The Parliament Hill Fire of 1916

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Parliament Hill is a symbol of Canada. It is found on our money, and it is easily recognizable to nearly every Canadian out there. 
While this episode is about the fire that erupted at Parliament Hill during the First World War, we should look at some of the history of the buildings.
After Ottawa was chosen to be the new capital of the Province of Canada, ground was broken on Dec. 20, 1859, with the first stones being laid down on April 16. On Sept. 1, 1860, Prince Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII, would lay the cornerstone of the Centre Block.
Construction continued on the site and Parliament Hill would become the largest construction project undertaken in North America to that point.
It was also very costly. By 1861, $1.4 million had been sent on the construction and everything was halted for two years until a commission of inquiry could look at the highs cost of the construction. It should be noted that $1.4 million back then is about $41 million today.
Construction would continue and two years later, the site was still unfinished but it would play host to the celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday.
In 1867, the year of Confederation when Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick formed to create Canada, Parliament Hill was still not finished and with the growth of the country over the next few years, more construction had to be done on the building to accommodate the increased bureaucracy needs.
In 1876, the structures of Parliament Hill were finished along with the fence and gates, but the grounds were not yet designed.
So, after all those years of construction, the site was ready to serve as the centre of the Canadian government.
Let’s fast forward a bit to Feb. 3, 1916.
It was on that day, in the cool evening, when only a few members of Parliament were in the House of Commons were in session. MP W.S. Loggie of Northumberland was talking about the transportation of fish when there was a commotion at the front door and someone began to shout that there was a fire.
Members in the press gallery did not rush out, and quickly found themselves surrounded by black smoke as they made their way down the winding staircase. As they vacated the area, they came across Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, along with his secretary, who were making their way to the exit, almost crawling on the ground to escape the smoke.
Suddenly, the lights went out and those who took their time to leave were suddenly trapped in the dark with the smoke, trying to find their way out.
George Elliot, the MP for North Middlesex, began to call out to everyone to join hands so he could lead them to safety.
Let’s go back in time a bit first. To the fire and how it started.
In the reading room of the House of Commons, smoking was prohibited but that didn’t stop members from still doing it. At some point, someone discarded or left a cigar sitting on stacks of loose papers. It did not take long for those papers to ignite and before long, the room was blazing with flames. Before long the fire had spread and muffled explosions were happening throughout the building and sparks went up into the sky.
As the fire began to spread, MPs realizing the danger did what they could to get out of the building. Thomas MacNutt and a Dr. Cash, both MPs from Saskatchewan, were using the toilet when the fire broke out. They attempted to escape through the door but it was a wall of flames and they were forced to go out the window. Problem was, they were not on the main floor. The two men fashioned a rope using towels tied together. Cash was able to go out first and had to drop 20 feet from the end of a towel rope. MacNutt and a janitor then managed to lower a ladder.
Other MPs, like Sir Thomas White, were able to escape through the Senate.
Albert Sevigny, the Speaker of the House, moved quickly to rescue his two children and wife from his office. With his wife were two other women named Florence Bray and Mable Morin. He attempted to get the two women to leave with him and his family but they insisted on getting their fur coats. They would suffocate in the smoke.
Another woman, who was not identified, climbed out a window and hung for ten minutes until firefighters could get a net below her so she could drop 40 feet.
The Minister of Agriculture, Martin Burrell, would suffer burns to his hands and his face and Prime Minister Robert Borden would run out into the cold night without his hat or coat, assisted by a 15-year-old page.
Grattan O’Leary, a reporter at Parliament, climbed through a window on the main floor to get the typewriters in the reporter’s office. In his memoirs he would state, “By this time a great crowd had gathered. It was a bitterly cold night and people caught in the building were coming down ladders or leaping into the snow beneath the windows.”
Firefighters worked hard to limit the fire and were able to save the library, full of priceless books. A breeze that moved the fire away from the fire helped them in their efforts. Another reason that the library was saved was because of Alpheus Todd, the first Parliamentary librarian. During the construction of the library, he was the one who suggested to architects that a hallway and firewood iron doors be installed to separate the library from the Centre Block. Decades later, his forethought would save that library. Another person who deserves thanks was library clerk Michael MacCormac, who ordered that the iron doors be shut when he realized the fire was raging.
Also saved was a large painting of Queen Victoria that hung in the Senate foyer, which was cut out of the frame on the night of the fire by quick-thinking staff.
Something that was not saved was the historic mace used in the House of Commons, as a symbol of its authority. It had been acquired in 1845 and used by the Province of Canada before Confederation. A wooden mace would be used temporarily after the fire.
By 10 p.m., the tower at Parliament Hill was engulfed in flames. At 10 p.m., it rang its bells, and did so again at 11 p.m. Before the clock could strike midnight though, the massive bell crashed down through the tower to the bottom.
At 1:21 a.m., the tower crumbled into smouldering dust.
As Charles Bishop of the Ottawa Citizen reported, “The grand old tower put up a magnificent fight for survival. Standing while the support seemed to have burned away, it sent a solid pillow of twisting, billowing gold up into the winter night. Finally, it came down, crashing into the concourse in front and with it, carrying the huge, old clock which had stayed illuminated and kept on striking to the last.”
By the time the flames had died down, A police officer, a fireman, three government employees, the two women already mentioned and MP Bowman Brown Law were all dead.
It did not take long for Canadians to start passing blame. Since it was the First World War, the blame immediately went to the Germans and a terrorist plot to destroy Parliament Hill. Newspapers began to state that spies were in Canada attempting to burn down our iconic buildings.
Police began to round up anyone with a German sounding name in the city and things were not helped by the local fire chief who insisted that the fire had been set and set well. Witnesses began to state that they had seen suspicious looking foreigners in the area. One individual who was caught up in this hysteria was Charles Sloney. He was born in Belgium and was in Canada at the time when he was arrested in Windsor. He was accused of being part of the gang that apparently set the fire. The Ottawa Citizen reported that he spoke with a foreign accent and that his Belgian passport was believed to be a clever forgery. What was the evidence against this poor man? Well, he had a post card of the Parliament buildings that he was carrying at the time he was arrested.
Thankfully, he was released without charges.
A Royal Commission was put together to find out what caused the fire and they found no evidence of a conspiracy. They did place the blame on those people who smoked cigars in the reading room and the commission concluded that a system of ventilation, combined with too much varnishing and the use of the driest form of pine, with many loose newspapers around, created the perfect storm for a fire to rage.
While the Parliament Buildings were repaired, the library and House of Commons would convene at the Victoria Memorial Museum.
On hand was Sir Wilfred Laurier, and the Ottawa Journal would report on his speech at the temporary House of Commons the day after the disaster.
“At one time Sir Wilfred’s voice faltered and entirely broke. The veteran white-haired statesman whose eloquence re-echoed through the halls of the Commons in ruins was overcome with depth of feeling. Sadly, Laurier would die before the new building opened.
On Sept. 1, 1916, exactly 56 years after his brother King Edward VII had put down the original cornerstone, Governor General Prince Arthur put down a new cornerstone. By 1917, the new Parliament Buildings were opened, not quite as grand as the original, but much more fireproof.
Then, 11 years later, the new tower was completed on the Parliament buildings, dedicated as the Peace Tower, in commemoration of the Canadians who gave their lives during the First World War. Officially marking the end of the reconstruction of the building and the beginning of a new life for Parliament Hill.
On Feb. 3, 2016, Deputy Sergeant-At-Arms Patrick McDonell carried the wooden mace in the Hall of Honour during the Speaker’s Parade to mark the 100 year anniversary of the fire.
Information comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, the Library of Parliament, CBC and the Hill Times.
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