CPR’s new railway station — it survived one fire only to succumb to the flames of another

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

A July 28, 1884, site diagram in the Winnipeg Daily Sun shows the  2-1/2-storey brick Canadian Pacific Railway passenger station and office building opened a year earlier as a long and narrow rectangular structure along the rail tracks off Point Douglas Road (now Sutherland Avenue). The diagram indicates the depot’s narrow west end fronted Main Street and its opposite narrow end faced Austin Avenue, which was an estimated 50 metres to the west. 

Directly across Main Street from the depot was the three-storey wooden Tecumseh House (Hotel), immediately to the south of the station fronting Main Street was the brick-veneer 35-bedroom Waverley Hotel, and behind this hotel to the south were small sheds and the McKeown Stable, while the significantly larger Ronan’s Stables was in the centre of the block. To the southeast, adjacent to the station property and fronting Austin Avenue, stood a hotel owned by Richard Farrell.

The city block containing the CPR station was also the home to a number of occupied and unoccupied shanties, the Theatre Comiqué owned by Farrell on the southwest corner of Main and Fonseca (Higgins), and the adjacent Wolseley Hotel located along Fonseca Avenue.

The very fact a large two-storey wood stable was in the centre of the block would within a short period of time have near-disastrous consequences for the depot and imperil its brief existence. 

At 10:45 p.m. on Saturday, July 26, the fire alarm was pulled at the Whalen Hotel across Main Street from the Theatre Comiqué. As they gazed northward down the street from the hotel, observers feared the worst and initially believed the CPR depot was being consumed by a wall of flames. 

“In a short space of time,” reported the Sun on July 28, “Main street, which a few moments before had been almost deserted, was thronged with thousands of people, all  eager to be first at the scene of the conflagration. At first it was believed that the Canadian Pacific Railway depot was the prey of the devouring element, but when the scene was neared this fear was dispelled, the building in flames being a large two-storey (wood) frame stable owned by Harry Ronan.”

The Manitoba Daily Free Press reported T.J. Montgomery owned the building, which was approximately 50 metres south of the depot, while Ronan leased it as a feed stable. Besides hay, 100 bushels of oats were stored in the stable. 

The Free Press on July 28 reported: “A large quantity of hay (four tonnes) in the loft made excellent fuel for the devouring element, and in a very short time the whole building was a mass of flames.”

Firemen from the north, south and central fire halls sent streams of water from hoses onto the depot to keep it from catching fire. “The struggle between the fiery element and the firemen for possession of this point was long and fierce ...” according to the Free Press. “Inch by inch the flames were driven back, and inch by inch the boys advanced until they gained control of the fire ...”

Not as fortunate was Farrell’s Hotel immediately east of the station. The building was thoroughly soaked with water, doors and windows were destroyed, and the rear wall was badly burned. The fire caused $1,000 in damages, a loss borne by Farrell as he didn’t have insurance.

“Eastward on Fonseca there were several small buildings including the Wolseley Hotel, and those were right in the path of the fire. The rear of the Wolseley is a blackened ruin ... A small store-house adjoining was demolished and a few feet further east a small dwelling house was badly wrecked. Johnston’s blacksmith shop escaped.” 

The Theatre Comiqué (renamed St. Lawrence Hall at the time of the fire) was also saved from the flames, but a small wood-frame house owned by George Foulds was destroyed in the fire. Another two-storey wood-frame home owned by T.J. Montgomery, between Farrell’s Hotel and Ronan’s Stables, succumbed to the flames, as did the stable owned by the McKeown Brothers.

Montgomery’s losses, including the stable and house, were estimated at $4,000. Montgomery had to bear the full brunt of the financial loss since he too lacked insurance.

At the CPR station, the awning over an upper floor window was ignited by a firebrand, but the shield against sun and rain was ripped down before the fire could spread, as were all the other awnings over windows.

Shortly after the fire alarm was sounded, CPR master mechanic Roed arrived at the scene and got the station’s  “water works apparatus ready for use” against the flames then threatening the 2-1/2-storey building.

Ronan was at the scene of the fire shortly after the alarm sounded and was able to free and save 11 horses. The last of the 12 horses housed in the stable broke its bonds and safely fled the flames without human assistance.

Ronan claimed the fire had started in the stable as the result of a lamp he left burning in his office exploding, setting fire to a nearby wall and then spreading rapidly to the rest of the building.

It was a close call for the CPR station, but a harbinger of what was to come just two short years later.

A few minutes after two o’clock on the morning of Monday, March 1, 1886, a fire broke out in the baggage room of the CPR station. Half an hour later, the flames were beyond the control of firemen on the scene.

A police officer named Madden sounded the alarm after observing “the reflection from a strong light in the depot,” according to a Free Press article filed the morning of the fire.

By the time firemen arrived, the entire baggage room was in flames.

“Huge volumes of smoke burst forth from the windows and the flames mounted higher and higher until soon the west end of the building was enveloped in one mass of fire and smoke. The wonderful rapidity with which the flames travelled was a matter of general comment among the spectators, who assembled in countless numbers.”

The newspaper reported the fire had travelled quickly under the floor, which was said to have been the result of a four-foot space between the floor and the foundation.

The heat from the fire was so intense that it twisted the galvanized iron roof “in a hundred different shapes, causing it to snap like the explosion of firearms.”

Flames leapt across the railway tracks onto the Woodstock Hotel, but firemen were able to extinguish that fire. 

All the windows in the CPR depot spontaneously burst outward at 2:30 a.m.

John Egan, the superintendent of the CPR’s Western Division, arrived at the scene just in time to see his office go up in flames. But, he also witnessed the miracle of some furniture and documents being passed through an office window to safety. 

Cornelius Van Horne lost all his papers related to his first 10 months in the city as the boss of the Western Division of the CPR. It was a great loss to historical research as the papers would have provided invaluable personal commentary on the CPR’s push westward from Thunder Bay to the Pacific Ocean. Plans, maps, accounts and other valuable papers in adjoining offices also went up in flames. All the documents relating to the Winnipeg-Boissevain branch line succumbed to the fire. Nothing was saved from the upper half-storey of the building where the audit and train service offices were located.

Such documents were irreplaceable and their loss was a severe blow to the annals of Western Canadian history.

“The dispatcher’s office is a sad mess,” reported the Free Press. “A myriad of wire broke loose and lay tangled in an inexhaustible mass on the platform and across the rails. All the instruments were destroyed as well as the batteries and this will cause considerable delay in the telegraphic service as all the power was concentrated in the depot and destroyed.”

The ground floor baggage and ticket offices were entirely gutted. The Dominion Express Company office, which was completely filled with items ready for shipment, was completely destroyed. Two men who had been sleeping in the office escaped the fire only wearing the clothes on their backs. The next day, the  company moved its office to a building at 17 Alexander St. West.

Egan ordered the CPR dining hall, which was housed in a remaining portion of the former 1-1/2-storey depot  on the site, cleared of its furnishings at 4 a.m. By seven o’clock almost everything had been removed. “The silver and glassware were packed carefully in boxes ... Mechanics were at once put to work and the upper portion of the (wood) building was soon converted into office(s) for the different officials ... New instruments for the dispatchers’ department are being placed in position ... for the transaction of business ... Ticket agent Campbell has taken up his quarters on the ground floor and is prepared to furnish the public with tickets for all parts  of the world.”

When the sun rose a day after the fire, the building was still smouldering and a steady stream of water was played onto the fire by firemen.

In the wake of the fire, recriminations arose about who or what was to blame for the destruction of “one of the finest structures in Winnipeg.” In particular, questions were asked about why it had taken the fire halls so long to respond.

The first problem was at Fire Box No. 17. When the police officer went to ring the alarm located outside Whalen House (Hotel), he found it was malfunctioning. He rushed into the hotel to telephone the fire department, but it was reported his call went unanswered. When the alarm from the fire box did go off, “the central and north fire departments turned out with great alacrity.” At this time, a general alarm was sounded and men from the south fire hall also rushed to the scene.

The few minutes delay was attributed to the “weight dropping off the alarm (No. 17), caused by too violent a pull,” according to a report from the city’s fire, water and light committee.

An affidavit was drawn up by Jefferson Davis, an electrician, on the cause of the delay. He was employed by the Bell Telephone Company and in charge of the fire alarm system for the city under the supervision of Frank G. Walsh, the local manager of the Bell company. Winnipeg’s central alarm system into which all fire box alarms were connected was in the Bell building.

In the affidavit, Davis said he was on duty at 1:40 a.m. on the day of the fire  when he received a call from the Central Telephone Office in the building saying the CPR station was on fire. The operator had already given the alarm to the fire halls “according to standing instructions received from (Fire) Chief (William Orme) McRobie.

“I immediately asked to be connected with the fire hall’s telephone line, on which the (city) market superintendent’s telephone is, and called Mr. Marshall, the market superintendent, receiving an instant reply from him my first call, and then I informed him pursuant to the aforesaid standing instructions of Chief McRobie, that a fire was in progress in the vicinity of box seventeen, and requested him to sound the alarm for that number on the city bell, which was done about one and one-half or two minutes afterwards.”

Once he completed his call, Davis raised the window in his office to listen for the alarm. Before the bell was struck in the tower of the city market, Davis “heard the gong on the hose reel, which was evidently proceeding towards the C.P. Rwy.”

He said it was at 1:46 a.m. that the alarm for box No. 17 was pulled for the first time, and he clearly heard the alarm. The same alarm was again pulled at 1:52 a.m. and he also heard that alarm. Davis said he knew the times the alarms sounded since he recorded them in a book kept for the purpose.

“Believing from the numerous alarms and from the brilliant reflection that was now visible that the fire was a serious one I deemed it advisable and did disconnect the fire halls with the alarm system to prevent confusion from various boxes being pulled.”

With the system disconnected, Davis still heard “three irregular blows come in” from box No. 17. When he later investigated the box, Davis found it had “been thrown out by improper and violent usage.”

Davis said reports on the fire alarms in Winnipeg newspapers were “incorrect and carry a totally erroneous impression.”

Fire Chief McRobie told reporters on March 1 that the  Central Fire Hall responded to the fire in answer to the telephone alarm. “Whoever pulled the (No. 17) alarm,” he said, “did so with a jerk and the weight fell off. This is the reason the alarm did not sound.”

The fact that there was a great deal of disparity between various reports of the times alarms sounded prompted city council to recommend that all fire halls also record when alarms were first heard.

The value of the station destroyed by the fire was placed at $150,000 and its furnishings at $20,000. The Free Press reported the insurance coverage for the CPR station was just $40,000.

The origin of the fire was never determined, although some suspected a piece of luggage in the baggage office may have contained flammable or explosive material. “It was recalled by several officials of the (rail)road that about a year ago the building narrowly escaped burning from just such a cause. A valise  was found among the baggage with smoke coming from it, and on opening a bottle of sulphuric (sic) acid was found broken.”

Others speculated that the fire originated from one of the gas lights left burning overnight in an office.

Despite the loss, railway officials vowed a new passenger depot would be erected as soon as possible. The third CPR station on the same site was completed in 1888 and stood until the present passenger station at 181 Higgins Ave, which is now the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg Inc., opened on May 22, 1905.