Tragic Winnipeg Theatre fire — hundreds attended special tribute to the four firefighters who lost their lives

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

On December 26, 1926, hundreds of Winnipeggers filed past the four caskets of firemen Donald Melville, Robert Stewart, Robert S. Shearer and Arthur Smith, who lost their lives during the disastrous Winnipeg Theatre fire three days earlier. 

In a prelude to a special tribute to the firefighters held in the chapel at the Gardiner Funeral Home on Kennedy Street, Mayor Ralph Humphreys Webb ordered flags to be flown at half-mast throughout the city.

“The caskets were placed near each other in positions where the faces of the dead could be seen without any inconvenience by the sorrowing passers-by,” reported the Free Press on December 27.

“The pathos of the scene was accentuated when Mrs. Arthur Smith was brought to the chapel. Through long illness and the shock caused by her husband’s death, Mrs. Smith was in such a condition that she had to be conveyed to the chapel in a stretcher. With infinite tenderness she was carried to the casket in which her husband reposed in his last sleep.”

At noon on December 27, the caskets were removed from the chapel and transported on draped trucks of the fire department for a service at St. Giles United Church. After the service, the four men were buried at Elmwood Cemetery.

Once the joint funeral was over, rumours about the causes of the fire erupted and recriminations were heard.

Provincial Fire Commissioner Ed McGarth, who was at the scene five minutes after the first alarm, said the theatre’s sprinkler system wasn’t working due to frozen pipes, a situation which had not been corrected prior to the blaze. The building’s fire alarm system was also not up to the city’s bylaws, he added.

During the afternoon of December 23, while the building still smouldered, an investigation into the fire headed by McGarth commenced and an official inquiry was initiated. 

When viewing the ruins in the aftermath of the fire, inspector George Baird reported it was impossible to conduct a complete inspection as there were four feet of water in the building’s basement.

It was McGarth who promised: “Not a stone will be left unturned to get to the bottom of this terrible affair. If it is humanly possible, the facts will be fully brought out. We have examined two witnesses and partially a third, and all those who have any knowledge of the facts will be examined by us, under oath.”

The provincial coroner Dr. H.M. Cameron met with police and provincial officials on December 28 and decided “by submitting all the evidence accummulated by the fire commissioner in his investigation to analysis by 12 jurymen, an absolutely unbiased opinion and verdict could be obtained,” during an inquest into the fire.

Those attending the meeting decided to pool their resources for one public inquest, saying holding two separate investigations — coroner and provincial fire commissioner — would only duplicate the process of accumulating evidence.

The coroner’s inquest was scheduled to begin on January 4 after the provincial fire commissioner’s office had time to conduct an investigation.

The first people examined by the provincial fire commissioner’s office were Alex Simpson, the stage carpenter at the Winnipeg Theatre, Leslie Sproule, a City Hydro salesman, and Bert Hedges, who was the day caretaker of the ruined building.

Hedges later testified he left the Winnipeg Theatre a half hour before the fire started. When he left, Hedges said he saw no evidence of a fire.

A postman who had delivered mail to the theatre at 9:47 a.m. testified he had seen nothing amiss. But the man who pulled a street alarm at 9:55 a.m. went to the fire commissioner’s office and reported the blaze was well underway at that time. 

Officials from the fire commissioner’s office revisited the site of the fire on December 29, with the goal of determining the validity of testimony from witnesses already obtained “(in)  a concentrated effort to establish something definite from a mass of contradictions and conflicting rumours,” according to the Free Press.

After this investigation of the blaze, the ruins of the theatre were turned over to Boland Brothers, who were given the contract by the Walker brothers to level the building.

J.M. Walker told newspaper reporters that the estimated loss was $85,000 on the building and $10,000 for stage equipment. According to Walker, the building was insured for $68,000 and the props in the “fireproof addition of the northwest corner” were insured for $6,000.

McGarth closely questioned Claude H. Leigh, the night fireman at the theatre, after examining the ruins “for the purpose of checking up some points of Leigh’s evidence.”

Meanwhile, city detectives co-operating with the fire commissioner’s office were investigating a mysterious man said to be wearing a beaver coat, who was allegedly seen entering the building in the lead-up to the fire. Employees of the City Dairy said they saw a man at the main door of the theatre between 7 and 8 a.m. on the morning of the fire. 

It was further alleged that the mystery man was with the four others partying in one of the theatre’s dressing rooms on the evening of December 22. Some of the party-goers were reported by witnesses as leaving the party during the early morning of December 23. Those investigating the fire initially believed the fire had started in the dressing rooms, as two at the end of the passageway showed extensive burning. 

A. McNamara, the deputy fire commissioner, told the inquiry he had found material evidence of the party — five empty beer bottles and three full ones — and ascertained that the fire had “raged most furiously” around the stage beneath which some the dressing rooms were located, “leading to the assumption that the blaze did originate in one of the rooms.”

Initially six people were taken by police to the Central Police Station. Two of the four known male party-goers were placed under arrest and incarcerated overnight at the Central Police Station, while two others were only served with subpoenas to appear at the inquest. Two of the party-goers were subsequently granted bail and released, as were the two men alleged to have illegally supplied the alcoholic beverages for the party. 

One of the party-goers was Leigh, who had been granted bail. Leigh admitted he was joined by three other men in the theatre around 2:08 in the morning and they consumed some beer.

All four claimed there was no evidence of a fire when they left the building, nor had a “man in a beaver coat” attended the party. 

Further testimony revealed two men left the theatre around 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning, while one man slept in the boiler room  where their party was held. Leigh conducted a search of the premises and assured himself all was safe before he left. He could not remember what time all the party-goers left the theatre.

The original allegation of the presence of the man in a beaver coat was traced by police to a woman witness, who passed the theatre on the morning of December 23 while riding in a streetcar.

“Some elements of the mysterious (are) still attached to the alleged ‘mystery man,’ according to officials,” reported the Free Press on December 31, “in that the man they have located does not possess a beaver coat, only a coat with a fur collar.

“City dairymen, who were first said to have seen the beaver-coated unknown enter the building, have been interrogated by department officials, but, it is stated, the only man who would admit he had seen anyone in the neighborhood said that he had been asked for a match by someone who apparently came from the theatre between 5:30 and 7 o’clock on the fatal morning.” 

The fire commissioner’s office received numerous telephone calls from people claiming to have evidence about the fire, but they refused to leave their names, frustrating the efforts of the investigators who wanted to personally interview tipsters.

“Some of the telephone messages had reference to the party, or to other parties, said to have been held in the building. Others have claimed that smoke was seen emerging from the roof of the building, fully an hour before the alarm was turned in. Others still have said that persons were seen entering the building earlier in the morning.”

While some claimed to have seen smoke emerging from the building well before the alarm was sounded, labour leaders R.B. Russell and Sam Sykes, members of the OBU (One Big Union), said they were parked in their car directly in front of the theatre at 9:30 a.m. and saw no sign of a fire. Police investigated their claim and came to the conclusion the two men were in their stated position at the specified time and were to be believed. 

The coroner’s jury announced a verdict arising from the inquest on January 10, 1927, which contained several recommendations to prevent future disasters. The jurors declared the cause of the fire as “unknown.” 

The jurors reserved criticism for District Chief David Yeddeau, who they claimed “showed a lack of judgement and a proper sense of his responsibility in not warning Capt. (Charles) Stewart (of No. 2 firehall) and his men of the danger they were in, and to get clear of the building after he saw the south wall falling.”

After the south wall fell, the east wall on the Adelaide Street side of the building collapsed at 11:30 a.m., burying several firemen in falling timbers, plaster and bricks. 

The jurors said inspections of existing buildings and buildings under construction were inadequate and recommended systematic inspections of such structures be done in “closer co-operation” between city inspectors and the fire department.

“It is the definite and considered judgement of this jury that it would be in the public interest that the operation and conduct of the fire department of the city of Winnipeg be placed under the control of a commission formed more or less along the line of the police commission, with similar powers, and that if legislation to this effect be necessary, council take immediate steps to deal with this matter.”

Mayor Webb fully endorsed the jury’s recommendations. The mayor also announced the formation of a commission to “deal chiefly with the activities of the firemen at the theatre fire and the work of the fire department generally.”

On the other hand, Aldermen (Councillors) Thomas Flye and J. O’Hare claimed such a commission was redundant, as the fire department was under the jurisdiction of the committee on public safety, which performed the same role as a commission.

The need for new fire regulations in theatres was reinforced when a calamity in Montreal on January 9, 1907, claimed the lives of 77 children between the ages of five and 16 years and one adult. The children were either trampled to death as people rushed onto a narrow staircase in the Laurier Palace Theatre leading from the balcony where they were seated, or they died of asphyxiation from smoke and fumes.

City engineer W.F. Brereton reported to the public safety committee that the safety of Winnipeg’s theatres was “not satisfactory.”

He said a survey of the theatres had found one-half of the exits in theatres hooked shut or blocked, and in smaller theatres insufficient adult ushers or attendants were on hand to oversee the “large numbers of children” attending Saturday matinees.

The city engineer claimed the only method of assuring the safety of the theatres was to perform systematic inspections, “particularly at night, to ensure that exits are maintained in operating condition and overcrowding does not occur.”

Brereton recommended that he be authorized to hire an experienced inspector to investigate theatre safety at a salary of $155 a month.

F.A. Cambridge, the city electrician, reported that inspections of theatre wiring in older buildings was impossible due to a lack of staff.

“While we make frequent inspections of equipment carried by travelling theatrical companies we make no pretense to re-inspect permanent installations in theatres at stated intervals,” he reported.

Employees of the former Winnipeg Theatre claimed defective old wiring caused the disastrous December 23, 1926, fire.

The city engineer’s report was not restricted to theatres. According to the report, 15,412 inspections were conducted, and in 3,711 cases it was necessary to notify building owners of defects liable to lead to fires. 

Aldermen Frederick Harvey Davidson and W.B. Simpson were handed the task of reviewing the city’s existing building bylaw and recommend revisions. They promised that regulations in the city’s building bylaw would be “stiffened” to ensure the public’s safety.

On January 24, 1927, Winnipeg city council passed amendments to the existing building bylaw applying to theatres. The amendments called for “panic hardware” on doors (today’s emergency exits), and the presence of male attendants to keep aisles clear, both of which were recommended in Brereton’s report.

When the existing bylaw was read to council, it was determined there were already many protective regulations in place which were not being enforced. 

“Of what use is it to pass bylaws if we don’t enforce them?” asked Alderman C.C. Chishold.

One section of the bylaw called for the attendance of a “competent man” appointed by each theatre manager and approved by the city fire chief during every performance at a theatre. He was required to be in the building 15 minutes before a performance, ensure adequate firefighting apparatus were in place and working properly (as earlier mentioned, the Winnipeg Theatre’s sprinkler system was not in working order at the time of the disastrous fire), that all doors were unlocked during performances, to ensure all patrons had exited the building safely after the entertainment ended, and was then to make a “thorough inspection of every part of the building.”

“Such person or persons shall make a daily report to the chief of the fire department whose duty it shall be to see that the stage hands and other theatre employees are given proper fire drill,” stated the 1913 building bylaw.

Alderman W.B. Simpson said this section of the existing bylaw “had never been observed as long as he had lived in the city.”

During the same meeting, the appointment of A. Simpson was announced as being specifically assigned to inspect local theatres, which was another recommendation made by Brereton. 

In total, 36 Winnipeg firefighter “heroes” have died in “lines of services,” according to the Fire Fighters Museum of Winnipeg. The most recent deaths were Thomas Nichols and Harold Lessard from a flashover at 15 Gabrielle Roy Place on February 4, 2007. As was the case in 1926, the death of the two firemen in 2007 also prompted a change in the regulations governing building safety. After the St. Boniface fire, the provincial fire code was amended “to limit the probability that fire will spread from a (attached) storage garage to other parts of the dwelling unit, which could lead to harm to persons in the other parts of the dwelling unit” by installing a “fire-resistant vertical assembly.”

The 1926 Winnipeg Theatre fire was the most deadly in the history of the department, claiming four lives. A memorial to the city’s fallen firefighters is found in the Brookside Cemetery, 3001 Notre Dame Ave.