Manitoba Hotel fire — “gigantic structure” lost to the “fire fiend” during an extremely cold February morning

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

W.E. Sampson told a fire commission inquiry that the first indication he had that something was terribly wrong occurred when firemen burst into his fourth-floor room of the Manitoba Hotel, abruptly awakening him. The firemen hastily pulled him out of his bed and then hustled the scantily-clad tea salesman out of his room through a curtain of choking and blinding smoke.

Sampson, of Montreal-based Sampson, McCuig & Co., told the inquiry  the smoke was so thick that he was dazed, barely conscious and becoming increasingly unaware about what was happening about him.

“Mr. Sampson was seen on the (Winnipeg) train before leaving for Montreal, and presented a comical appearance with no two similar pieces of clothing on his person and over all a cardigan jacket given him by a kindly hand ... (he) gave a most amusing account of his thrilling experience and seemed to treat the whole matter with the usual nonchalance of a typical commercial traveller, as if such accidents befell him every week,” reported the February 9, 1899, Morning Telegram.

But it was far from a typical accident as Sampson experienced first-hand the destruction of what was then a celebrated Winnipeg landmark. In the early morning hours of February 8, 1899, the Manitoba Hotel, hailed as the most elegant hotel between Montreal and Vancouver, burned to the ground. After the flames ran out of fuel, all that remained of the hotel at the southeast corner of Water Avenue (now  William Stephenson Way)  and Main Street was an empty shell, its interior completely gutted and much of its exterior brick work collapsed. 

Another narrow escape was reported in the Manitoba Free Press (February 9). As J.A. Knott, representing Z. Paquet, a glove and mitt manufacturer from Québec, slept with his wife in their room, he noticed smoke seeping into their room. “In a few moments, the smoke had become so dense that the electric lights were quite dim, and before Mr. and Mrs. Knott dressed flames crept through the floor next (to) the wall.”

They rushed from their sixth-floor room, but found the elevator was not working. Fortunately, they managed to find another route to safety.

“The Manitoba was one of Winnipeg’s show buildings,” according to a February 9, 1899, editorial in the Telegram. “Its imposing dimensions testified to the importance of the prairie capital, as well as the enterprise of the corporation which erected it; and the comfort and luxury which it afforded to the travelling public, predisposed strangers favourably towards the city and made Winnipeg a welcome stopping-off place in the itinerary of tourists.”

The Manitoba Free Press in a February 9 editorial called the hotel, “the most commodious, luxurious and imposing” in Winnipeg, as well as “one of the finest buildings in Canada.”

For local residents, the Manitoba’s drawing room hosted the “most brilliant social assemblies,” while its parlours were the preferred meeting places for many local organizations, promoting everything from local arts to sports. Until its destruction, the Manitoba Hotel was the centre of the city’s social scene.

The seven-storey hotel, built at a cost of $125,000 and completed in 1891, possessed a spacious 45.72-by-12.19 metre (150-by-40-foot) rotunda with a 7.62-metre-high (25-foot) ceiling, oak wainscotting and glittering electric and gas-lit chandeliers. It had an excellent dining room, an elaborate ballroom and a well-stocked wine cellar.

A “grand ball” on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1891, marked the official opening of the hotel, and its doors were opened to the public on  January 1, 1892.

The Telegram claimed that whomever witnessed the fire was filled with “a pang of regret.” The loss was so deeply felt by Winnipeggers that they believed the destruction of the Manitoba would have a detrimental impact on their aspiration to have Winnipeg become Western Canada’s — even the nation’s — premiere city.  

Soon after the fire, the city’s elite approached Northern Pacific officials, attempting to coax them into rebuilding the hotel by offering the railway company everything from financial incentives to tax holidays, although city hall had yet to give its stamp of approval. At the time, city council passed a resolution of regret forwarded to the company which expressed the hope that the growth and prosperity of Winnipeg justified the immediate rebuilding of the hotel.

While the business leaders of Winnipeg and railway officials met to discuss the possibility of rebuilding the hotel, a three-member commission was convened to investigate the cause of the fire. Because of the almost complete destruction of the hotel, the commission had to primarily rely upon eye-witness accounts rather than physical evidence. 

What is known is that the fire occurred during a bitterly cold night in February, reported by the Free Press as -40°C, which severely hampered the firefighters' efforts and contributed to the hotel’s demise.

Fire Chief Edward H. Rodgers told a Free Press reporter (February 9): “It was without exception the coldest night upon which we have had to cope with such a large a fire, and an outsider can have no idea of the disadvantages under which we were placed. Hose was constantly freezing and we used up more lines of hose than would (have) the New York brigade, with all the stations at work.”

Rodgers called it an almost impossible task to keep the steam pumps operating, saying “the men worked like heroes, but the weather was too much for them.”

“A fitting night for the fire fiend to get in his awful work,” reported the Telegram. (In almost every headline from the era, blazes were personified as being the work of the “fire fiend.”)

An editorial in the Free Press said everything conspired against the firemen on the scene — “the hour, the temperature and the poor water pressure” — which explained their failure to master the conflagration.

Newspapers reported fire alarms sounded at 12:15 a.m. When the fire chief arrived on the scene, he initially felt the fire could be confined to the east side of the hotel.

Fire Chief Rodgers told the Free Press (February 9) he was the first man from the fire brigade to reach the scene. He ran upstairs into the dining room and saw charred linen on the floor, showing that an attempt had been made to contain the fire.

“The fire at the time was breaking through the ceiling of the dining room into the second floor above and it was at this point that my men arrived.”

He said the fire was burning fiercely and the smoke was thick, so “we could not ascertain just what headway we were making against the fire.”

The fire chief said his men were hampered by the “crowds of idle spectators in the building.” All attempts to clear them from the building were unsuccessful.”

“But already the whole of the southeast end of the magnificent building was one fiery furnace,” reported the Telegram in its February 8 morning edition. “The flames mounted to the seventh storey and broke out on the roof in less than 25 minutes from the time the first alarm was sent in. In this wing of the building were the servants’ quarters, the dining room, the large commercial sample rooms and private guests’ rooms ...

Many of the guests barely escaped with their lives. The large corridor on the first floor was a mass of anxious humanity until driven out by the approaching flames. Some of the guests were only able to secure a small portion of their wardrobe.

“It was an awful scene, and one never to be forgotten by anyone who was unfortunate enough to have more than a passing interest in the building and its contents, or who was fortunate enough to witness the awful grandeur of the scene as the flames mounted to the sky.”

It was reported that most guests, some of whom were long-time renters of rooms in the hotel, had scarcely enough time to get out of their beds and flee the building.

One guest, “Mr. Glass,” a salesman for the Toronto-based millinery firm S.F. McKinnon, was roused from his bed at about 12:30 a.m. and later seen standing across the street in the shelter of a Main Street doorway with his boots unlaced and wearing nothing but his trousers and an overcoat thrown over a night dress.

“I wish I could get a pair of overshoes,” Glass told a Telegram reporter. “My feet are nearly frozen ... I had been sound asleep when I was awakened by someone pounding on my door, and springing out of bed I was simply astounded to hear cries of ‘fire’ ringing through the burning building and crowds of excited people scurrying through the corridors and down the staircases, in all stages of dress and undress.” At the time, it was reported that there were about 100 guests in the hotel.

F.E. Hanson, the chief clerk, only had time to salvage the hotel’s register and other important documents. Valuable personal effects in his room were left behind to be consumed by the flames. Because  he saved the guest registry, Hanson was able to release the names of those staying at the hotel to newspapers. By comparing names with the registry, it was determined that all the guests had escaped the inferno. 

Although a significant number of guests in the hotel were out-of-town curlers from rural communities such as Souris, Glenboro, Brandon and Portage la Prairie taking part in the 14th annual Manitoba Bonspiel (known today as the Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel), a large portion were out-of-province visitors, primarily from Toronto, Montreal, Duluth and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The only overseas guest listed was D.T. Hanbury from London, England.

To fight the fire, two steam-powered fire engines, named the Alexander Logan and the Merryweather, were stationed on the corner of Main Street and Graham Avenue, immediately opposite the hotel to the west. A third, the A.J. Andrews, was taken back to Fort Street (a block away) and the hose run around by Graham Avenue. The other fire engine, the L.M. Jones, was stationed at the water tank at the corner of Portage and Main and its hose was run to the eastern portion of the hotel on Water Avenue.

C.H. Rivercomb, the chief engineer of the fire department, in a Free Press interview (February 9) said the L.M. Jones burst a valve stem and was temporarily disabled, and the Merryweather came to grief from an accident to the packing of one of the flanges. 

The Waterous steam engine, which was not brought to the scene until 1:30 a.m., didn’t work at all “owing to a defect caused by its not having been in use for some time.” 

During inquiry testimony, assistant engineer A.J. Andrews, who was operating the Waterous engine, found that it would not draw water because the leather brackets of the pump plungers had become shrunken and dried. If operational, the Waterous engine would have been used to either pump water from the water tanks on Main Street or the Red River.

Rivercomb said “none of the engines could be worked to full advantage on account of the intense cold, which rendered it extremely difficult to maintain steam at working pressure.”

The hook-and-ladder truck was brought to the scene and telegram wires were cut in order to bring in a 19.81-metre (65-foot) aerial Hayes ladder to reach the upper storeys of the hotel.

Unfortunately, the fire progressed too quickly, “and just as the ladder was reared (upward) a fierce burst of flames from the upper windows in the centre of the block warned the men that the whole inside was a mass of flames and that all attempts in that direction would prove useless.”

It was at this time that one of the hoses burst — a sign of things to come.

As the ladder was lowered, bricks from the burning building tumbled into the street, forcing firemen further away from the flames. 

“From this time forward the fire was simply left to work its will,” reported the Telegram, “and at 1:30 a.m. the hose was withdrawn from the front of the staircase, the doors were closed and attention of the brigade directed to keeping the fire from spreading to the neighbouring buildings, many of which were in imminent danger.”

By two o’clock, the fire had consumed the Manitoba Hotel from its north to south corners as flames leapt tens of metres into the air.

According to the testimony of some witnesses at the inquiry, the fire originated near a grate in the hotel dining room and spread upward from there. 

Just after retiring to his room at 10:45 p.m., F.W. Sprado, the Manitoba Hotel manager,  said he was aroused by a night clerk who told him there was smoke coming up the east side of the corridor.

(Next week: part 2)