Remember This? Hull and Ottawa in flames

By James Powell, in partnership with The Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.

April 26,1900

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 km/hr. At about 10 a.m., 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 on fire. 

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.

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. 

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 p.m., 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 p.m.

In the end, the inferno spread over five square miles of territory, consuming more than 3,200 buildings — factories, mills, shops and homes. Seven people 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 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.

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