The Byward Market in Flames

28 April 1874 and 2 January 1957

Ottawa’s Byward Market is one of the capital’s top attractions for both residents and tourists. Home to the oldest and largest farmers’ market in the city, the streets surrounding the main market building host a myriad of restaurants and chic bars intermingled with trendy shops and specialty stores. Long a Francophone, working-class, residential area as well as commercial district, the market area has in recent years begun to attract the well-heeled looking for residences in close proximity to work as well as to the vibrant nightlife that is here on offer. The district is also a draw for the city’s less fortunate with shelters for the homeless close by. This combination of wealth and poverty and old buildings cheek by jowl with glitzy, new condominiums gives the neighbourhood an eclectic, edgy vibe.

While some of its buildings date back to the mid-nineteenth century, most structures in the Byward Market neighbourhood are newer, owing to recurring fires that have beset the area over the decades. Indeed, the current market building only dates to 1926, when the previous market building was destroyed by fire.

Newspaper clipping, 2 May 1874, Ottawa Citizen.

There had been at least two major conflagrations that destroyed entire blocks of homes and stores. The first broke out early in the morning of Tuesday, 28 April 1874. It was to be one of the most destructive fires every to occur in Ottawa up to that point, causing in excess of $100,000 in damages, a huge sum of money in those days. Insurance covered only a portion of the losses.

The fire encompassed more than an entire city block, extending from the market square at York Street to Clarence Street to Sussex Street. Destroyed on the west side of the market square were a row of wooden stalls and shops owned by the City of Ottawa and leased to a number of businesses. One of those businesses was a fish shop owned by Moise Lapointe. The family-owned business fortunately survived the blaze, and continues to operate in the Market to this very day.

Other buildings burnt to the ground included the City Hotel, the Smith’s block, the Henry Block, the McCann Block, and the Gibson building. Mr. T. Forfar’s agricultural implement warehouse was lost, as was a furniture store, a grocer located in the Gibson building, a fruit store in the McCann Block and Mr. A.B. Macdonald’s Auction and Commission Rooms which were full of furniture at the time ready to be auctioned off. Godbout’s Tailor and Lamontagne’s Jewellery, both located in the nearby Lyon Building, were damaged. Fortunately, no one was killed in the fire though there several individuals were hurt by falling debris or received burns. Many were left homeless.

The fire was fanned by a strong northerly wind that whipped sparks and cinders over adjacent blocks. According to the Ottawa Citizen, for a time, people feared that the entire Lower Town business district would go up in flames. Residents in the affected area began throwing personal belongings and furniture out into street. Neighbour merchants did likewise in attempts to save their stock. York and Clarence Streets were soon clogged with these effects. Reportedly, costly pianos stood side by side with old household stoves, some supposedly still lit with fires inside them. Their owners ranged in age “from helpless infancy to worn out old age.”

There was considerable criticism of the response of the Ottawa Fire Brigade under Chief Young. It took a long time before the firemen were able to bring their horse-drawn, steam engine, the “Conqueror,” to the scene of the fire despite the short distance from the fire station. There were also delays in getting the hoses into action with the result that the firemen didn’t really begin to fight the blaze until an hour after the alarm was sounded. The Citizen opined that the buildings on the south side of York Street might have been saved had there been better fire management.

When the hoses were finally brought into play, water pressure was lost owing to leaks in the hoses. One leak was so powerful that a spray of water was sent fifteen feet high into the air, with gallons of water wasted down the drains. None of the hoses were able to send streams of water over the roofs of the burning buildings.

There were other problems. The water level in the By-Wash, which led from the Rideau Canal through the market area towards the Rideau River and was the source of water to fight the fire, was low. A quick-thinking engineer built a dam made using an old door to raise the water level. Even so, gravel clogged up the suction pipe. There was also insufficient coal on hand to power the “Conqueror.”

Fortunately, the volunteer Chaudière Fire Company and its “Union” steam engine came to help the Ottawa Fire Brigade. The Citizen causticallynoted that they had no leaking hoses.

An inquest was held a few days later in Starr’s Hotel on Clarence Street. (This was the same hotel/tavern where Patrick James Whelan, the man executed for assassinating Thomas D’Arcy McGee, had been arrested in 1868.) The fire began in a pile of straw in a shed behind the Cardinal Hotel—another tavern—owned by Felix Cardinal to the rear of the McCann Block. The Cardinal family lived above. The alarm was sounded by Felix Cardinal Junior.  The junior Cardinal, who was a heavy drinker, had fallen asleep in the downstairs bar the previous night, after having downed four or five glasses of whiskey. Sometime before 5:00am, he awoke and spotted a fire in the back stable area. He called out to his father, and the two of them attempted to extinguish the blaze and save their horse. In the process, the senior Cardinal’s hands were badly burnt. Neither of the two Cardinals knew the cause of the blaze.

Mr and Mrs John Hurley, the neighbours to the rear of the Cardinal Hotel, testified seeing Felix Cardinal trying to extinguish a fire by raking the straw out into the yard, but that only made the fire worse. John Hurley, while not knowing the cause of the fire, alluded to regular fights and quarrels in the Cardinal household and said that he typically slept in his clothes in order to be ready in case there was a fire. However, while there had been a fight the night before the blaze, all had been quiet with no lights showing when he saw the fire.

The inquest never resolved the cause of the fire, beyond concluding that it started in Felix Cardinal’s shed. The Ottawa Fire Brigade was highly criticized, with the inquest saying that it had insufficient men to attend to the hoses and that it was not organized efficiently. In addition, the Brigade had not taken steps to ensure the adequacy of water in the By-Wash and that no measures had been taken to keep sand and gravel away from the suction pipe. The inquest’s jury found that Chief Young was either too relaxed in taking his responsibilities, or did not have the necessary authority to fulfill his duties as Fire Chief. The jury also censured the City’s Light and Fire Committee for not organizing a sufficient force to operate the steam engine efficiently. The jury furthermore recommended the prohibition of erecting wooden sheds behind buildings on the principal streets of Ottawa.

The aftermath of the disastrous 2 January 1957 blaze in the Byward Market neighbourhood, City of Ottawa Archives

Another huge fire struck the Byward Market area on 2 January 1957, consuming the block between Clarence Street in the south to Murray Street to the north, between Sussex and Parent Streets, overlapping the site of the 1874 conflagration. The1957 fire started in the elevator shaft of the Book Unit and Typewriter Unit of the Department of Printing and Stationery, located at 47 Clarence Street. It was discovered shortly before 6:30 am by Gordon Low, a member of the cleaning staff in the building. Yvon Saumier of Navan, who was having an early morning coffee in the restaurant at the Chez Lucien Hotel at the corner of Clarence Street and Parent Avenue heard a blast and saw flames shooting through the roof of the government building. With a stiff north-westerly breeze blowing, the fire quickly spread through neighbouring buildings, eating its way along Clarence and Murray Streets toward Parent Avenue, leaving a swath of destruction in its wake. Flames shot up some 150 feet in the air. Scantily clad residents from area homes and apartments fled into the streets, shivering from the cold, clutching whatever they could rescue with them.

In addition to the government building, lost in the blaze were the Victoria Hotel, the 60-room Chez Lucien Hotel, which had been renovated two years earlier for $200,000, two apartment buildings, several rooming houses, Pioneer Distributing on Murray Street, Camille Methot’s barber shop, the Soublière Supply Company, Beaudry’s Confectionary, and Aline’s Dress Shop. Total losses were in excess of $1 million and roughly 200 people were left homeless. The Chez Lucien Hotel was later rebuilt.

More than three hundred firefighters fought the blaze, including off-duty men and firemen from Hull. Tackling the fire was made more difficult by the bone-chilling cold. It was -23 degrees Celsius that night, with the wind chill considerably lower. Ice was everywhere, making the footing dangerous. Hoses quickly froze as the firemen moved from hydrant to hydrant down the street as they chased the fire. Downed hydro wires lying in the streets were another hazard.

The Sisters of Joan of Arc, whose convent stood at the corner of Clarence and Sussex Streets, opened an emergency kitchen serving hot soup, coffee, doughnuts and toast with jam to weary firefighters and the homeless. The Salvation Army also set up a booth providing hot drinks. Additionally, a coffee kitchen was set up across from the Victoria Hotel on Murray Street at the John C. Preston Office Equipment Company. When firemen came in with frozen mitts, one of the workers in the company who was distributing refreshments, called A.J. Freiman’s, the big department store on Rideau Street. Within minutes, two large bags full of heavy, cowhide mitts were delivered for the firemen.

Given the size of the blaze and its intensity, it was surprising that there were no fatalities. Three firemen were hurt when a wall fell onto them. Two women were also temporarily hospitalized due to shock; one had a mild heart attack.

The city stepped in to provide assistance for the homeless. A week later, a fire victims’ benefit was held at the Français Theatre, sponsored by the East Ottawa Municipal Association. This included variety acts, and a full-length colour feature movie donated by Robert Maynard, the owner of the cinema. The film was a US civil war epic titled Great Day in the Morning, starring Virginia Mayo and Robert Stack. A “silver” collection was held, collecting $300 from the crowd of 500 cinema goers.

Despite the fire, the Byward Market, while physically altered, endured.

Sources:

Ottawa Citizen, 1874. “Destructive Conflagration,” 28 April.

——————, 1874. “Fire Investigation,” 2 May.

——————, 1874. “Fire Investigation,” 4 May.

—————-, 1957. “$1,000,000 Blaze,” 2 January.

—————-, 1957. “City Set To Provide Aid To Fire Homeless—Nelms,” 3 January.

—————-, 1957. “Fire Victims Benefit Show,” 11 January.

—————-, 1957. “200 Homeless In Ottawa Fire,” 2 January.

The West Block Fire

11 February 1897

When people think of a fire on Parliament Hill, their thoughts likely go to the huge conflagration that destroyed the Centre Block in February 1916. To this day, the cause of that blaze remains unknown; a Royal Commission that investigated it did not come to a conclusion. Some people were convinced, and many still are, that it was an act of war-time German sabotage. Others believed that it was caused by careless smoking in the reading room.

Incredibly, however, the Centre Block fire wasn’t the first major blaze on Parliament Hill. Nineteen years earlier, the West Block, then being used as offices for the federal civil service, was almost consumed by fire.

West Block Fire, 11 February 1897, Library and Archives Canada, c-017502

At approximately 4:15 pm on Thursday, 11 February 1897, when most civil servants had already left for the day, a fire was detected in a small tower room used for storage close to an elevator in the attic storey. An elevator operator tried to extinguish it using a hand-held Babcock fire extinguisher. At the same time, three other men pulled out a fire hose that was installed in the corridor, but when they turned it on the stream of water barely extended three feet owing to low water pressure. Another Babcock extinguisher was brought into play, again without much impact. By this time, the fire was well established in the floor and wall.

At 4:35pm, an alarm was sent in the Central Station of the Ottawa Fire Department located off of Elgin Street. Within minutes, the horse-drawn hose reels arrived and were hooked up to hydrants. Meanwhile, the fire burst through the West Block’s wooden roof about 40 feet south of the Mackenzie Tower. An extension ladder was run up against the western wall of the building where a fireman tried to send a stream of water through an attic window. Unfortunately, only a meager stream came out of the big hose. The city’s low water pressure, made worse by several hoses running from the same Wellington Street water main, was responsible. Flames began to shoot out of a skylight located above the elevator shaft as the fire worked its way southward down the corridor.

In desperation, Fire Chief Young called out the steam-driven fire engines which used coal to heat a boiler to provide water pressure. The Union was stationed at the corner of O’Connor and Wellington Streets, while the Conqueror hooked up to the hydrant located on Parliament Hill at the nearest corner of the West Block. Both engines experienced what a journalist called “exasperating delays” to get water onto the fire. It took the Union almost thirty minutes to get its hose, which extended through the main entrance and up the stairs to the attic, into action owing to valve problems and other malfunctions. Meanwhile, the Conqueror, after failing to get sufficient water from hydrants on the Hill, possibly due to ice, had to be moved to a hydrant at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets. A third fire engine from the E.B. Eddy Company was also brought in to help but to no effect as firemen discovered that its hoses were of a different calibre from that used by the city and couldn’t be coupled to city mains.

Through the evening, fire roared through the upper attic story of the building, fuelled by tinder-dry timbers, a warren of wooden panelled offices and piles of paper—government documents, briefing notes, and memoranda. Flames tore through the roof to the south-west of the Mackenzie Tower and then moved eastward reaching the middle of the Wellington Street side of the building, feeding on flammable materials found in a photographic studio and later in the draughting room of the Marine and Fisheries Department.

By 9:00pm, the whole top storey of the western wing of the building was gone. Shortly afterwards, the top storey of the eastern wing was ablaze. Two hours later, the northern and eastern wings were roofless.

Thousands of spectators, including the Governor General, Lord Aberdeen, and his wife, the Countess of Aberdeen, watched in horror despite the bitter cold; the temperature that evening had dropped to -18 degrees Celsius. It was quite a spectacle. The West Block’s turrets and chimneys were highlighted by the flames with the Mackenzie Tower rearing above the chaos.

While firemen battled the blaze, an army of civil servants and Dominion police worked frantically to empty offices of their documents and other valuables. Even if not immediately threatened with fire, offices on the lower floors were inundated by the water being hosed onto the attic level above. Sleighs of all sorts were pressed into service to evacuate things to the safety of the Langevin Block on the other side of Wellington Street. In the Department of Public Works alone, the Minister and his officials managed to save several tons of books and papers. In the Customs Department, rubber sheets requisitioned from Militia stores were used to protect precious books and papers from water damage.

At 11:00pm, at the height of the fire, Ottawa’s mayor called Montreal for emergency back-up. A detachment of fifteen men from the Montreal Fire Department, equipped with a fire engine and two hose reels answered the call. They immediately set off for Ottawa by train, arriving at 3:00am the next morning. But by this time, the worst was over. The fire had been largely subdued, leaving only glowing embers and smoke.

The next day, Ottawa residents could see for themselves the extent of the damage. Virtually the entire building had lost its top attic floor. The only part of the West Block that was spared was the new wing north of the Mackenzie Tower. This wing, being of more modern construction than the rest of the building, had a metal roof.

The fire continued to smolder despite the deluge of water that had been sprayed onto the building. One fire engine, the Conqueror, was kept pumping water onto the West Block through Friday. However, by 3:00pm, it had to cease operations, having exhausted its stock of hard Welsh coal used to fire its boiler. A switch to ordinary bituminous coal proved unsuccessful in maintaining sufficient pressure to drive the water the long distance from the hydrant at Sparks and O’Connor Streets to the top of the West Block on Wellington Street. The fire revived. An alarm was sounded bringing Chief Young, who had just returned to the station for supper, back on the scene along with another hose reel and two ladder trucks. It wasn’t until 8:00pm that the West Block fire was finally subdued by Ottawa firemen after almost 30 hours of continuous gruelling work in sub-zero temperatures.

The clean-up afterwards was also demanding. Owing to the cold temperatures, hoses were buried under as much as a foot of ice. Even if uncovered, the hoses were frozen stiff, requiring them to be thawed out before being moved. The concrete floor immediately under the attic level was also buried deep in debris.

Even before the fire was out, Cabinet met to discuss rebuilding and to find temporary quarters for affected departments. Only the offices of two departments, Inland Revenue and Railways and Canals remained usable. Space was found in the Nagle building opposite the main entrance to Parliament on Wellington Street for Public Works, Trade and Commerce, Customs and the Public Works departments. The Marine and Fisheries Department moved to offices in the Slater Building on Sparks Street. With more than a foot of water sloshing about in the basement of the West Block where the Dominion Archives were kept, it was imperative to move irreplaceable documents to safety in the Langevin Block. A unit of the Governor General’s Foot Guards stood guard while the papers were transferred.

Amazingly, there were few injuries in the disaster. A fireman suffered a seriously cut finger when a glass skylight fell on him. Another man was hit on the head by a piece of slate thrown from the top of the building during the clean-up; his injury, while painful, was not serious. There were some close calls, however. Four firemen who were fighting the fire in the attic felt the wooden floor beneath them begin to give way. They rushed to a ladder at the window. The first three men made it to safety but the fourth, Harry Walters from the Central Fire Station, had just reached the window when the floor disappeared from under him. He was saved from by William Thompson who managed to grab him.

The official report of the disaster didn’t reach a conclusion about the cause of the fire, though newspaper reports speculated on the possibility of a carelessly discarded cigar or cigarette. Later, a consensus opinion blamed the fire on a “heating apparatus.”

The report did conclude that a doorway cut into a fire wall to permit movement from one office to another helped to spread the blaze. As well, valuable time in fighting the fire was lost owing to firemen being unfamiliar with the layout of office rooms and being unwilling to accept direction from departmental officials. Overall, the report found that officials and workmen had exerted themselves “to the utmost” to prevent the fire from spreading and to save valuable papers and documents. “Nothing which could be done was left undone.”

The cost of the blaze was approximately $200,000. This amount did not, however, include the loss of valuable papers and documents. As the West Block was not insured, the government had to bear the entire cost of reconstruction. The Premier, Wilfrid Laurier, immediately requested a “Governor General’s warrant” to raise $25,000 to cover the initial costs associated with the fire, including the rental of new office accommodations for displaced government offices. The warrant was approved General Alexander Montgomery Moore, Commander of Canada’s Militia, who was acting as the Administrator of Canada on behalf of Lord Aberdeen.

Work on re-building commenced quickly. As a stop gap, a temporary roof, 29,000 square feet in size, was erected at a cost of $4,500. This was later replaced by a fire-proof roof covered with copper. Work also began on the clean-up, the re-building of new offices and the re-furbishing of those offices that managed to survive the blaze but were water damaged. Labourers were paid $1.00 to $1.25 per day. Carpenters and painters received $2.00 per day.

Call for tenders for repairs to West Block, Ottawa Journal, 9 August, 1897.

Rebuilding became highly political. The Conservative opposition accused the government of featherbedding and hiring only Hull workers in order to curry favour with Hull voters ahead a forthcoming federal by-election in Wright Country which encompassed Hull.  The Liberal candidate, Mr. Louis Napoléon Champagne, was unapologetic saying Hull wasn’t the only city that had obtained patronage as other places got their share of federal business. He added that the Liberals were prepared to do it again “to those who are really friends of Mr. Laurier.” Champagne won the contest. The day after the by-election, 50 of the 313 workers on the West Block were dismissed, with further dismissals expected in order to reduce the size of the work force to what was appropriate.

Repairs were sufficiently advanced within a year to permit public servants to re-occupy their offices. But work on the West Block was not completed until 1899, more than two years after the fire.

The West Block fire led to considerable reflection on the size of the Ottawa Fire Department and its equipment, and the extent of the fire hazard posed by public buildings, particularly those on Parliament Hill. The Citizen opined that Ottawa was “comparatively helpless in the presence of a major conflagration.” The “noble government structures,” which cost $5-6 million to build, were the “crowing beauty of the Capital of the Dominion.” Yet, the buildings, constructed using wooden beams and partitions and filled with irreplaceable records, papers and documents, were fire traps. The newspaper contended that should fire break out in either the Central Block or the East Block, “the result would be equally bad” as what had just occurred.

It added that the House of Commons was particularly at risk since the Centre Block was built on a higher elevation that the West or East Blocks which meant that water pressure would be even more of a problem. The Library of Parliament was “the most serious case of anxiety,” as it held more than $1 million in books, and contained no dividing walls. Given these risks, the newspaper was appalled that smoking was permitted and argued that smoking should be banned in all public buildings.

These were prophetic words. Virtually nineteen years to the day later, on 3 February 1916, the Centre Block was destroyed by fire. The precious Library of Parliament was the only part of the building saved, owing to the quick thinking of a librarian who had the presence of mind to close an iron fire door that separated the structure from the main part of the building.

Over the decades that followed, the West Block was much altered. In 1911, a new wing was built linking the east and west wings to form an enclosed quadrangle. During the mid-1950s, the West Block suffered from extensive renovations which were unsympathetic to the original design. However, this was better than the alternative. In 1956, the St. Laurent government almost manage to achieve which the 1897 fire had failed to do—the complete destruction of the beautiful and historic Gothic-revival building. The Federal District Commission, the fore-runner of the National Capital Commission, wanted to replace it with a modern office tower. But after a nation-wide protest, wiser heads prevailed and the building was saved. However, the neighbouring Supreme Court building was not so lucky. It was destroyed to make way for a parking lot.

Today, the enclosed quadrangle in the middle of the West Block, now covered by a glass ceiling, is the temporary home of the House of Commons while the Centre Block undergoes much needed restoration and renovation.

Sources:

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1897. “The Western Block in a Blaze,” 12 February.

————————-, 1897. “The Second Alarm,” 13 February.

————————-, 1897. “A Present Danger,” 13 February.

————————-, 1897. “After The Fire,” 15 February.

————————-, 1897. “Their Usefulness Done,” 25 March.

————————-, 1897. “West Block Blaze,” 24 June.

————————-, 1898. “West Block Fire,” 24 March.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1897. “The Talk of Today,” 13 February.

——————————, 1897. “The Official Report,” 17 February.

—————————–, 1897. “The Wright Campaign,” 17 March.

—————————–, 1897.  “An Insult To Hull,” 18 March.

—————————–, 1897. “One Million Dollars,” 27 March.

—————————–, 1899. “West Block Repairs,” 9 August.

Privy Council Office, 1897, “Special Warrant $56,000 [sic] [$25,000], Fire, Western Departmental Buildings – Minister of Public Works,” 17 February, Library and Archives Canada.

The Ottawa City Hall Fire

31 March 1931

Ottawa’s first city hall was a wooden structure built close to Elgin Street in 1848 by Nicholas Sparks. It had originally been a market. But when the market failed the following year, eclipsed by the more popular Byward Market in Lower Town, Sparks donated the building to Bytown (later known as Ottawa) as the town’s city hall. For close to thirty years it served in this capacity, for a time also doubling as the community’s fire hall. Pressed for space, the city’s municipal offices moved into a bespoke building constructed in 1876 on an adjacent lot located on Elgin Street between Queen and Albert Streets—roughly where the National Arts Centre is today. The four-storey, stone building was designed by the architects Henry H. Horsey of Ottawa and Matthew Sheard of Toronto in the French Empire style, a mode of architecture which was much admired during the late nineteenth century. The City Hall, built for $85,000, was apparently considered by many at the time as “the finest example of municipal architecture.”

City hall old LAC C002185
The first Ottawa City Hall constructed in 1848. The main floor was used as a fire hall.  Library and Archives Canada, C-002185.

But by the 1920s, the City had once again outgrown its now aging city hall. In 1927, the Liberal government of Mackenzie King came to an agreement with the City over the eventual expropriation of the building, along with the Police and Central (No. 8) Fire Station buildings located behind it, the Russell Hotel, the Russell Theatre, and the Post Office, in a grand plan to beautify Ottawa through the creation of Confederation Park, the construction of a War Memorial to honour Canadian service personnel who died during the Great War, and the widening of Elgin Street. Although the Russell Block was expropriated in 1927 by the federal government, and the City itself took over several buildings including Knox Presbyterian Church for the widening of Elgin Street, plans for the park stalled with the coming of the Great Depression in 1929 and the election of a parsimonious Conservative government under R. B. Bennett in 1930.

City Hall Topley StudiosLACMikkan3325359
Ottawa City Hall, 1877-1931, Elgin Street, Library and Archives Canada, Mikkan 3325359.

The municipal offices were still located in their Elgin Street premises when a fire gutted the building.  During the evening of 31 March 1931, two men passing by the nearby Post Office spotted smoke and flames coming from the top corner of the north-east side of the City Hall. The passers-by rushed to the No. 8 Fire Station. The fireman on duty initially thought the men were pulling an April Fool’s prank on him. But after stepping outside, he quickly call out the fire fighters. The first alarm sounded at 9.25 pm with a second alarm sounding a few minutes later, calling in fire fighters from across the city.

Firemen initially entered the east tower of the Hall that led to the office of Vincent Courtemanche, the City’s paymaster. Courtemanche was working late that night preparing workers’ pay sheets. Hearing the hubbub outside his office, he initially thought a prisoner had escaped from the police lock-up. On finding that the City Hall was ablaze, he rushed upstairs to warn Finance Commissioner Gordon who was also working late. The two men fled the building after retrieving $8,000 in cash and $20,000 in cheques. Gordon also managed to save a cheque-writing machine newly purchased for $1,000.  Reportedly, a one-ton safe was dragged be two policemen and two volunteers from the Treasury Department to the offices of Hugh Carson Ltd, the maker of leather goods at 72 Albert Street, for safe-keeping.

The fire started in the office of T. B. Rankin, the accountant of the City’s engineering department located on the northeastern corner of the top floor. Firemen were able to bring two hoses to Rankin’s office, but the blaze had already spread through the false ceiling and could not be contained. It quickly swept through the neighbouring offices of the Waterworks department and the draughting room of the Works department. The office of the building inspector was also consumed by the flames.

Downstairs, a meeting of the Central Council of Social Agencies was underway in the Board of Control boardroom. Controller J.W. York, who was attending the meeting, immediately called Mayor Allen and other councilmen. After saving the records of the Board of Control, Controllers Gelbert and York, along with a Journal newsman, went upstairs to salvage records from the Waterworks and Works departments. The three men had a narrow escape when a wall collapsed under the pressure of the water from the firemen’s hoses on the other side of the wall of the room they were in. They were forced to drop everything and flee to safety. Following his arrival on scene, Mayor Allen took charge of saving documents. Men frantically slid steel filing cabinets filled with important municipal records down the building’s marble staircase to get them outdoors.

The fire was intense. Seven firemen were injured when the top floor on which they were working collapsed without warning, dropping them more than fifty feet into the basement. Some were pinned for more than an hour under smoldering debris while their colleagues desperately dug to free them. Rev. Father J. L. Bergeron of Ottawa University smashed the glass of a basement window and crawled in to administer last rites to the pinned men. Fortunately, the sacrament was not needed. All the trapped firemen were rescued by their colleagues who “worked like Trojans” to get them out. None of their injuries proved to be life-threatening. But it was a narrow escape. Later in the Water Street hospital, one of the injured admitted that they had received “a real break,” though he phlegmatically added that it was “all part of the game.” Ironically, just two weeks before the fire, the City’s Board of Control had received a report indicating that the Works department vault was supported by only one girder that placed it at risk in the event of a fire. The Board of Control had discussed the building of a more secure vault at the rear of the City Hall at a cost of $70,000 dollars but no decision had been taken.

One hundred and twenty-five firemen from across the city were called out to fight the blaze. To help increase the water pressure, an old steam engine from No. 7 Fire Station was brought into action. A detachment of the RCMP was also called in to help Ottawa police keep more than 20,000 on-lookers from hindering the work of the fire brigade, and to keep them a safe distance from falling debris and flying embers. Just after midnight, tons of masonry from the stone tower at the south-west corner collapsed sending the vault in the Assessment department through the floor through the Health department, the Board of Control room, and the Central Canada Exhibition offices.

Fortunately, the fire didn’t reach the ground floor office of N. H. Lett, the City Clerk. His precious records of elections, plebiscites, and vital statistics survived the fire. Paintings and other valuables were also rescued, including portraits of former mayors and pictures of the King and Queen. Small busts of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier were later found in the Mayor’s Office intact albeit somewhat water damaged. The stock of a little cigar stall that stood at the front entrance was also saved. Estimated losses associated with the fire were placed at more than $200,000. Total insurance coverage amounted to only $91,200 for the building and $10,000 for contents. The cause of the blaze was never ascertained.

Even before the flames were extinguished, work began on finding temporary accommodations for civic workers. The City obtained permission from the federal Department of Public Works to use two floors of the Regal building on O’Connor Street that had just been vacated by the Department of Labour for the Confederation Building on Wellington Street. But efforts to move furniture into the building and set up a switch board were quickly halted when the owner of the building objected. As the City began seeking other alternatives, Mayor Allen and other City Controllers worked out of Controller York’s law office. Some city services set up temporary offices at the Coliseum on Bank Street, others on Bank Street and in LeBreton Flats. Three days after the fire, the City found satisfactory accommodations in the Transportation Building on Rideau Street. (The Transportation Building, built in 1916, stands at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive and is now incorporated into the Rideau Centre.) Previously the home of the Auditor General, the City rented the top three floors at a cost of $22,500 per year, equivalent to $1.50 per square foot. Most civic departments eventually moved here.

Despite the confusion in the days immediately following the fire, most municipal services were unaffected. City staff were paid on time that week by City Paymaster Courtemanche using temporary facilities at the Police Station. Only Ottawa’s sweethearts were disappointed. City Clerk Lett halted the issuance of marriage licences for twenty-four hours owing to his stock of blank certificates being waterlogged.

The Mayor and Council quickly initiated talks with the Bennett government over the future of the gutted City Hall building. The Mayor proposed that the federal government purchase the land for $2 million consistent with the 1927 plan to establish Confederation Park on the site. But Bennett’s government demurred. The price tag was simply too great. Discussions then focused on whether to restore the damaged building, rebuilt on the same site, or seek an alternate site for a new City Hall. The Ottawa Journal was of the view that restoring the damaged building was a waste of money. It opined that the fire had shown the “folly and danger” of its “ugly, wooden towers which architects of a generation or two ago seemingly insisted upon.” It added “The truth is that a lot of mid-Victorian architecture was as slovenly as the dress of a lot of mid-Victorian women – and about as useless.” What had been viewed as the epitome of fine municipal architecture fifty years earlier was now thoroughly out of fashion and a fire hazard to boot.

It took some months for Council to make its decision to demolish the gutted building, contracting with D. E. Mackenzie to pull it down for $1,800 in October 1931. The City retained ownership over the cornerstone, and all plaques and memorials. The decision to demolish the old building was not unanimous. Mayor Allen and Controller Gelbert favoured erecting a temporary roof and using the basement as the civic employment office. A number of potential locations were discussed for a new home for the City Hall, including sites on Wellington Street next to St. Andrew’s Church between Kent and Lyon Streets, the west side of Elgin Street between Queen and Albert Streets, as well as rebuilding on the existing site. But with a price tag of $600,000, and in light of the considerable expenditures the City had recently incurred on sewer upgrades following the sewer explosions earlier that year, and the cost of building a water purification system, city fathers believed it prudent to wait until better economic conditions prevailed before re-building. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that Ottawa moved into new accommodations constructed on Green Island. The new City Hall building was officially opened by Princess Margaret in early August 1958. The structure, now known as the John G. Diefenbaker building, is currently occupied by Global Affairs Canada.

With the creation of a single-tier city structure, and the merger of surrounding communities into the City of Ottawa in 2001, city government moved to the offices of the defunct Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton at the corner of Laurier Avenue and Elgin Street, facing Confederation Park. Interestingly, this is roughly the site proposed for Ottawa’s City Hall by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in 1931. 

Sources:

Citizen (The), 1931.”5 Firemen In Narrow Escape, Property Loss $15,000,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. “Ask Government If It Wants City Hall Razed,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. “City Hall Built in 1875-76, Renovated During 1910-11,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. ‘For A New City Hall,” 2 April.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1931. “Mayor and Board See Premier About City Hall,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “How Ottawa City Hall Looks Today After Night Blaze of Six Hours,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Three firemen Say They Had A Lucky Break,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Cause of Blaze – A Mystery To Chief Lemieux,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Thrilling Scenes And Brave Rescues Mark City Hall Fire,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Fourth Floor Collapses Trapping Seven Men Under Debris In Cellar,” 1 April.

———————————–, 1931. “Board in Special Meeting Decides on New Offices,” 1 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Ask Government $2,000,000 For City Hall Site,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “City Business Carried on Despite Difficulties Faced Securing Temporary Offices,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Why Waste $150,000 On An Inadequate Building,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Wretched Wooden Towers,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Will Consider Construction New City Hall on Present or Some Other Location,” 3 April.

———————————-, 1931. “New Quarters For City Staff Are Arranged,” 4 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Will Demolish The Fire Ruins Of City Hall,” 12 August.”

———————————-, 1931. “Another Site For New City Hall Offered,” 18 September.

———————————-, 1931. “Decide To Tear Down City Hall Ruins At Once,” 3 October.

———————————-, 1931. “Still Unable Start Tearing Down Building,” 6 October.

Bob, the Fire Horse: The End of an Era

25 September 1929

On 25 September 1929, The Ottawa Evening Journal reported the death of old “Bob,” a twenty-five year old horse. It was front page news as Bob wasn’t just any horse but was Ottawa’s last fire horse. The red ribbon and cup winner at the Ottawa Horse Parade passed away in pasture, honourably retired for more than a year. He had been purchased by the Ottawa Fire Department (O.F.D.) in 1908 at the age of four from Hugh Coon. Standing 16 hands, 2 inches tall (66 inches) from the ground to the top of his withers, the jet black, 1,300 pound horse served four fire stations during his lifetime, retiring from the No. 11 station at 424 Parkdale Avenue. Old Bob wasn’t the last horse in active service, but was the last owned by the O.F.D. In late 1928, the last two-horse team, also at service at No. 11 station, was displaced when the O.F.D. purchased three motorized combination ladder and hose trucks. When the team was sold, only Bob was left, pensioned off in recognition of his many years of noble service to the City. His retirement to greener pastures was controversial. Ottawa City Controller Tulley opposed Bob’s pensioning. A delegate to the Allied Trades and Labour Association meeting held in Ottawa in the fall of 1928 wanted to know if Tulley thought the old horse deserved to be shot, and whether the councillor favoured the same treatment be given to other old employees.

Fire Station No.2 Ottawa, Topley Studio LAC PA-012920, c. 1880
A Horse-Drawn Hose Reel with 500 feet of hose wrapped around the axle in front of No. 2 Fire Station, 123 Lyon Street at Queen Street, 1880. Left to right: Richard Waggoner, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Stanford. Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012920.

Bob’s passing marked the end of an era dating back to 1874 when the City purchased the first horses for its fire department. Prior to then, firemen had to pull their fire engines manually to the scene of a fire. The first fire engine in the city dated back to 1830 when the British regiment stationed on Barracks Hills, now called Parliament Hill, acquired the Dominion, a small manually operated machine. A volunteer fire department was formed in 1838. Later, the first fire hall was established on the ground floor of Bytown’s (later Ottawa’s) City Hall on Elgin Street. During these early years, insurance companies played a major role in fire-fighting, even providing the fire equipment. The first fire stations date from 1853 when the Bytown Town Council established three “engine” houses in West, Central and East Wards, each equipped with hand-pulled engines. In 1860, the now City of Ottawa purchased two hook and ladder trucks. As each weighed more than a ton, they were supposed to have been drawn by horses. But the City was too cheap or too poor to provide the funds for horses so the engines had to be manually pulled to fires.

The volunteer fire department was neither well managed, nor very professional in its operations. According to David Fitzsimons and Bernard Matheson who wrote the definitive history of the Ottawa Fire Department, there were complaints in the 1850s of volunteers who were quick to show off their sky-blue and silver laced uniforms in parades, but were no-shows when there was an actual fire. To “secure the utmost promptitude in the attendance of the different [fire] companies and water carriers at fires,” the City began to offer in the mid-1860s significant financial premiums to first responders. “The first engine to arrive in good working order” received $12, the second $8. The first water carrier received $2 and the second $1. Although such financial incentives did indeed encourage prompt service, they also led to fisticuffs between competing firemen with fires sometimes left unattended. Even when fire fighters managed to arrive at a fire without delay, there was the occasional problem. In 1914, Mr. J. Latimer, a fire department veteran, recalled a major fire in the Desbarats building located on the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets that occurred in February 1869. When the fire threatened to spread to the neighbouring International Hotel, barrels of liquor were rolled out into the street to keep them safe from the flames. In the process, some were broken open and at least two detachments of firefighters went home “wobbly” and had to be replaced before the fire was extinguished.

The first fire horses arrived in 1874 when the City acquired the Conqueror steam engine with a vertical boiler from the Merryweather Company of Clapham, England for the huge sum at the time of $5,953. Considerably heavier than other fire equipment, Ottawa was obliged to buy horses to pull it—anywhere from three to six depending on weather and road conditions. That same year, Ottawa’s volunteer fire department was replaced by a professional, full time force under the leadership of Chief William Young and Deputy Chief Paul Favreau.

The first motorized fire engines were introduced in North America during the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1906, the Waterous Engine Works Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota and Brantford, Ontario produced the Waterous Steam Pumper. That same year, the Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts produced its motorized fire engine. Such machines quickly became popular with fire departments everywhere. Compared with horse-drawn engines, the new motorized engines were faster and cheaper to operate. Horses needed to be fed 365 days of the year, and required stabling, shoeing, harnesses, and veterinary care. Fire horses also needed to be well trained. They had to be strong, obedient, and willing to stand patiently regardless of weather conditions, noise, and swirling hot embers, flames and smoke. Motorized fire engines didn’t need to be trained, were impervious to weather, and consumed gasoline only when used.

Ottawa purchased its first motorized fire engine in 1911 following pressure from insurance companies that threatened to raise their rates if the City didn’t get into the twentieth century and acquire modern fire-fighting equipment. Chief John Graham was also insistent that the City buy motorized fire equipment for efficiency and effectiveness reasons. Although the initial outlay for a motorized fire truck was higher than that of a traditional horse-drawn vehicle, the operating costs were lower.

Fire engine tender 13-3-1911
Call for Tenders for Ottawa’s first motorized fire engine, 10 March 1911, The Ottawa Evening Journal

Chief Graham had recommended buying a motor fire truck costing $10,450 from the Webb Motor Fire Apparatus Company of St Louis, Missouri. However, City Council chose a vehicle produced by the W.E. Seagrave Fire Apparatus Company of Walkerville, Ontario (now part of Windsor), the Canadian subsidiary of a company of the same name that had been established in Ohio in 1881. The company had previously sold three of its motorized fire engines to Vancouver in 1907 and one to Windsor in 1910. The four-ton, 80 h.p. Seagrave vehicle purchased by Ottawa carried a price tag of $7,850.  It was a combination chemical and hose truck capable of carrying ten firemen, two 35 gallon tanks of fire-suppressing chemicals, 1,000 feet of 2 ½ inch hose, a twelve-foot ladder plus extension, door openers, and three fire extinguishers. Fully loaded, the vehicle could attain a speed of up to 50 miles per hour on flat terrain (typically 35 mph), or 20 mph on a 5-10 per cent incline. The City had initially sought a combination automobile pumper truck with a pumping capacity of 700-800 gallons per minute. However, it opted instead for the chemical and hose truck on the grounds that a pumper truck had not yet been adequately proven though tests were underway in New York City on such vehicles.

Fire Apparatus, Ottawa, 1914 Topley Studio LAC PA-032798
The Seagrave Chemical Hose Combination Truck, Ottawa’s first motorized fire truck, 1914, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-032798.

The new Seagrave truck was shown off to Ottawa residents at the end of May 1911 when it was run out on the road with its siren shrieking for the first time. Chief Graham invited reporters to witness the truck take him, two deputy chiefs and several firemen on a tour of Ottawa along Rideau, Sparks, Bank, Elgin, Laurier and Albert Streets. It visited No. 3, 7, and 2 fire stations before parking at its new home at No. 8 station located to the rear of the Ottawa City Hall on Elgin Street. In town for the event was Mr W.E. Seagrave himself and an instructor, Mr C.E. Fern, who drove the vehicle that first time. Fern taught Fireman James Donaldson of No. 9 station how to drive the newfangled machine.

The Ottawa Evening Journal hoped that the purchase of the Seagrave vehicle marked the start of a complete replacement by Ottawa of its horse-drawn vehicles by motorized fire trucks. (The second motorized vehicle purchased by the O.F.D. was a flash car for Chief Graham who could then retire his horse and buggy.) At that time in 1911, Ottawa’s fire department owned 46 horses, for which the cost of feed alone amounted to $4,600 per year. This was the department’s second largest budgetary item after paying the firemen’s salaries. On top of this were the ancillary costs associated with owning and taking care of horses that needed to be regularly replaced. The newspaper thought that by 1931, the whole O.F.D. might be equipped with motorized vehicles. This was a pretty accurate guess, with the motorization process taking twenty-seven years.

Fire Car Chief Graham William James TopleyLibrary and Archives CanadaPA-010055
Chief Graham & assistants in auto “Fire Brigade”, 1911, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-010055.

The last major event that saw horse-drawn engines in action was the fire that consumed the old Russell Hotel in the middle of April 1928. By the end of that year, the entire Ottawa Fire Department had been motorized, leaving only old “Bob” to live out his days in green pastures far from the smoke and flames of his fire-fighting days.

Today, the Ottawa Fire Department has forty-five fire stations strategically positioned to protect close to one million people living in an area of 2,796 square kilometres. Among its equipment are pumper trucks, ladder trucks, rescue trucks, and brush trucks as well as boats, ATVs and other rescue equipment.

Sources:

Fire-Dex, 2011. The Switch from Horsepower to Motorized Fire Apparatus, September, http://www.firedex.com/blog/2011/09/21/the-switch-from-horsepower-to-motorized-fire-apparatus/.

Fitzsimons, David R. & Matheson, J. Bernard, 1988. History of the Ottawa Fire Department, 150 Years of Firefighting, 1838-1988, Kanata: J. B. Matheson and D. R. Fitzsimons, publishers.

Morgan, Carl, 2015. “Seagrave: Birthplace of the Modern Firetruck,” Walkerville Times Magazine, http://www.walkervilletimes.com/seagrave.htm.

Ottawa, City of, 2017. About Ottawa Fire Services, https://ottawa.ca/en/about-ottawa-fire-services#our-services.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1911. “Fire Chief Wants A Motor Engine,” 26 January.

——————————, 1911. “City Will Purchase An Auto Fire Engine,” 10 February.

——————————, 1911. “Read Tenders For Furniture,” 7 April.

——————————, 1911. “Deputy Chief At Eganville,” 12 May.

——————————, 1911. “Using Automobiles For Fire Purposes,” 29 April.

——————————, 1911. “Shriek of New Engine Was Heard,” 1 June.

——————————, 1914. “With the Ottawa Fire Fighters In Bygone Days,” 7 March.

——————————, 1928. “Labor To Take Keen Interest In Coming Vote,” 22 September.

——————————, 1928. “Only Two Horse In Fire Service,” 9 November 1928.

——————————, 1929. “Last Fire Horse Dies In Pasture,” 25 September.

——————————, 1930. “Chief Burnett Dies At Home Was Long Ill,” 3 November.

Saskatoon, City of, 2000. History of Webb Motor Fire Apparatus, http://digital.scaa.sk.ca/gallery/fire/webb.htm.

Wildfire Today, 2016. Horse-drawn fire engines, http://wildfiretoday.com/2016/09/05/horse-drawn-fire-engines/.

The Rideau Club Fire

23 October 1979

Ottawa’s history has been marked by major fires that have reshaped its contours. Most devastating were the massive conflagrations of 1870 and 1900 that twice destroyed much of the western suburbs of the capital, as well as large chunks of Hull on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. The mysterious and deadly fire of 1916 that gutted the Centre Block on Parliament Hill is also worthy of a “dishonourable” mention. Other historic buildings lost to flames include the Russell Hotel, destroyed in 1928 and the old City Hall, gone in 1931. The former stood at the corner of Elgin and Sparks Street, roughly where the War Memorial is located today, while the site of the latter is now Confederation Park on Elgin Street. A more recent calamity was the fire that consumed the Rideau Club building during the evening of Tuesday, 23 October 1979. The landmark building had one of the most prestigious addresses in the Capital, being located at 84 Wellington Street on the corner of Metcalfe Street, immediately across from the front gates of Parliament and right beside the then American embassy.

Rideau Club mikkan 3325804
Early photograph of the Rideau Club, corner of Wellington and Metcalfe Streets, Ottawa, Date unknown, likely circa 1910, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009225.

For those unfamiliar with the Rideau Club, it is unquestionably the senior, and most exclusive, private club in Ottawa. It was founded in 1865, two years prior to Confederation, by an act of the Province of Canada. The Bill, titled an Act to Incorporate the Rideau Club of the City of Ottawa, sailed quickly through both the Provincial legislature and the Legislative Council (the upper house of Parliament), spurred no doubt by the fact that more than two-thirds of the Bill’s sixty-three petitioners were parliamentarians. The Club was modelled after the British gentlemen’s club that had become very popular in Victorian London. Such clubs provided a haven for gentlemen, or aspiring gentlemen, seeking a quiet respite from home life and a place to entertain guests. The clubs were also useful for business meetings and networking. Although Ottawa in 1865 had lots of taverns and bars catering to its many loggers, there was little in the way of refined amenities. The capital was still a small, rough-hewed, shanty town that had been cut out of the wilderness only thirty years earlier. At a stretch, its population may have been about 18,000. But having been named the capital of Canada in 1857, and with the construction of the parliamentary and government buildings nearing completion, the town was welcoming an influx of parliamentarians and senior civil servants used to the creature comforts of Toronto, Quebec or Montreal. The Rideau Club was their way of bringing some of the finer things of life to the nation’s capital.

The Club’s constitution and rules drew heavily from those of Montreal’s St-James Club established in 1858, with its membership transcending language, religion and political barriers. Its initial membership list reads like a roll call of Canada’s notables of the time. First on the list of petitioners was none other than the Conservative John A. Macdonald, who at that time was the Premier of Canada West, and, along with Sir Naricisse-Fortunat Belleau, who was the Premier of Canada East, headed the last government of the Province of Canada before Confederation. Macdonald subsequently became the first Premier of the new Dominion of Canada following Confederation in 1867, receiving a knighthood for his work in uniting the British colonies of North America. Macdonald was to become the Rideau Club’s first president. Second on the list was George-Étienne Cartier, who had shared the premiership with Macdonald in an earlier Provincial government. Like Macdonald, Cartier was a “father of Confederation,” and was made a baronet by Queen Victoria for his role in founding the Dominion of Canada. Eight other “fathers of Confederation” were on that first membership list, including D’Arcy McGee, who was assassinated in 1868, George Brown, the fiery Reform leader who founded The Globe newspaper, the above-mentioned Sir Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau, and Hector-Louis Langevin who was later embroiled in the Pacific Scandal of 1873 involving bribes in the bidding for a national railway. Another founding member of the Rideau Club was John Sandfield Macdonald who also had been a former Premier of the Province of Canada. After Confederation, he became the first Premier of Ontario. Ottawa’s entrepreneurial elite were also represented on the initial Club subscription list. Robert Bell, the editor and owner of The Ottawa Citizen newspaper and Alonzo Wright, a lumber baron, were founding members.

The club’s first home was at 200 Wellington Street, the location of Doran’s Hotel, Ottawa’s leading inn at the time. In 1869, the Club moved to the Queen’s Restaurant, located at the eastern corner of Wellington and Metcalfe Streets, the site of the Langevin Building today named in honour of Hector-Louis Langevin. In 1876, the Club moved to the other side of Metcalfe Street when the Rideau Club Building Association acquired land for $4,000 from the famed Ottawa photographer, James Topley, and built a modest clubhouse. With the subsequent purchase of an adjoining lot, the building was enlarged on three occasions, the last in 1911, to meet the needs of the Club’s expanding membership. This building, with its front doors facing Parliament Hill, would be the Club’s home for 103 years.

Although the Club welcomed members from all political stripes, francophones, anglophones, Catholics and Protestants, it was strictly men only. Also like most private gentlemen’s clubs of the time, Jews were not welcome; anti-Semitism, though often subtly expressed, was widespread in Canada. Although the Club’s membership rules did not explicitly reject Jewish membership, the selection process for members effectively did so. Should a member propose a Jew for membership, it only required a small, anti-Semitic minority to anonymously block the application. Two rejections meant that an applicant was “blackballed” (i.e. barred) for life. It took almost one hundred years before the Club admitted its first Jewish members in 1964, a reform made possible be changing in the selection mechanism so that members were required to give reasons for vetoing an application.  Among the first Jewish members were Louis Rasminsky, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, and Lawrence Frieman, the owner of a major Ottawa department store and a prominent philanthropist. It took another fifteen years before women broke down similar discriminatory barriers. Jean Pigott, a former Member of Parliament and an adviser to Prime Minister Joe Clark became the first female member in the summer of 1979, just months before the Rideau Club was gutted by fire.

The fire, which destroyed the four-story edifice, began at about 5pm on the evening of 23 October 1979, a timing to which I can personally attest as I was outside the Rideau Club shortly after the fire was detected. I had been walking along Sparks Street after work on the way to W.H. Smith bookstore when I smelt an acrid odour as I approached the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe Streets. Seeing a curl of smoke coming off of the Rideau Club roof, I rushed to a gift shop on Metcalfe Street to use its telephone to raise the alarm. I was in the process of dialling when I heard the arrival of fire engines. Over the next several hours, I stayed to watch the unfolding drama from the safety of the Parliament Hill lawn, along with several thousand passersby, civil servants, and parliamentarians, including Prime Minister Joe Clark.

With the Club’s telephone lines dead, the fire was called in by a Club staff member who had gone to a Sparks Street clothing store to use their telephone. He had initially tried the neighbouring U.S. embassy, but got no response at the front door. At the time, there was only one member inside the Club, former Governor General Roland Michener who was eating toast and drinking tea while reading a newspaper in an upstairs sitting room. With considerable understatement, the Club’s bartender, Philip Sylvain, informed Michener that “there may be a slight fire,” and advised him to leave the building. After the hall porter help him to don his overcoat, the 80-year old former governor general made his way to the National Press Club for dinner where he created pandemonium when he informed journalists that the Rideau Club was on fire.

Apparently starting in the basement, near the elevator shaft, the blaze quickly spread through the building, its path facilitated by the building’s dry wooden interior coated by many layers of paint. Although the Club had recently been renovated, there were no sprinkler system. The cause of the fire was never clearly ascertained. Initial suspicions focused on the furnace boiler or faulty wiring, but Ontario’s Fire Marshall’s Office later rejected both possibilities. In the event, sixty fire fighters responded to the alarm with seven pumper trucks, three aerial trucks and two ladder trucks, as well as a squad truck and other emergency vehicles. Fifty policemen secured the scene and directed traffic, while an estimated 6,000 people looked on from Parliament Hill.

As night fell, the flames lit up the sky. At 6.20pm, the flag on the roof the Club caught fire. Shortly afterwards, the heavily-painted balcony burst into flame, spectacularly illuminating the structure. At the fire consumed the historic building, Rideau Club members, and indeed all of Ottawa, grieved. One member described the event as “going to the funeral of an old friend.” The building was completely gutted. Along with its meeting place, the Club lost priceless records, and many works of art, including two paintings by the famed Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson. Surviving were some cutlery, plates, and seven 19th century Ottawa prints salvaged from the Ladies’ dining room. An Inuit soapstone carving used as a Billiard Trophy was also recovered from the wreckage. Amazingly, more than $10,000 worth of wine and liquor was additionally retrieved, having been stored in a cellar protected by thick, stone walls.

Also gone in the blaze were priceless artifacts housed in the National Capital Commission’s tourist centre located in a corner of the Rideau Club building. Lost treasures included 150-year old model of an 18th century fighting ship, tools used in the construction of the Rideau Canal during the 1820s, and a hand-woven tapestry. As well, tourist brochures worth $100,000 were destroyed.

With the wind blowing from the west, the Rideau Club’s immediate neighbour, the Beaux-Arts U. S. Embassy building constructed in 1931, avoided damage. A firewall and timely action by fire fighters also spared the adjoining Blackburn building at the rear. However, sparks and burning embers from the Rideau Club fire threatened the Langevin Building, home of the Prime Minister’s Office, on the eastern side of Metcalfe Street. Although the fire jumped the road, firemen were able to contain the blaze to the eastern roof of the Langevin Building, using a turret gun and two hand lines that pumped 750 gallons of water per minute onto the roof. As a precautionary measure, staff were evacuated and furniture and files were moved into the interior hallways. Even though the building was saved, the damage, estimated at $500,000, was extensive.

The next morning, Ottawa citizens awoke to the sight of a smoldering, burnt-out shell in the heart of their city. The cost of the fire was placed in the millions. Although Club members hoped that the exterior walls might be saved and the structure rebuilt, the government, which had expropriated the building in 1973, quickly concluded that the edifice was unsafe and beyond repair. With a pending visit by U.S. President Carter, the remains of the Rideau Club were demolished with almost unseemly haste three weeks after the fire.

Neither the Langevin Building nor the Rideau Club building were insured. When the government decided to expropriate the Rideau Club building to make way for a possible future Parliamentary building—an idea that was subsequently quashed owing to high costs—it had originally offered Club members a meagre $1.3 million in compensation. Taking the matter to Federal Court, Club members in 1980 were finally awarded $10.5 million, including interest, in compensation by Mr Justice James Jerome, one of the few Federal judges who was not a member of the Club.

Rideau Club site 2016
Site of the Rideau Club taken from the same angle as the earlier c.1910 Topley photograph, May 2016, Google Streetview.

After using the Chateau Laurier as an interim home after the fire, Club members applied their compensation money to purchase the fifteenth floor of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building at 99 Bank Street, paying more than $5 million for the floor. An additional $3 million was spent on furnishings. From this penthouse floor, members have a fine view of the Parliament buildings and the surrounding Ottawa skyline.

Today, the site of the old Rideau Club building is an open square, featuring a stature honouring Terry Fox, the one-legged marathon runner who died from cancer in 1981 while attempting to run across Canada.

Sources:

Lynch, Charles, 1990. Up from the Ashes: The Rideau Club Story, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

McCreery, Christopher, 2015. Savoir-Faire, Savoir Vivre: Rideau Club 1865-2015, Dundurn: Toronto.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1979. “Historic Rideau Club In Ruins,” 24 October.

————————-, 1979. “Priceless exhibits lost from NCC’s Collection,” 24 October.

————————-, 1979. “Flames Posed Security Worry,” 24 October.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1979. “Members could only watch and grieve,” 24 October.

————————–, 1979. “Fire cause puzzles investigators,” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Entire city block lay at wind’s mercy.” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club death marks changing face of Ottawa.” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club blaze began near elevator.” 1 November.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club will crumble,” 7 November.

Province of Canada, 1865. Statutes, 4th Session of the 8th Parliament of Canada, “An Act to incorporate the Rideau Club in the City of Ottawa,” 29 Victoria, Cap XCVIII.

Hull and Ottawa in Flames

26 April, 1900

It was a balmy spring morning. The temperature was on its way to a high of 17 degrees Celsius, with a strong wind out of the north, gusting to about 60 kph. At about 10.00am, the chimney of a small wooden shack located close to the intersection of St. Rédempteur and Vaudreuil Streets in Hull (approximately the current home of the St. Rédempteur community health centre) overheated, setting the shack’s shingle roof afire. Passersby didn’t take much notice. Fire was perennial hazard among the wooden homes of Hull, and there was nothing to distinguish this blaze from the many others successfully attended to by the Hull Fire Department. But this was not any fire. Fanned by the strong winds, the blaze quickly got out of control. By noon, a fire storm had engulfed downtown Hull, forcing thousands to flee for their lives. The speed of the advancing fire was so fast that many left their homes with few possessions beyond the clothes on their backs. Firefighters were helpless in the face of the advancing flames. Within two hours, virtually everything within a several block area was destroyed, including the Court House, Post Office, the Imperial Hotel, an Anglican Church, newspaper offices, as well as numerous shops and residences. The only major building left standing was the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Capriciously, the fire also spared the city jail which was at rear of the gutted Court House.

Hull In flames
Hull in Flames, 26 April 1900

The fire then spread to the many timber yards and mills lining the Ottawa River, including those of the E.B. Eddy match and paper factories, and the Hull Lumber Company.  Millions of dollars worth of lumber was lost to the flames. Mr. Eddy described the fire as “a snow storm of particles of fire.” Leapfrogging from island to island, the fire traversed the Ottawa River. The wooden interprovincial bridge across the Chaudière rapids was also set ablaze severing the only land link between Hull and Ottawa. Of the many industrial building located on Victoria and neighbouring islands, only two survived. The metal sheathing on the Bronson and Weston Carbide Works saved that building from the flames, while staff at the J.R. Booth Sawmills, managed to douse flying embers that menaced the plant using a water system installed four years previously after an earlier mill fire.

By 1.00pm, flying red-hot embers and flaming shingles ignited Bronson’s wharf on the Ottawa side. Shortly afterwards, the nearby lumber yards that lined the shoreline went up in flames. Heading south, the conflagration consumed factory after factory, including the Baldwin Iron Works, the Victoria Foundry, the Ottawa Saw Works, the Martin and Warnock Flour Mills, and the flour mill and grain elevators of McKay Mills Company. Also destroyed were the Erskine Presbyterian Church, the House of Mercy and the Canadian Pacific Railway Station located at LeBreton Flats, along with its adjoining goods sheds and coal yards. Electrical power to Ottawa failed when the power houses of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company and the Electric Lighting Company went up in flames. The lack of lighting added to the misery of the Capital’s citizens. Parliament adjourned when their lights failed though many parliamentarians had already left their desks to monitor the advancing flames.

Through the afternoon and evening the fire worked its way south, devastating the LeBreton Flats area, destroying the shops and homes of mainly poor, working class citizens. However, the wealthy were not spared either. The $100,000 home (more than $2 million in current dollars) of J.R. Booth also went up in flames. The district looked like a war zone consisting of burnt-out columns of smouldering debris.  Only two buildings were spared, the No. 1 Fire Station and the Couillard Hotel located next door to each other on Duke Street.

The fire burnt its way through Rochesterville located to the south of LeBreton flats all the way to Dow’s Lake, roughly at the intersection of today’s Carling Avenue and Preston Street. There, staff of the Dominion Experimental Farm was able to save a number of farm buildings on the south side of the avenue. Meanwhile, a bucket brigade of men from the “Guards” and the 43rd Battalion was able to partially contain the fire to the east by wetting down buildings on the eastern side of Division Street (Booth Street). Fortunately, the central part of Ottawa was protected from the fire by Nanny Goat Hill that rises along Albert and Slater Streets behind Christ Church Cathedral. As well, in the afternoon, the wind which had been blowing from the north, northeast, swung around to the southeast. With little new combustible material to fuel the fire, the blaze began to exhaust itself.

By midnight, the fire had been largely contained by the heroic efforts of the firefighters of Ottawa and Hull and the Militia. Firemen and equipment as far afield as Toronto were called in to help, with a Montreal detachment of eight men and five horses arriving within two hours of being called. Another team made it by 7.00pm.

LeBreton Flats after the Fire, 1900
LeBreton Flats after the Fire, 1900

In the end, the inferno spread over five square miles of territory, consuming more than 3,200 buildings—factories, mills, shops and homes. Seven persons lost their lives, mostly in Hull, including John Dare, a fireman. More than 14,000 people, were left homeless and largely destitute as their places of employment were also destroyed. Estimated losses range from $10 million to $15 million ($300 million to $450 million in current dollars).  Much of this was uninsured.

Temporary shelter for the homeless was provided at the Drill Hall at Cartier Square, the Exhibition Grounds, the Amateur Athletic Club, and the Salvation Army Barracks in Ottawa, and the Roman Catholic Presbytery in Hull.  A Committee of ladies, chaired by the Governor-General’s wife, the Countess of Minto, with Lady Laurier, the wife of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, serving as president, organized distributions of food and clothing.

With the Boer War underway, there were rumours that the fire had been started by pro-Boer sympathizers. This was later denied; it was a simple accident. Moved by the disaster, aid from across Canada, the Empire, and beyond poured in.  In an editorial, The Times of London proclaimed that “Great Britain must help Canada who is lavishing her blood in South Africa.” In total, the Ottawa and Hull Fire Relief Fund, chaired by Mr. George Perley, raised close to $1 million (about $20 million today), much of it from individuals across Canada, Great Britain and the colonies, though funds also came from the United States; $4.86 was contributed from Chile. These funds helped Hull and Ottawa to recover quickly. By the end of the year, 750 replacement houses had been built, and operations at E.B. Eddy’s match and paper factories as well as the CPR rail yards were restored.

Sources:

Jenkins, Phil, 2008, An Acre Of Time, Chelsea Books.

Shorter, G. W., 1962, Ottawa-Hull Fire of 1900, National Research Council, Division of Building Research, June.

The Evening Citizen, “Hull and Ottawa’s Greatest Calamity,” 27 April 1900.

 —————-,“Ottawa Scene of Big Fires in Years Past,” 14 August 1926.

—————-, “Hull will not Forget Great Fire of 1900,” 20 August 1949.

The Colonist, “A Disastrous Fire,” 30 April 1900.

 The New York Times, “Ottawa and Hull Swept by Flames,” 27 April 1900.

Image: Hull in Flames, 26 April 1900, unknown, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Feu_Hull_1900.1.jpg.

Image: LeBreton Flats after the Fire,  unknown, Library and Archives Canada, PA-121784, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~crossroads/help/lebreton/.

Sabotage on Parliament Hill?

3 February 1916

It was mid-winter. On the Western Front in France where tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers were entrenched, there was a lull in the fighting; the battle of Verdun was yet three weeks away. Back home in Ottawa, all too was quiet on the parliamentary front. But this was to quickly change. The House of Commons convened in the afternoon of 3 February 1916 with a light agenda. Among the items for discussion was a proposal by Mr. Clarence Jameson, deputy for Digby, Nova Scotia, for an inquiry into the large differential between the retail price of fish and the dock-side price received by fishermen. Shortly before 9.00 pm, Mr. William Loggie, member for Northumberland, New Brunswick, moved that the House refer the issue to the Marine and Fisheries Committee. Further debate was interrupted by a commotion at the far end of the Commons chamber facing the Speaker’s chair. In rushed Mr. R.C. Stewart, the Commons’ Chief Doorkeeper. As tersely reported in Hansard, the parliamentary record, Stewart exclaimed “There is a big fire in the reading room; everybody get out quickly.” Within seconds, the corridor leading to the House of Commons was in flames. With smoke billowing into the chamber, members, officials, and visitors in the gallery fled for their lives. It was a close call. Coughing and gasping for breath, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had to be helped outside by a fifteen-year old page.

Firefighters from Ottawa’s Fire Department were on the scene within minutes to assist the Dominion Police who were responsible for fire protection on Parliament Hill. They were alerted by a signal sent to a nearby fire station by a newly-installed automatic fire alarm system which responded to the dramatic change of temperature inside Parliament’s centre block. But their quick response was to no avail. The gothic building which housed both the House of Commons and the Senate was quickly engulfed in flames. Constructed fifty years previously, its interior largely consisted of highly inflammable varnished wooden panelling and cabinets, its roof supported by massive pine beams. While furnished with modern fire extinguishers and hoses hooked up to the water system, the building was not equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, nor did it have fire doors which might have retarded the fire’s progress.

Seventy-eight firemen and Hill staff battled the blaze. Through the smoke and flames, the bell in the Victoria Tower tolled the hours until the stroke of midnight when it finally crashed to the ground. When fire fighters finally got the fire under control at 2.00am, the centre block was gutted. The only part spared was the Parliamentary Library to the rear, saved by the quick action of Michael MacCormac, assistant parliamentary librarian, who closed the iron doors which separated it from the main building.

Sadly, seven people lost their lives. Two were guests of Madame Sevigny, the wife of the Commons’ speaker. She had been hosting three friends in the Sevignys’ third floor apartment. When the alarm sounded, Madame Sevigny left the building with her two children and their nursemaids. Unfortunately, Madame Morin and Madame Brey didn’t immediately follow her, stopping first to retrieve valuables. Unfamiliar with the building, they were unable to find an exit in time and were overcome by smoke. Madame Dusseault, the third friend, survived by jumping from a third-floor window into a net held by firemen. Other victims included Mr Bowman Law, deputy for Yarmouth, and Mr J. Laplante, who were trapped in upstairs rooms. A policeman and two civil servants also perished when a wall fell on top of them as they battled the fire. Also lost in the blaze was the historic mace of the House of Commons, symbol of its authority, acquired in 1845 and used by the Province of Canada prior to Confederation.

Many believed that the fire was deliberately set by a German saboteur.  This was not as far-fetched as it might sound. A year to the day prior to the fire, a German army reservist was partially successful in blowing up a railway bridge between Vanceboro, Maine and St. Croix, New Brunswick in an effort to disrupt troop movements. Chief Graham of the Ottawa Fire Department was convinced it was sabotage, saying that the “fire was set and well set.” He also clamed hearing five explosions that sounded like artillery shells.

Parliament Hill Fire
Parliament, Centre Block after the Fire
4 February 1916

A Royal Commission set up to examine the origins of the fire and its causes, looked closely at the sabotage allegations as well as other more mundane explanations, such as careless smoking or an electrical fault. It established that the blaze began in a lower shelf of one of six large wooden tables in the reading room located between the House of Commons and the Senate chambers at about 8.55pm. The first person to spot the fire was Mr Francis Glass, MP, who was in the reading room at that time. The only other occupant was Madame Verville, the wife of Alphonse Verville, another member of parliament. After Glass called for assistance, a policeman came in with a fire extinguisher but was unable to douse the flames which spread to newspapers hanging from a nearby wooden partition which in turn ignited the highly varnished wooden shelving that lined the room.

Experts testified how incendiary devices or fire accelerants might have been responsible, but no evidence of their use was found. Several people reported seeing strangers in the vicinity, including a “shifty” and “nervous” man with a “rather striking” grey moustache close to the House of Commons lobby shortly before 9.00pm. But nothing came of these allegations.  Most damning was a statement from Mr John Rathom, editor of the Journal, a Rhode Island newspaper, who claimed that three weeks prior to the fire he had received information from employees at the German Embassy in the United States (then a neutral country) that Canada’s Parliament would shortly catch fire. While he had passed on this intelligence to a U.S. District Attorney, it was not sent to Canadian authorities. However, Mr Rathom declined to come to Ottawa for examination, and refused to reveal the names of his informants at the German Embassy.

Colonel Sherwood, head of the Dominion Police, was not convinced by the sabotage explanation. Given the times, he argued that fires were frequently but erroneously attributed to German sabotage, pointing to an incident in Brooklyn, New York where the explosion of two British munitions ships was initially thought to have been the handiwork of German saboteurs but was in fact due to faulty wiring. Although the general public had access to Parliament, including the reading room, the police had added staff at the start of the war and had taken additional security precautions following the Vanceboro incident. Any intruder would have been spotted by the constable on duty immediately outside the reading room.

With others testifying that the “No Smoking” signs in the reading room were routinely disregarded, a wayward cigar or cigarette seemed a plausible explanation for the fire, especially as burn marks marred the reading room’s furniture. But there was no evidence of anybody smoking immediately prior to the fire’s discovery. Alternatively, a fault in the building’s primitive electrical wiring system might have been responsible.  However, experts ruled out the possibility of an electrical fire, testifying that the wires running to the lights on the tables in the reading room were safely housed in metal conduits.

One thing that became apparent at the Commission hearings was the considerable discord between the Dominion Police and the Ottawa Fire Department. Colonel Sherwood had refused to allow Chief Graham to station city firemen permanently on Parliament Hill.  In his view, divided responsibility was “usually fatal and would always be vexatious and productive of friction.” He also maintained that all of his men were qualified to use fire equipment, and were trained to be more observant and alert than Ottawa’s firemen—a view disputed by Chief Graham. This dispute may have coloured the two men’s opposing views on the cause of the fire. A finding by the Commission that the fire had been the result of sabotage might have also reflected badly on the Dominion Police. On the other hand, Chief Graham seemed to see saboteurs behind every large Ottawa fire.

The Royal Commission concluded that “there are many circumstances connected with this fire that lead to a strong suspicion of incendiarism…But, while your commissioners are of such opinion, there is nothing in the evidence to justify your commissioners in finding that the fire was maliciously set.” They hoped that more evidence could be found in the future, and recommended that their report be treated as “interim” rather than “final.” While details of German espionage and sabotage activities in North American became known after the war, no additional evidence ever surfaced linking such activities to the Parliament fire. Nevertheless, the Commission’s suspicions provided grist to conspiracy theorists’ mills for decades to come.

Sources:

Grams, Grant, 2005. “Karl Respa and German Espionage in Canada During World War One,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 8, Issue 1.

Royal Commission, 1916. Re: Parliament Hill Fire at Ottawa, February 3, 1916, Report of Commissioners and Evidence, Sessional Paper No. 72a, J. de la Tache, Ottawa.

The Maple Leaf, 1946. “Old clock tolled the hours until midnight when it crashed to the ground on the last stroke of 12,” 8 February 1946.

The Montreal Gazette, 1978. “Parliament on Fire,” 17 June.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1916. “Thousands View the Pathetic Spectacle on Parliament Hill,” 5 February.

———————–, 1946. “Mystery Still Shrouds the Burning of Parliament Buildings in 1916,” 1 February.

———————–, 1949. “Was Big Fire on “Hill” of Incendiary Origin?” 15 February.

———————–, 1949. “How One Mysterious New Resident Vanished,” 22 February.

———————-,1984. “He Helped save PM from 1916 Parliament,” 3 March.

———————-, 1985. “Parliament Can’t Function Without 17 1/2lb Symbol of Authority, 4 March.

Toronto Daily Star, 1945. “Saved Parliament’s Library in ’16, Dies,” 13 March.

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_Hill.

The Great Fire of 1870

17 August 1870

It had been a dry spring and even drier summer. By mid August, little rain had fallen in four months, parching the fields and forests of eastern Ontario and western Quebec. On 17 August 1870, a work gang clearing a right-of-way along the Central Canada Railway between Pakenham and Almonte near the village of Rosebank set brush on fire along the tracks. It wasn’t the brightest of moves. With a strong wind blowing from the south, the fire quickly got out of control and spread into the neighbouring woods. Despite efforts by railway workers to douse the flames with water pumped from the nearby Mississippi River, it could not be contained. Racing northward through the tinder-dry forest, the fire sent massive columns of smoke into the air blanketing the region.

Other than being discommoded by the smoke and ash darkening the sky and making breathing difficult, Ottawa residents weren’t especially concerned. This wasn’t first time that they had smelt the smoke of forest fires. While pitying rural folk affected by the blaze, people didn’t view it as Ottawa’s problem. Moreover, in the unlikely event fire should threaten the city, the Fire Department, equipped with its modern steam pumper, the “Conqueror,” would be able to deal with it.

Attitudes may have been different if people had been aware of the extent of the blaze, and the speed of its advance towards Ottawa. But hard information was difficult to come by. The few telegraph lines that linked the capital to communities to the south had been cut by the fire, while stagecoaches were stopped in every direction. Left ignorant, newspapers focused instead on exciting European news. A month earlier, Napoleon III of France had foolishly declared war on Prussia, launching the Franco-Prussian War. News from the front was being swiftly conveyed to North America by the new transatlantic telegraph cable laid between Ireland and Newfoundland only four years earlier.

The enormity of the fire only became apparent when refugees began to trickle into Ottawa by carriage and on foot from outlying towns and hamlets. The Ottawa Times reported on 19 August that 2,000 homeless and hungry people were slowly making their way along Richmond Road to the capital. The following day, The Globe newspaper reported that there was “Panic in Ottawa.” The fire had finally people’s attention.

Fanned by gale and sometimes hurricane force winds, the fire moved as fast as a horse could trot, leaping from tree to tree, through the townships of Goulbourn, Huntley, March, Fitzroy, Torbolton and Nepean. One by one, farms cut into the parched forest were destroyed, their wooden homesteads, barns and stables consumed by the flames, along with their crops and livestock. Residents who couldn’t flee by road tried to find safety in rivers or lakes. Some found refuge down wells, while others dug holes in the middle of turnip or potato fields, covering themselves with earth and wet blankets. The fire burned so hot that land south of Almonte was effectively scoured.  Now called the “Burnt Lands,” traces of the 1870 fire can be seen even today. Only a few stone buildings of wealthy farmers, protected by broad tilled fields, had a chance of surviving.

The village of Stittsville, sixteen miles distant from Ottawa succumbed to the flames, then did Bells Corners, a mere nine miles from the capital. In Bells Corners, the only buildings left standing were “Mrs Bell’s house, two churches and a schoolhouse.” In Nepean and March, only three houses over a distance of 15 miles survived. Flames also consumed the newly-constructed buildings of the Ottawa Agricultural Society at Lansdowne Park, then outside the city limits.

Powerful updrafts sent burning branches and embers high into the air. Caught by a southerly gale, the blaze jumped across the Britannia Rapids on the Ottawa River to the Quebec side. There, the fire quickly made its way through the woods of central Hull on a front four miles wide, heading north. Fifty homes of iron miners at the village of Ironside were destroyed, along with the smelting house owned by the Canada Iron Mining and Manufacturing Company. While Chelsea was spared, the nearby Gilmour piling ground and more than five million feet of lumber went up in flames. So rapid was the fire’s advance that many families saved themselves by fleeing to the river where they embarked on log “cribs” cut loose and left to float down with the current. Others were not so lucky. James Pink, 79 years old, died when trying to escape with his sister-in-law in a buggy. Overcome by smoke, he fell to the ground from the carriage. His sister-in-law, unable to lift him, was forced to leave him on the road in order to save her own life.

Back in Ottawa, a special meeting of City Council was held in the afternoon of 19 August. Warned by Sheriff Powell that the fire was only 300 yards from Rochesterville on the city’s western outskirts, the Council issued a proclamation calling upon all citizens to close their businesses and provide assistance to halt the fire. On Sparks Street, the cry went up “Fire, Fire. The Fire’s Coming.” With church bells ringing, thousands of volunteers headed west “in carriages and vehicles of all descriptions,” as dull, rolling dark clouds of smoke showered them with fine white ash. The 60th Rifles and the Garrison Artillery stationed in the city were also mobilized to battle the flames.

As the fire approached the city, the Ottawa Fire Department ordered the St Louis dam on the Rideau Canal system (roughly at Dow’s Lake) to be breached. A torrent of water up to 300 yards wide coursed its way down today’s Preston Street to the Ottawa River. This water barrier combined with a subsidence of the winds effectively halted the advancing flames saving Ottawa from catastrophe.

Though the worst was over, the Great Fire of 1870 continued to smoulder for several weeks until autumn rains finally put it out. The fire burned an area stretching from the Rideau Lakes in the south, to as far north as Wakefield in Quebec, an area of several hundred square miles. Approximately 20 people died. Thousands were left homeless.

Governments were slow to act to help survivors. In the late 19th century, the idea that public authorities ought to help its citizens after natural disasters was a novelty. Sir Francis Hincks, the federal Minister of Finance, refused to help, saying aid was a provincial matter. Meanwhile, in the Ontario legislature, some MPs opined that any aid would be wasted. J. Sandfield Macdonald, Premier of Ontario and Attorney General, suggested that area residents must have done something terrible to warrant the wrath of the Almighty. He argued that the provision of aid would be unconstitutional. When pressed, he grudging agreed to provide a loan of up to $100,000 at 6% interest for ten years to those who could offer good security. Not surprisingly, as banks were offering loans at 4%, his offer was rejected. Anyway, what “good security” could burnt-out farmers provide? Robert Lyon, the MPP for Carleton and a government member, was so incensed that he threatened to introduce a vote of censure against his own government should it refuse to help.

After several months of dithering, the Ontario legislature, shamed in part by the Quebec government’s more open handed provision of aid of $18,000 to victims of the fire on both sides of the Ottawa River, granted $30,000 to Ontario and Quebec fire sufferers.  It wasn’t much but it was a start. Despite some initial reluctance to help as its citizens were not directly affected, the Ottawa City Council chipped in another $5,000. A Fire Relief Fund, chaired by J. M. Currier, raised $78,000 through a public appeal. It provided aid to more than 850 families in the towns and villages surrounding Ottawa in Ontario. As well, more than 210 additional families were assisted in western Quebec. Amounts given to individual recipients were small, ranging from $3 to a maximum of $390. Although based in Ottawa, the Dominion government contributed nothing beyond 50 tents provided by the Militia for emergency shelter, and the personal contributions by federal members of Parliament to the Relief Fund.

Even though the aid provided by governments fell well short of the losses sustained, a welcome precedent was set. Victims of natural disasters were no longer alone. They could look to their government for assistance.

Sources:

Currie, Terrence M. 2009, The Ottawa Valley’s Great Fire of 1870: The Nineteenth Century Press and the Reality of a Great Disaster, Creative Bound International, Inc.

Ogilvie, Garfield. 1992, Once Upon a Country Lane, The House of Airlie, Nepean.

Ottawa Fire Relief Fund, Report of Proceeding of the Central General Committee, Ottawa, From 22 August 1870 to 28 July 1871.

The Globe,1870.  “Canada, “Fire Raging All Around the County of Renfrew,” 18 August.

————-, 1870. The Fire in the Woods: Panic in Ottawa, The Flames Advancing,” 20 August.

————-,1870.  “The Ottawa Bush Fires,” 24 August.

————-, 1870. “The Debate of the Address,” 13 December.

The Ottawa Times, 1870. “The Great Fire, Latest Particulars,” 19 August.

——————–, 1870. “Battling with the Flames, 20 August.

——————–, 1870. “The Fire Near Chelsea,” 22 August.