It was a beautiful spring morning in Hull, Quebec on April 26, 1900. The sun was shining, the leaves were emerging on trees and birds were chirping to welcome the new season after a long winter.
But there was still a chill in the air, causing many to hold onto their winter jackets as they went on about their day.
Along the shore of Minnow Lake, an unnamed man started a fire in his fireplace to warm up his home just enough before the sun’s heat took over.
As the fire burned r, the fireplace which had been used many times throughout the winter was full of small bits of debris, some of it flammable.
Slowly, the fire that was meant to warm the home spread up the chimney and sparks ignited the roof of the home.
People walking by thought nothing of it.
A chimney fire was not unusual. The fire department would deal with it.
The home’s roof burned, and some people stopped to watch as the homeowner rushed outside with what he could carry, and sparkly embers flew up into the sky and the early morning air.
Some spread to the house next door, while others took a longer journey down the road, or across the street.
As they flew, they sparked more fires and by the end of the day cities were in ruins.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx![TRANSITION]
This story begins in the 1800s when Hull, Quebec was founded by Philemon Wright after he immigrated from Boston. The community slowly grew around the timber trade, as did its sister city across the Ottawa River, Ottawa.
While Hull would never reach the level of Ottawa’s prominence as capital of Canada, it was still an important community in its own right.
In 1851, Ezra Butler Eddy, an immigrant from Vermont, arrived in Hull and set up a business making handmade matches, washboards, and clothespins.
From 1861 to 1871, the French-speaking population of Hull grew from 420 to 4,461, while the English-speaking population only grew from 3,291 to 3,857 during that same period.
By 1890, Eddy’s pioneering efforts to establish pulp and paper manufacturing in the city were hugely successful, which made sense Ottawa stored the lumber, Hull processed it.
Fires were also common.
The city was mostly built of wood, taking advantage of the ample timber in the area.
Major fires occurred in the 1870s and in 1880 a fire destroyed 500 houses.
Then on May 9, 1886, a fire broke out in Hull and destroyed 110 buildings, including the post office, leaving 200 families homeless.
Four years later in 1900, Hull was a thriving community that was home to many of the civil servants who worked in Ottawa at the various government organizations and departments.
A quick note before I continue… If you look at a map today, Hull is the central business district and oldest neighbourhood within the city of Gatineau, but for the purpose of this episode I will only be referring to the municipality itself as Hull.
On Thursday, April 26, 1900, people were going about their day.
The snow had melted, and the trees were turning green. The temperature rose to 17 degrees Celsius, making it quite nice for late April.
The wind was especially strong that morning, gusting at about 50 kilometres per hour.
Wind on any normal day is not the cause for alarm, but on that day, it was a recipe for disaster.
As that wind blew, it took sparks from a chimney fire two kilometers away and transported it across the city.
A fire alarm went off at the nearby fire hall and the firemen under the direction of Chief Benoit hurried to battle the blaze.
By the time they reached the home, a second house and a barn were on fire.
The firefighters did what they could, but the flames were moving too fast, and the fire was already spreading down the street to several other buildings that surrounded the area.
A report stated that the fire chief stipulated that no water be used on the fire until he arrived.
Another rumour stated that pro-Boer sympathizers started the fire.
At the time, Canada was involved in the Boer War in South Africa, so tales of spies were not uncommon.
Nonetheless, these rumours were unsubstantiated.
Meanwhile the wind carried sparks to buildings across the city.
E.B. Eddy, one of Canada’s earliest industrialists said of the sparks,
“If one could imagine a snow storm of particles of fire instead of snow, it would give some idea of the intensity.”
Each time a spark landed on a wood-shingled roof, the building quickly ignited, By noon, every home on seven different streets were burned to the ground, along with the post office, Imperial Hotel, Anglican Church and fifteen stores.
City Hall’s eaves caught fire and thirty minutes later the building was gone.
The Ottawa Citizen later reported,
“For several hours the fire demon cavorted, leaped and crackled in his madness and what previously had been the scene of bustling business activity and happy life, was transformed into a desert of blackened ruins and abject misery.”
To combat the blaze, a steam fire engine named The Conqueror was put into action alongside one named La France. Before long both were abandoned as the flames engulfed them.
At first, every available man in the city called to fight the fires but before long they realized their own homes and families were in danger.
At 1 p.m. embers from the Hull fire jumped across the Ottawa River and landed in the lumber yards of J.R. Booth and H.F. Bronson, two of the richest lumber tycoons in the city. Booth controlled large sections of timber land, which he claimed covered more land than France.
The fire had now reached the capital.
An hour later in Ottawa, a flour mill, grain elevator, and both electric plants were gone.
Parliament was now in the dark and the members in the House of Commons adjourned for the day.
The fire spread with no end in sight.
As Ottawa and Hull burned, a call was put out to Toronto, Brockville, Smith Falls, Peterborough and Montreal for assistance.
Montreal was the first to respond and immediately sent eight men and five horses. They arrived two hours later along with an engine and hose reel on the Canadian Atlantic Railway.
A second pumper arrived later that evening.
Meanwhile the fire destroyed Union Station and most of the Canadian Pacific Railway property.
The wind carried embers up to two kilometers from the fire. No place in the city was safe.
Across Ottawa and Hull, people grabbed what they could from their homes and fled. Onlookers helped.
One man described seeing pianos being pulled into ploughed fields.
Some pulled their possessions in a cart but soon had to abandon them as the fire overtook them, Some took advantage of the chaos.
The Ottawa Citizen reported later that a group of what quote brawling shantymen looted stores and went into the hotels to grab as much liquor as they could, even as the building burned around them. end quote
It was estimated that it took an average of 10 minutes for a home to burn to the ground.
Henry Stone of the Montreal Star, wrote.
“With the most brilliant of blue skies as a background, and the varied tones of deep purple, blue and white smoke, to the denser black from the timber rising from the burning mass of hundreds of buildings and timber yards, covering two miles of ground and hurried across the sky with a gale of wind.”
Ottawa city leaders considered dynamiting houses in the fire’s path to create a fire break.
This was soon abandoned as falling debris from the explosions could cause the fire to spread further.
The blaze threatened the Dominion Experimental Farm buildings on the south side of what is now Carling Avenue. Employees fought back valiantly and were able to save much of the property.
On the east side of the city, a bucket brigade made up of three company militias slowed the spread.
The Ottawa Journal wrote,
“Hour and hour these men worked like Trojans to save property and their success is well-illustrated in the long line of small wooden houses, all the property of working men, that remains on this and adjoining streets.”
A few days later, the men of the militia were given a banquet by grateful citizens.
Frank Gadsby with the Parliamentary Press Gallery wrote,
“The most vivid picture of the fire is one seen at half-past seven in the evening from Parliament Hill. The shades of night are falling, and a glorious sunset flame behind the purple Laurentians but nature’s splendor is eclipsed by the red hell that flares and flickers in the valley of the Ottawa. I note one roof after another twinkle, glow and burst out in garish effulgence.”
As the sun set, both Hull and Ottawa fell into darkness with no electricity.
Smoke drifted through the streets eerily as people searched for their loved ones, worried they had succumbed to the flames.
By midnight, the wind shifted, helping the firefighting efforts and the blaze was contained and eventually snuffed out.
In the end most of Hull was destroyed including 317 homes and 94 stores, as well as the court house, provincial bank buildings and four mills.
On Chaudière Island, which sits in the Ottawa River directly between Hull and Ottawa, only two stone buildings survived the fire. This island was where the fire jumped to from Hull, on its move towards Ottawa.
In Ottawa, most of the western side of the city was gone amounting to 20 percent of the city from LeBreton Flats to Dow’s Lake.
It lost two ironworks, two flourmills, the Ottawa Electric Railway building and the Electric Lighting Company.
Ottawa was saved because of its higher elevation and wind patterns that day.
The fire engulfed 276 acres in Hull, and 440 acres in Ottawa. T. An estimated 100 million feet of lumber was also destroyed in the lumberyards.
The fire’s destructive path had no rhyme or reason.
Sometimes it spared one home, only to destroy another nearby.
Stone mansions were destroyed while small frame shacks survived.
J.R. Booth’s mansion worth $100 k burned to the ground.
He also lost five of his lumberyards. Only his sawmill was spared because his son, Fred, had installed a sprinkler system of his own design four years prior, that system drenched the building inside and out, saving it.
The CPR suffered as well, losing 175 freight cars, with $80,000 in loss freight, $40,000 in lost buildings and $130,000 in lost equipment.
In Hull, the fire gutted the courthouse but didn’t touch the jail next door.
The Ottawa Journal wrote the day after the fire,
“Strangely enough, while there is scarcely a stick standing on the western side of Division Street except a few buildings at the extreme southerly end, there was nothing destroyed on the eastern side of the street south of Somerset. Division Street was a general dividing line on the east boundary of the fire district.”
In total, seven people died in the fire, while 15,000 were left homeless, mostly in Hull.
However, there are no records of how many were injured.
Property losses were estimated at $6.2 million in Ottawa and $3.3 million in Hull, with insurance only covering 50 per cent of the damages in the capital, and 23 per cent in Hull. Adjusted for inflation, the damages amount to about $300 million today.
With so many people without homes, tent cities were set up. but lacked sanitation resulting in t disease.
An unknown number of people died.
The day after the fire On April 27, relief efforts began at 11 a.m., led by the Ottawa City Council.
A general committee was established to address the needs of fire victims. The committee was given the authority to spend as it needed to help.
In Ottawa, several buildings were used as shelters including the Drill Hall, Exhibition Grounds and Salvation Army Barracks.
In Hull, no public buildings survived.
The Governor General, Lord Minto, and his wife the Countess of Minto, along with Lady Laurier, the wife of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, distributed food, and clothing at the Drill Shed.
At 8 p.m. on April 27, the General Relief Committee petitioned the Ontario Legislature to provide $100,000 in relief funds, which was approved.
The bridge between Hull and Ottawa had been destroyed, so all supplies for Hull had to be sent over by steamer and barge.
One clergyman in Hull stated that in three-and-a-half weeks, he distributed food to 6,000 people.
Ottawa and Hull needed Canada’s help.
The Winnipeg Free Press ran the headline,
“He who gives, giveth twice.”
One department store put out an ad asking for donations for fire victims, stating,
“It behooves the wealthy and affluent to give not by a dollar where it should be ten, or five dollars where it should be fifty, or a hundred dollars where it should be a thousand, but according to the diving injunction, every man according to his means.
The London Times attempted to get the British to help with funds, stating,
“Great Britain must help Canada who is lavishing her blood and treasure in South Africa by contributing to the funds for the victims of the Ottawa fire.”
Aid poured in from across North America and England, amounting to $956,000 in total.
Although more of Hull had been damaged it only received a third of the donations, most of which came from fellow Canadians who donated $500 000.
The United States contributed $33,505, while France gave $1,036.
In the aftermath of so much loss people looked for someone to blame.
Some blamed the lumbermen for lumber stockpiled in the city Fred Perry, an inspector for the Royal Insurance Company in Montreal had suggested that the lumber be moved out of the city a few years earlier,
“Mr. Perry had warned the city about the danger of the lumber piles. In a report to his company, he said that someday Ottawa would be visited by a destructive fire. It would start in Hull, cross the river, extend up into Rochesterville, aided by the continuous piles of lumber and if the wind was not in the right direction the best part of the city would be swept away.”
The day after the fire, the Canadian Senate met and unanimously voted that the lumber piles were a menace to the capital and should be moved outside the city limits.
Parliament suggested that $100,000 in aid to Ottawa be contingent on the removal of the lumber.
Fire Chief Peter Prevost, told council on April 30,
“The plain apparent causes of the spread of the fire were the lumber piles and wooden buildings within the city.”
The only voices in favour of leaving the lumberyards where they stood were the men who made money from them.
Jackson Booth, the oldest son of the J.R. Booth, said that the city shouldn’t respond to the hysteria surrounding lumber piles in the city.
He placed the blame for the fire on Hull.
In the end Ottawa city council rejected moving the lumber yards because they provided a significant revenue for the city.
Most of the lumberyards were in the Victoria Ward of Ottawa, with 3,825 inhabitants which generated $4.4 million in tax revenue.
The only recommendations made by the city regarding lumber yards included reducing the amount allowed in each yard and increasing the space between yards and nearby buildings.
The council also rejected forcing construction of homes with fireproof materials. The fear was that it would raise costs and anger the city.
Alderman W.D. Morris stated that it wasn’t fair to force workers to build brick houses while lumbermen piled half a million feet of wood next to them.
As politicians bickered Ottawa and Hull rebuilt.
By the end of the year, 445 homes were erected and 29 more were in construction along with several shops, four hotels and a CPR station.
While 1900’s fire was the worst, it wasn’t the last.
Three years later Ottawa was once again engulfed in flames.
On May 11, 1903, lumber piles in the western limit caught fire and destroyed an area that had been destroyed in 1900.
That fire left 300 people homeless and caused $600,000 in total damages.
John Booth lost 18 million feet of lumber in the fire, amounting to $150,000.
Once again, people told the city council to get rid of the lumber. This time, the city council listened.
11 days after the fire, the city council passed a bylaw prohibiting the piling of lumber anywhere in the city and gave lumbermen six months to the yards.
But June 27, John Booth was allowed to speak out against the new bylaw.
He managed to convince the committee to designate nine areas in the city for lumber yards with unlimited as long as they were fenced in.
Because as we all know…fire can’t burn fences…
In 1906, the last raft of timber was chuted down the river.
Sawmills moved outside the city to be closer to the timber that was now farther away because by the turn of the 1910s, Ottawa’s booming population had cleared out most of the old growth forest that had surrounded the city for centuries.
And Ottawa didn’t have any other major fires…
Before I leave you there’s one other thing you should know about Christmas in 1900.[TRANSITION]
Even though the fire happened in April, by Christmas, many citizens were still dealing with the loss.
The demand for help was too much for the churches and other charitable organizations to handle.
To assist, the Ottawa Journal organized the first large-scale Christmas cheer campaign in the city.
Pleading to their subscribers, they gathered money, toys, food, and clothes for distribution to those in need.
One woman wrote,
“I have six small children, would be glad of anything.”
Another letter said,
“Hearing yesterday that you were giving to the poor for Xmas, there is a little boy who has no one to keep him and he is in need. His mother is dead, and his father went away and left him three months ago and there is no word from him. He has neither boots or clothes.”
The Journal investigated each and employees determined the age and number of children in each needing family so each child would be granted a gift.
Volunteers then assembled and delivered the parcels morning until night on Christmas Eve.
In Hull, 52 parcels were distributed, along with 380 in Ottawa.
One delivery included clothing, toys, and candy to a house where two families lived, one with nine children and one with five The Journal wrote,
“The evidence of delight exhibited on the arrival of the gifts can be more easily imagined than described.”[OUTRO]
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Portage Power, Gatineau Valley Historical Society, Wikipedia, Ottawa-Hull Fire of 1900 Report, Library and Archives Canada, City News, Lumber Piles Must Go, Montreal Star, Ottawa Journal, Ottawa Citizen,