Manitoba Hotel fire — firefighters forced out of hotel after battling the blaze for two hours

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)

Captain William “Fighting Bill” Code of the North Fire Hall, corner of Higgins Avenue and Maple Street, said the first alarm for the Manitoba Hotel fire was heard at the Central Fire Hall at 12:10 a.m. on February 8, 1899, and that his hall was called at 12:17 a.m. 

Code told the inquiry, the L.M. Jones steam pumper was brought out with the whole force from the North Fire Hall at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Maple Street in two and a half minutes, and a position was taken on the north side of the hotel. 

The captain was then the longest-serving fireman in Winnipeg, having begun as a volunteer with the fire department in 1874. The city’s full-time professional fire department was established on May 11, 1882. 

Code went into the grand dining room and picked up the hotel hose which at the time was not manned but still had water running through it. At the time, the fire was burning in the northeast corner of the hall, though he admitted flames could have also been present elsewhere.

When Code emerged from the dining room, Fire Captain J.C. Walker was in the hotel hallway with some men and told Code he saw fire breaking out of the fourth storey of a southeast window over the courtyard. Code immediately went to the area and succeeded in beating back the flames, but through a window he saw flames  coming from another area of the fourth floor.

Captain Walker of the Central Fire Hall, William Avenue opposite Charlotte Street, testified he entered the dining room when the ceiling was falling and flames were visible in the southeast corner. Captain J.E. Buchanan of the South Fire Hall, corner of Smith Avenue and York Street, said the whole wall in the dining room was enveloped in flames when he arrived, and concluded the fire must have been going for some time before the alarm was sounded. 

The firemen then went onto a fire escape where they worked against the fire until the top floors fell.

Testimony from the firemen on the scene revealed a litany of disastrous mishaps and missteps such as steam pumpers failing and hoses freezing up.

On Water Avenue (now William Stephenson Way), a hose was played on the fire until it froze. At this time, Code sent these men home as their clothing was covered in ice and the hose was useless.

Fire Chief Edward H. Rodgers testified that when he arrived the fourth floor was filled with heavy smoke which prevented him from proceeding more than halfway down the corridor.

During the subsequent inquiry, the fire chief speculated the fire originated in the dining room fireplace and probably spread through an opening in the main lavatory shaft which ran from the basement to the top of the hotel.

He ordered one line of hose to be “played” in the dining room and another on the fourth floor. Rodgers then ordered a fireman to telephone the Waterworks Company to ensure adequate water pressure was made available, according to a February 18, 1899, report in the Manitoba Free Press.

He again went upstairs and saw flames breaking out from fourth floor windows in the southeast corner of the north wing immediately above the dining room.

Rodgers said the firemen were driven out of the hotel by flames after battling the blaze for two hours. The firemen then fought the fire from the outside “where bitter cold greatly handicapped the men.”

One hose was lengthened to protect the south side of the building while a second was allowed to flow to prevent it from freezing. A third line was also played on the fire. Throughout the early morning, five lines of hose — two  each from the Logan and T.W. Taylor pumpers and one from the L.W. Jones at Portage Avenue —  were at one time or another used on the fire, while the aerial ladder had been used for a brief time to train a water hose onto the dining room windows. But the fire chief said the hose on the ladder was useless due to the lines freezing up, greatly reducing the pressure in the hose.

“Suddenly light was seen in the upper windows of the office buildings, and two streams were immediately turned in this direction,” said Rodgers, “but the headway gained was too great, and the fire worked its way to the freight shed end of the building.”

The office building for the Northern Pacific was linked to the hotel by two wooden archways, one leading to the Manitoba’s waiting room and another from the basement. The office buildings did not survive the fire, although company records were saved. 

Rodgers reported that the lines, about 244 metres (800 feet) of hose, on Water Avenue were used in an attempt to save the offices. At the time, the fight to save the hotel was abandoned. 

While battling the blaze, the Taylor was disabled and the Jones was brought up, but the steam engine suffered a bent valve stem and was also sent back to its fire hall.

Rodgers said the Logan appeared to be sufficient to handle the fire on its own. Ironically, the Logan was the fire department’s oldest steamer then in service. It was a Ronald steamer, built in Brussels, Ontario, by John B. Ronald. The fire engine arrived in the city on June 16, 1882, to great fanfare and was named in honour of former Winnipeg Mayor Alexander B. Logan (1879-80), who had pushed for the creation of a professional fire service. The Ronald steam engine was rebuilt in 1891, and remained in service until 1921. It is now on display in the Fire Fighters Museum of Winnipeg.

The fire chief told the inquiry he had 27 men at the hotel fire, but sent three men home to “prevent them from freezing.”

According to Rodgers, the new engine (A.J. Andrews) was brought up about 2 a.m., but was not used “because the hoses were too short” — the fire chief said eight feet too short — so it was sent away.

The Andrews was manufactured by the Waterous Company of Brantford, Ontario, and was tested by the fire chief on May 8, 1899, and “found in good condition.” The fact that a tube on the engine burst during the Manitoba Hotel fire was attributed to “an overcharging of steam, and a crusting on the inner side of the tube.”

On May 20 of the same year, the Logan was tested and also “found in good condition,” but was still placed in the shop for some repairs and repainting. After testing on May 29, the Jones was “found in good condition,” except for its boiler and new tubes were ordered. In the aftermath of the hotel fire, the Jones’  boiler was “condemned.” 

On May 13, the Taylor, a Merryweather steam engine, was taken to the Vulcan Iron Works for an overhaul and was tested on May 18, 1899. It was “found to be in good condition,” except for oil in the boiler. After the boiler was thoroughly washed, it was returned to duty.

The fire chief was told by his men that the hose in place to bring water from the Red River was pumping air. One explanation for the failure to suck water from the river to fight the fire was that the hose was above the ice and not in the water, while others speculated that the suction valves shrank in the cold and could not draw water. Fire Chief Rodgers told the inquiry the real reason the Andrews was unable to pump water from the river was because the engine had been sitting inactive for some time and the leather of the plungers had shrunk.

In the aftermath of the Manitoba Hotel fire, serious questions were raised about fire protection in Winnipeg. Some commentators even concluded that when a building of any size caught fire, it was doomed. An example to support this opinion was the destruction by fire of the McIntyre Block — at the time, called Winnipeg’s finest business building — in February of the preceding year.

“No doubt when fighting the two fires particularly mentioned, the firemen were greatly handicapped by the severe weather,” said a February 10, 1899, editorial in the Morning Telegram. “But while one may sympathize with the firemen in the hardships they endured, that does not alter the fact that, so far as the net result is concerned, they might just as well have stayed in the fire hall, or have confined their efforts to seeing that the fire did not spread to neighbouring buildings.”

The editorial said all matters of fire protection should reflect the city’s severe climate, and council needed to undertake a thorough investigation of Winnipeg’s fire equipment and the methods employed to fight fires. 

However, even today firefighters are hampered by severe cold temperatures which freeze hoses and other equipment and makes it extremely difficult to climb icy ladders and hold icy hoses. Modern fire departments also try to change crews as frequently as possible when fighting a fire in severely cold weather, which was not possible during the 1899 Manitoba Hotel fire due to a limited pool of available fire brigade personnel. In fact, nearly every available city fireman was at the scene of the blaze.

It should also be noted that firefighting equipment during this period fell well short of today’s standards. None of the horse-drawn steam pumpers were self-contained units and thus had to rely upon low-pressure water from outside sources such as the water tanks along Main Street and water pumped from the city’s two major rivers. The tanks were accessed via hydrants placed along the street. The hydrants were a weak link in the fire fighting system as they were often frozen in the winter, and their brass fittings were sometimes stolen and offered for sale to scrap metal dealers. One gang of youths who had been stealing hydrant brass fittings was caught when a scrap metal dealer informed police that he had been approached with the illegally-obtained booty.

The use of low-pressure water hoses meant that water invariably failed to reach fires in the upper floors of multi-storey buildings without assistance from ladders, and during the 1899 fire, the city’s aerial ladder was recalled. 

The problems Winnipeg firemen encountered when fighting the 1899 Manitoba Hotel fire were not unique. A month later in New York City, the Windsor Hotel burned to the ground with the loss of an estimated 90 people, many of whom in desperation jumped to their deaths. 

Another fire destroyed the Hotel Royal in New York on February 7, 1892, claiming 28 lives. Newhall House (hotels at the time often were referred to as houses) burned down on January 10, 1883, with a loss of 71 lives.

In light of the number of hotel fire deaths in other cities, it was extremely fortunate no lives were lost in the 1899 Manitoba Hotel fire. At the time, the hotel was filled with 400 guests who were all  safely evacuated. When the fire struck, it was “bonspiel week” in Winnipeg, the annual event which drew curlers, their families and friends from across North America, which accounted for the hotel being filled to capacity.

The ability to evacuate the building quickly was mentioned in a December 19, 1891, description of the hotel in the Free Press. According to the article, “A rapid elevator ascends to the seventh floor, so that the rooms on the upper stories are just as accessible as lower ones, and a look around at the four easy fire escapes, stairs and ladders convinces one that escape from the building would be easy in case of fire ...” 

Each room also contained fire alarms controlled from the main office of the hotel which was linked by a line installed by the Bell Telephone Company to the fire halls. When any of the fire alarm boxes distributed throughout the city was pulled, the gongs in all three fire halls and the bell in the city market tower rang. A coded message alerted the firemen to the location of the alarm box nearest to the fire and what station should rush to the scene. Only in extreme cases, such as the fire at the Manitoba Hotel, would all three stations be called to duty.

A high-pressure water system did not come into existence until the James Avenue Pumping Station was completed in 1907. The pumping station was built in response to a 1904 conflagration which destroyed two major businesses, two smaller businesses and damaged several others in the city’s downtown. 

Of the four steam fire engines used in 1904  — the same equipment available for the 1899 fire — only the Andrews was described as adequate, although for fighting the Manitoba Hotel fire it was condemned as inadequate by the inquiry commissioners.

The report of the fire commission,  released in August 1899 by chairman Edward D. Martin, concluded that the fire began in the fireplace grate at the east side of the dining room, but “as to how it got to the timbers we have no evidence ...” The report indicated that the fire had gained considerable headway before the first alarm was sounded.

The three commissioners concluded that “the faulty construction of the building was responsible for the rapid progress of the flames.” It was the same conclusion reached in almost every hotel fire of the era across North America, resulting in  calls for changes to building codes and the use of more fire-resistant materials in hotel construction. Ironically, the Manitoba Hotel was originally said by many prior to the disaster to be a “fireproof” structure. 

The report claimed the steam pumpers were adequate to the task of fighting the fire with the exception of the A.J. Andrews. They deplored “the fact that this (Andrews) engine, which was bought for the purpose of fighting fires in high buildings, should have been found useless, when the highest and best building in the city was on fire.” They blamed the mechanical engineer for not adequately testing the new engine before the fire.

“(The aerial ladder) was brought out without the water tower, without which it was almost useless. The ladder and water tower were purchased specially for such buildings as the Hotel Manitoba, and would have been particularly effective at the fire when it was so difficult...” 

The commissioners said a lack of water pressure resulting from freezing lines only occurred near the end of the fire, so they discounted freezing lines as a major factor in the failure to save the hotel and offices, claiming there was ample water pressure available.

The commissioners said the fire brigade promptly attended the fire and faithfully carried out orders from their officers. 

Some of the blame for eventual loss of the hotel and offices focused on Fire Chief Rodgers, whom the commissioners said had “a lack of knowledge ... of the construction of the building, while his evidence shows that he had examined the building a number of times, yet he seemed quite ignorant of the construction of that part of the building where the offices and main building joined.”

If the fire chief had understood the construction of  the joining of the hotel to the offices, the report concluded, the office buildings might have been saved.

The report claimed the fire chief did not have proper control over members of the brigade from the fire department’s headquarters at the Central Fire Hall, where some members were not on speaking terms because of “trivial” disputes. On the other hand, the commissioners found harmony existed in the north and south fire halls. 

In his letter of resignation, Rodgers, a 19-year veteran of the fire department, said he had not been “justly dealt with and had not been given an opportunity to defend himself “against what appears to me to be slanderous reports from subordinates in the department, and I should be afforded an opportunity to review the evidence, or (be) confronted with the witnesses who gave evidence that would lead you (city council) to require my resignation.”

When presenting the report to city council, Alderman Martin said the fire chief was “called as a witness on every point.”

Alderman Thomas Graham Mathers, a member of the commission, said rumours had reached the commission that discipline was suspect in the Central Fire Hall. The commission then investigated the rumours by calling witnesses to present evidence under oath behind closed doors.

The alderman said when Rodgers was confronted with the testimony of the witnesses, he denied the accusations, “but the evidence was overpowering, and his statements did not displace it.” 

Despite the strong accusations, no charges were ever filed against Rodgers. Mayor  Alfred Joseph Andrews said without specific charges, “They did not wish it to be understood that Chief Rodgers was to leave the service under a cloud.”

Rodgers’ resignation was accepted by city council on August 16, 1899, and he was removed as fire chief, although the blow was somewhat softened when he was shortly afterward appointed the chief building inspector for the city. 

A shake-up in fire hall personnel affected John Standish, the assistant engineer in charge of the Andrews — the fire engine with the shrunken leather on its plungers — on the day of the fire. He was heavily criticized in the commission’s report as one of the men involved in “trivial” disputes, resulting in his transfer from the central to north hall. 

Just days after the Manitoba Hotel disaster, members of the Winnipeg Board of Trade met with Charles S. Mellen, the president of the Northern Pacific Railway based in St. Paul, Minnesota, which owned the hotel. 

The Northern Pacific, in partnership with the Manitoba government, owned the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway (NP&MR), operating lines which ran south from Winnipeg to Emerson and west from Morris to Brandon. Travellers reaching the U.S.-Canada border transferred to Northern Pacific trains when proceeding to points south of the border.

During the February 26 meeting, board of trade president E.L. Drewry said “the citizens of Winnipeg would hail with delight the reconstruction of the hotel ... (and) ... felt sure that with better prospects in view for the city the company should look with greater favour on the project than formerly.”

Mellen said the hotel fire caused $350,000 in damages without considering furnishings (one report placed the total damage including furnishings at $800,000, another at $1 million). The railway president said the Northern Pacific had insured the hotel for $120,000, leaving the company with a loss of $230,000, “besides never having received a cent in dividends (on the operation of the hotel).”

Mellen told the board of trade the company had engaged an architect to come up with estimates for a new hotel, although he made no promise that it would be built.

A year later, city officials were still optimistic that the Manitoba Hotel would be rebuilt, but again failed to get a commitment from Northern Pacific officials. Following an interview with Mellen, the Telegram reported on July 30, 1900, that the railway president “had very little to say (about rebuilding the hotel). He admitted, however, that the matter was still under consideration, but there was very little possibility of the work being commenced this year, and no definite plans had been prepared.

Actually, Mellen was silent on the subject because the company had already decided rebuilding the Manitoba was not an option. Besides being a money loser while it hosted guests and social events — admitted by the board of trade in a February 10, 1899, resolution asking the Northern Pacific to rebuild the hotel — the company’s insurance didn’t cover the replacement cost of the hotel.

As a result, the existence of the “finest hotel east of Montreal” was eventually forgotten, especially after other luxury hotels such as the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Royal Alexandra (1906) and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway’s Fort Garry (1913) were built and filled the void left by the loss of the Manitoba Hotel. 

The Manitoba Hotel was the prominent feature on the corner in front of the site that became known to local history as the CN East Yards after 1918 and today as The Forks. Temporary facilities for the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway were erected in 1888 on vacant Hudson’s Bay Company land north of the junction of the Assiniboine and Red rivers. In 1889, a permanent station, freight sheds, repair shops and an engine roundhouse were built. All that survives today from the 1889 construction period is the roundhouse, which was later called the Bridges and Structures Building  and is now the home of the Manitoba Children’s Museum. 

As a small branchline, the NP&MR struggled to be economically viable, so the Northern Pacific decided to cut its losses and withdrew its financial support after the Manitoba Hotel fire. The American interests in the railway were purchased by William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, partners in the Canadian Northern Railway in exchange for bond guarantees from the Manitoba government for a rail line to Port Arthur (Thunder Bay). All the rolling stock, land and buildings from the NP&MR were transferred to the Canadian Northern in 1901. The Canadian Northern opened Union Station at the foot of Broadway at Main Street in 1911, which replaced the old Water Avenue station. Union Station is still in use as a depot for passenger trains. The former NP&MR station was transformed in 1926 into an immigration hall for newcomers arriving at Union Station. 

In 1918, the Canadian Northern’s rolling stock, facilities and land, including The Forks site and Union Station, were integrated into the Canadian National Railway.

The Federal Building now stands where the elegant Manitoba Hotel had once dominated the corner of William Stephenson Way (Water Avenue) and Main Street. As late as 1910, the skeletal remains of the hotel’s extreme eastern walls still stood some 230 metres east of Main Street, a grim reminder of the day when fire destroyed “the last word in modern hotel structure,” as advertisements for the elegant Manitoba Hotel declared in the 1890s.