CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.
While some 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.
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 downtown as well as to the vibrant nightlife that is 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.
The broader market district has been the location of at least two major conflagrations that destroyed entire blocks of homes and stores. The first broke out early in the morning of Tuesday, April 28,1874. 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 Lowertown business district would go up in flames. Residents in the affected area began throwing personal belongings and furniture out into street. Neighbouring 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 noted 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 a.m., 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.
Another huge fire struck the ByWard Market area on Jan. 2 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 a.m. 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.