, and its deputies drew up long lists of grievances and called for sweeping political and social reforms.

The Third Estate, which had the most representatives, declared itself the National Assembly and took an oath to force a new constitution on the king. Initially seeming to yield, Louis legalized the National Assembly under the Third Estate but then surrounded Versailles with troops and dismissed Jacques Necker, a popular minister of state who had supported reforms. In response, Parisians mobilized and on July 14 stormed the Bastille–a state prison where they believed ammunition was stored–and the French Revolution began.

The 'Oath of the Tennis Court' painted by Auguste Clouder.
The ‘Oath of the Tennis Court’ painted by Auguste Clouder. (Getty Images)

* 1900 Boxer Rebellion begins in China

In response to widespread foreign encroachment upon China’s national affairs, Chinese nationalists launch the so-called Boxer Rebellion in Peking. Calling themselves I Ho Ch’uan, or “the Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” the nationalists occupied Peking, killed several Westerners, including German ambassador Baron von Ketteler, and besieged the foreign legations in the diplomatic quarter of the city.

By the end of the 19th century, the Western powers and Japan had forced China’s ruling Qing dynasty to accept wide foreign control over the country’s economic affairs. In the Opium Wars, popular rebellions, and the Sino-Japanese War, China had fought to resist the foreigners, but it lacked a modernized military and suffered millions of casualties. In 1898, Tzu’u Hzi, the dowager empress and an anti-imperialist, began supporting the I Ho Ch’uan, who were known as the “Boxers” by the British because of their martial arts fighting style. The Boxers soon grew powerful, and in late 1899 regular attacks on foreigners and Chinese Christians began.

On June 20, 1900, the Boxers, now more than 100,000 strong and led by the court of Tzu’u Hzi, besieged the foreigners in Peking’s diplomatic quarter, burned Christian churches in the city, and destroyed the Peking-Tientsin railway line. As the Western powers and Japan organized a multinational force to crush the rebellion, the siege of the Peking legations stretched into weeks, and the diplomats, their families, and guards suffered through hunger and degrading conditions as they fought to keep the Boxers at bay. On August 14, the international force, featuring British, Russian, American, Japanese, French, and German troops, relieved Peking after fighting its way through much of northern China.

Due to mutual jealousies between the powers, it was agreed that China would not be partitioned further, and in September 1901, the Peking Protocol was signed, formally ending the Boxer Rebellion. By the terms of the agreement, the foreign nations received extremely favorable commercial treaties with China, foreign troops were permanently stationed in Peking, and China was forced to pay $333 million dollars as a penalty for its rebellion. China was effectively a subject nation.

Political Cartoon depicting Uncle Sam brandishing a rifle in one hand and the Stars and Stripes in the other as he attacks the Chinese.

* 1977 Oil flows in Alaska

With a flip of a switch in Prudhoe Bay, crude oil from the nation’s largest oil field begins flowing south down the trans-Alaska pipeline to the ice-free port of Valdez, Alaska. The steel pipeline, 48 inches in diameter, winds through 800 miles of Alaskan wilderness, crossing three Arctic mountain ranges and hundreds of rivers and streams. Environmentalists fought to prevent its construction, saying it would destroy a pristine ecosystem, but they were ultimately overruled by Congress, who saw it as a way of lessening America’s dependence on foreign oil. The trans-Alaska pipeline was the world’s largest privately funded construction project to that date, costing $8 billion and taking three years to build.

In 1968, a massive oil field was discovered on the north coast of Alaska near Prudhoe Bay. Located north of the Arctic Circle, the ice-packed waters of the Beaufort Sea are inaccessible to oil tankers. In 1972, the Department of the Interior authorized drilling there, and after the Arab oil embargo of 1973 plans moved quickly to begin construction of a pipeline. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. was formed by a consortium of major oil companies, and in 1974 construction began.

U.S. conservation groups argued that the pipeline would destroy caribou habitats in the Arctic, melt the fragile permafrost–permanently frozen subsoil–along its route, and pollute the salmon-rich waters of the Prince William Sound at Valdez. Under pressure, Alyeska agreed to extensive environmental precautions, including building 50 percent of the pipeline above the ground to protect the permafrost from the naturally heated crude oil and to permit passage of caribou underneath.

On June 20, 1977, oil began flowing down the pipeline. It got off to a rocky start, however, as power supply problems, a cracked section of pipe, faulty welds, and an unsuccessful dynamite attack on the pipeline outside of Fairbanks delayed the arrival of oil at Valdez for several weeks. In August, the first oil tanker left Valdez en route to the lower 48 states. The trans-Alaska pipeline proved a great boon to the Alaskan economy. Today, about 800,000 barrels move through the pipeline each day. Altogether, the pipeline has carried more than 14 billion barrels of oil in its lifetime.

For its first decade of existence, the pipeline was quietly applauded as an environmental success. Caribou populations in the vicinity of the pipeline actually grew (due in part to the departure of grizzly bears and wolves scared off by the pipeline work), and the permafrost remained intact. The only major oil spill on land occurred when an unknown saboteur blew a hole in the pipe near Fairbanks, and 550,000 gallons of oil spilled onto the ground. On March 24, 1989, however, the worst fears of environmentalists were realized when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the Prince William Sound after filling up at the port of Valdez. Ten million gallons of oil were dumped into the water, devastating hundreds of miles of coastline. In the 1990s, the Alaskan oil enterprise drew further controversy when the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. attempted to cover up electrical and mechanical problems in the aging pipeline.

In 2001, President George W. Bush proposed opening a portion of the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, east of Prudhoe Bay, to oil drilling. The proposal was greeted with overwhelming opposition from environmental groups and was initially defeated. In 2006, however, the Senate voted 51-49 in favor of a budget resolution that included billions for Arctic drilling. Environmental advocacy groups continue to fight the legislation.

Photo: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System

* 1975 Jaws released

The ominous tones of the now-famous “shark theme” (composed by John Williams and performed by tuba player Tommy Johnson) mark the arrival of Hollywood’s first major summer blockbuster on this day in 1975, when the director Steven Spielberg’s thriller Jaws debuts in U.S. theaters.

Based on the best-selling book by Peter Benchley, Jaws takes place in the fictional resort town of Amity Island, where police chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider) learns that a young woman has been killed in a probable shark attack. Though greedy town officials want to cover up the threat to tourist business, another attack forces Brody to enlist the help of a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a shark hunter (Robert Shaw) to try to catch the lethal beast, which turns out to be an enormous great white shark.

Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown hired Spielberg for Jaws before the release of the then-27-year-old director’s first feature, 1974’s The Sugarland Express, which they also produced. The shooting, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, went much longer than scheduled, and the film’s budget ballooned from $4 million to $8 million. According to a 1982 article about Spielberg in TIME magazine, executives at Universal (which co-produced the film with Zanuck and Brown) even threatened to shut down production at one point and put “Bruce”–the mechanical shark used in the film–on display as part of its Universal City tour.

Instead, Universal opted to give Jaws a wide release instead of rolling it out to a small number of theaters first, as had been conventional practice up to that point. It opened nationwide on close to 500 screens (a small number compared to one of today’s big releases, which go out on 3,000-4,000 screens) but sizeable at the time. A $700,000 marketing campaign on network television preceded the film’s release, helping it to earn some $7 million in its opening weekend alone. Up until that time, summer had been seen as a period when producers would release films they considered weak, but Jaws ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, as well as the studio practice of launching massive marketing campaigns to hype their films. Eventually shown in nearly 700 U.S. theaters, Jaws became the first summer mega-hit, racking up an impressive $260 million at the domestic box-office. All told, the film would gross some $450 million worldwide and establish Spielberg (who would strike more summer box-office gold with hits such as 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) as the pre-eminent creator of summer movie magic.

Photo of the mechanical model used for the film's great white shark.

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology

* Internet Archive                                                  

* This Day In History – What Happened Today                                            

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December, 2013, and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

27 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… June 20th”

      1. Los Angeles. They’ve set up a big outdoor theater in the Hollywood Forever cemetery that screens movies every weekend in the summer. Usually a lot of the classics like Jaws! 🙂 This Saturday they are screening Raiders of the Last Ark and we are going.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Shortly after seeing Jaws in Georgia, I went on vacation in Hawaii. I was snorkeling by myself in Hanauma Bay and accidentally spooked a large Moray eel who swam out from a rock right in front of me. The intimidating eel disappeared, but that Jaws music started playing in my head. A rush of adrenaline surged through me as I scanned every direction expecting to see a monstrous Tiger shark (nearly as big as Great Whites) looking for some Italian food. But, I saw nothing – not even another human being. Seizing the opportunity, I swam as fast as I could for shore. The wake I must’ve made probably looked like I was being propelled by a powerful boat motor! That was the last time I ever swam in the open ocean. That’s also the legacy of Jaws.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting gathering of facts, John! While I am familiar with the great Chicago fire of 1871, I didn’t know much about the Great Fire of Saint John! And, of course, my all-time favorite, Jaws!😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jaws was a thriller for sure. It was helped at the box office by a number of Great White sightings along the Jersey shore. The Boxer rebellion cemented the opinion of the Chinese not to trust Westerners. The pipeline opponents were single-minded in their approach even to the point of creating a disaster by blowing a hole in it. Good information, John

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that China was mistreated by the major powers in the past – her sovereignty was violated because the West had the power to do so. I disagree with the pipeline to be built here in Canada but I fear the extreme opponents. Thanks, John.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. John, I love your summaries. “Jaws” immeasurably changed shore life shining a spot light on our fears. It was the horror movie that could happen.

    Oil has been the biggest recipient of government welfare by a large margin. I understand the need, but when a oil-funded legislator says about finding renewable energy that we are not in the business of picking winners and losers, I remind them that we have been picking winners and losers for over 150 years.

    Have a great end of spring, which is already hotter than hades. Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess that’s why Jaws upset me so much – because it could happen. I fear that Justin Trudeau’s decision to get the new oil pipeline built between Alberta and British Columbia will cause us to have our own Valdez disaster in the future. As well, it seems to fly in the face of the climate accords. Thanks for dropping by and lending us your wisdom, Keith!


  5. There are few movie scores that adults know better than that of Jaws. To this day that soundtrack makes me shudder. 🙂 I was surprised to read about the 31st anniversary of the Alaska pipeline. Wow, so much time has passed. the Valdez disaster is still vivid for me. Thank you, John, for the reminders… Have a great day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really detest horror films. I did watch Jaws and I was sorry that I did. The Alaska Pipeline event reminds me that I’m disappointed that PM Justin Trudeau approved the oil pipeline from Alberta to the BC coast over the strenuous objections of British Columbia. He may lose the 2019 election over that decision. So we may have our own Valdez disaster someday. Thanks, Gwen!

      Liked by 1 person

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