Fire! 1904 conflagration destroys major downtown businesses and threatens many others

by Bruce Cherney

In the fall of 1904, the Winnipeg Board of Trade was confident that insurance rates would soon decrease throughout the city. The belief that better terms were on the way was enthusiastically welcomed by local entrepreneurs who considered the existing rate schedule  “a serious tax on the business interests of Winnipeg.”

R.M. Kelley, secretary of the Manitoba Underwriters’ Association, attended the October 7, 1904, meeting to discuss a new schedule which would have provided some slight reductions, although the new rates would have to be approved by the Canadian Underwriters’ Association.

The insurance committee of the Board of Trade (forerunner of today’s Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce) had outlined to Kelley the improvements made to the city’s fire protection system as a strong argument in favour of lower rates.

In late April, city aldermen organized a water pressure test to show local insurance companies that the fire brigade was up to the task of keeping the city safe from a major conflagration. Fire Chief John Buchanan oversaw the demonstration and had his men first train a stream of water over the Galt Building and then over the partially constructed 10-storey Union Bank Tower.

After the April 25 demonstration, ex-Alderman Robert Barclay (also a Board of Trade member) expressed his confidence that the test showed the insurance companies that “Winnipeg can flatter herself on having one of the best equipped and well manned brigades for its size, and one that cannot be equalled ...,” according to a report in  the Morning Telegram.

The Board of Trade felt Winnipeg deserved lower rates because fire damage in recent years had been minimal and “fire protection has been one of the foremost things to be considered by city council.” 

What the Board of Trade could not have foreseen was that over the course of just a few days all their efforts to have rates reduced would go up in flames.

On October 9 at 4:45 p.m., the fire alarm box on the corner of Balmoral Street sounded. Within 10 minutes of the alarm, the Boyd Bakery at Portage Avenue and Spence Street was engulfed in flames that firemen were unable to contain. Six thousand people watched as the fire completely destroyed the city’s largest and newest bakery. It was reported that half the city’s population (67,300 people in 1904) were customers of the bakery.   

“I do not know in the least what the total loss will be ...,” bakery owner William J. Boyd told reporters. “All I know is that we were carrying a very heavy stock ... and that we had a lot of Christmas goods on hand, as well as an unusually heavy stock of flour. I am insured pretty fully so far as the insurable value of the building goes, but it looks like a very heavy loss to me at present.”

Actually, Boyd was right about the heavy loss which was estimated to be between $60,000 and $65,000, including building and equipment. 

Two days after the bakery was destroyed, tragedy again struck in the form of the worst fire in Winnipeg’s history.

On the night of October 11, employees began their regular task of sweeping up all the excess paper left over from the day’s activity at the Bulman Brothers lithography and print shop at 218 Bannatyne Ave. Although the paper was destined to be fed to the building’s basement furnace, it was the fuel for a more sinister outcome. 

At about 9:50 p.m., some passers-by noticed flames in the basement and tried to throw a “bucket or two” of water on the fire. Since this proved ineffective, two men rushed to the box at the corner of McDermot Avenue and Main Street to sound the alarm.

The fire, believed to have started with a spark landing on the paper swept in front of the basement furnace, spread quickly through the building, fuelled by the highly-flammable chemicals stored in the print shop.

“Probably owing to the chemicals in the building it blazed up as if it were simply a gigantic oil barrel and immediately threatened the other buildings (in the area),” reported the October 12, 1904, Morning Telegram. 

The cause of the fire would never be officially determined, but employees said a spark landing on the paper in front of the furnace was the most likely scenario.

A fire with a mysterious origin was no stranger to the Bulman Block. In the early morning hours of November 7, 1903, a blaze “myseriously” began in a stack of papers and envelopes in a storeroom. According to the Telegram, the fire “was progressing furiously when the (fire) department arrived,” although it was quickly extinguished. William Bulman estimated the damage from the fire totalled between $10,000 and $15,000, mostly resulting from water damage. 

When the second fire struck in 1904, night staff preparing the morning edition of the Telegram had a ringside seat as the blaze broke out approximately 100 metres from the newspaper office on the corner of Albert Street and McDermot Avenue.

Staff writers said the initial fire “threw a lurid gleam over the city ... even before the wild clanging of the hose wagons and ladders started the quiet of the city.”

Within 15 minutes of the first alarm, the Bulman Block was soon considered a hopeless cause and “had already put the Boyd (Bakery) fire in the shade as far as dangerous appearance were concerned.”

The newspaper reported a strong breeze from the southeast blowing flames and embers in the direction of the Ashdown Hardware Store across Bannatyne. In fact, embers picked up by the strong breeze also threatened buildings to the north and west of the two-storey Bulman Block.  

“At quarter past 10, in spite of the efforts of the (fire) brigade, the latter building had caught fire. The devouring element leapt Bannatyne Avenue as if there was no gap there at all.”

Firemen found it impossible to get near the Ashdown Store as kerosene, gun cartridges and gun powder cans in the store exploded. People watching the fire said the exploding cartridges invoked the image of a battle which was reinforced by  firemen redoubling their efforts to try saving buildings in the vicinity. As they fought the flames, the walls on the Bannatyne side of the store gave way and collapsed inward. The collapsing wall forced the firemen to retreat, believing the wall facing Main Street would suffer a similar fate. But the wall held and firemen were able to keep the flames from claiming other buildings down the street. 

The Woodbine Hotel, Baker and Duffin blocks fronting Main Street were fully exposed to the flames that lapped against the rear of the three buildings from the Bulman Block.

The firemen turned their attention to the Woodbine “and the hosemen close to the building had to be continually drenched with water by comrades to stand the terrific temperature. Several times it looked as though they would have to back away from the laneway that separated the Bulman Block, but they pluckily stuck to their task.”

The roof at the rear of the Woodbine became a “blazing mass,” but a shift in the wind helped the firefighters and they were able to hold back the flames. Just before the wind shifted, a wall from the gutted Bulman Block collapsed and fell upon the Woodbine’s roof. Bedrooms in the rear of the hotel caved in and guests fled down the staircase, safely escaping onto the street.

The falling Bulman wall gave a “tremendous shock” to the Telegram building down the street which “quivered from the vibrations.”

The scene in front of the Woodbine and adjacent Baker and Duffin blocks was said to be one of the most confusing during the course of the fire. Office furnishings and store stock was haphazardly piled on the sidewalk and street. Residents leaned out the Baker Block windows and tossed their belongings below. Small items were quickly trampled by the crowd gathered on the street. “The collection of articles on the sidewalk was a most curious one and increased to immense proportions as the fire went on.”

A short distance away at the corner of Arthur and Albert streets a refreshment stand was not as fortunate and succumbed to flames.

It was reported that “ a spark on the roof of a small Italian restaurant, a miserable little wooden hut 20 feet to the north of the Ashdown Building, set fire to the place. Actively engaged elsewhere, the firemen did not notice the insignificant little conflagration and in a few seconds the shack was all ablaze.”

Other sparks landed on the roofs of the Massey-Harris and Winnipeg Saddlery buildings, but were extinguished. 

A cry from the crowd gathered around the Maw Block drew attention to a fire that had started at the rear of the building at the corner of William Avenue and King Street. Members of the crowd organized themselves into a bucket brigade and managed to extinguish the fire before any damage was done. Another bucket brigade prevented the Reid Building from catching fire.

Employees kept the Mariaggi Hotel’s roof and front wall soaked using a small water hose as hotel guests hastily packed their baggage and fled, “but when it was seen that the wind was blowing the flames away from the hotel, consternation subsided and those who but a moment before were fear stricken became interested observers of the spectacular scene.”

Guests at the Leland Hotel hurriedly packed their trunks. Staff piled the luggage high in the hotel’s rotunda where it could be taken away at a moment’s notice if flames approached the building.

The Telegram reported a panic occurred in the hotel at 218 William Ave. Leland “guests ran hither and thither, a thousand rings kept the bell boys busy and the climax came when the lights went out plunging the entire building into a pitchy darkness.” The panic only subsided when oil lamps were found to light the way for guests escaping the hotel.

Newspapers reported that much of Winnipeg’s population gathered to watch the fire. “If the crowd showed any disposition to ‘butt in’ it was soon put in place when the (gun) powder cans in Ashdown’s building began to explode. Everyone took to the woods with a vengeance and a clear space was left for the firemen.”

Women appeared on downtown streets near the fire in “walking dress and evening regalia,” while “automobiles puffed and tooted through the crowd and drew unkind remarks.”

The expressions on the faces of fire watchers was said to be at times “awe, pity and depreciation of the awful waste which went to make so grand a spectacle.”

Ironically, one of the buildings threatened by the fire was the firemen’s own central station, where Albert and Arthur streets come to a peak, but the blaze atop the roof was soon brought under control.

When they first noticed the danger the fires spreading about them posed, tenants at the Rialto Block — it shared a party wall with the Ashdown Hardware Store — hustled their belongings onto the street. Later, the Rialto’s roof was used by the fireman as a platform to water down nearby buildings along Main Street and William Avenue. 

As the fires threatened his block, A.F. Banfield used a line of dray wagons to carry away store goods while his employees spent the evening fighting back the flames.

The inferno in Winnipeg’s downtown core was news across North America. The next day, the New York Times said: “Never in the history of Winnipeg has the city been visited by a severer (sic) fire than that which last night totally destroyed two of the most important business blocks, and in the short pace of about two hours did damage estimated at $700,000, with an insurance (value) of $300,000.”

Actually, the inferno did not destroy all the businesses on two city blocks, but did completely destroy two small businesses, two major businesses and damaged several others.

Dennis Lennon, one of the proprietors of the Woodbine, said many hotel rooms were damaged by the falling wall to an estimated value of $2,500, while water damage to contents totalled about $2,000. The hotel owners had insurance of $5,000 for contents and $10,000 on the building.

In the Duffin Block, druggists Connelly & Co. reported water loss to their stock at an estimated $4,000 which was covered by insurance. Duffin & Co., owners of the block and dealers in photographic supplies on the ground floor, reported $2,000 in damages to their building and $1,500 to contents, all covered by insurance. Steele & Co., photographers, on the second floor, managed to get most of their equipment and stock out of the building but still claimed $1,000 in damages. The greatest loss was incurred by W.A. Davis Stationery Co. which lost an estimated $10,000 for which proprietor Davis had adequate insurance coverage. A number of other tenants in the building reported losses totalling $1,500 covered by insurance.

Next door in the Baker Block, damage to the building was between $3,000 and $4,000 and covered by insurance.

The former Duffin and Baker blocks later became Birts’ Saddlery.

Suffering extensive water damage was the Gundy music store in the Baker Block, which had full insurance coverage for its loss of over $5,000 — 15 pianos were spared extensive damage. Other occupants of the building reported damages of around $2,000, all covered by insurance.

Varying amounts of damage were reported for other buildings in the area, which were apparently all well insured against fire.

Content and building coverage for the Bulman and Ashdown blocks razed by the fire was supplied by a number of insurance agents and totalled in the thousands of dollars. Yet of the two, only Ashdown decided to rebuild his store, taking the opportunity to improve upon the original structure, increasing it to six storeys. The Bulman Block was not rebuilt and remained a vacant lot until it was converted into a parking lot behind the Woodbine. 

A day after the fire, gangs were busy tearing down the rubble, especially concentrating on gutted building walls that threatened to come tumbling down. Bell Telephone Company workers arrived on the scene to take down and repair burnt wiring and charred poles. Electrical workers also restored damaged power lines and wires in the area.

“At 11 o’clock the upper part of Bulman’s east wall fell, leaving only two towering pinnacles still standing ... Just 40 minutes later a portion of the north wall of Ashdown’s fell with a roar, just missing engulfing Wilham Hay, the manufacturing jeweller, and his son.”

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the conflagration was that no lives were lost. The best plausible explanation for this fortunate outcome was the late hour of the fire’s start — employees had left for home at the end of the work day. As well, guests in nearby hotels had plenty of time to evacuate while flames threatening hotels were kept at bay by employees and firemen.

Despite this favourable outcome, the fire did reveal some troubling problems that had to be immediately addressed. W.R. Allan, an observer of the fire’s progress, was heard to criticize the lack of hose water pressure.

“Did you ever see such an absurdity? he asked bystanders. “And the people think the (insurance) underwriters are asking too much when they insist on more adequate fire protection for the city. For over half an hour I have been standing here and on that part of the Ashdown Block (pointing to the northwest corner in flames) only one small stream has been played.”

He said the conflagration provided a valuable lesson to Winnipeggers that had to be heeded.

“If any more forcible argument in favour of the system of high pressure watermains proposed by the Board of Trade were required it was the efforts of the fire brigade to prevent the Central Firehall from catching fire,” commented the Telegram. “A stream from a hydrant at the corner of the firehall was run to the top of the hall and from that vantage point was directed on the tower, which was threatened every minute with destruction. Though the distance was but a few feet the stream could not reach the top of the tower.”

Alderman Gibson, chairman of the fire, water and light committee, told city council the low-pressure water system in use at the time of the fire was inadequate as was the number of quality  fire engines that could be used to draw water from watermains. All four of the city’s steam fire engines were used to fight the fire, but just one was described as up to the challenge.

To compound the problems facing the fire brigade, emergency back-up pumps failed to add significantly to the water supply.

A direct result of the fire and lobbying from the insurance companies was the construction of the James Avenue Pumping Station, the city’s first high-pressure water system. Work on the pumping station began in 1905 and was completed in 1907. 

City council also approved tenders for the purchase of two new first-class steam fire engines as well as better hoses and other equipment.

An unexpected consequence of the 1904 fire was an explosion in typhoid fever cases within Winnipeg. To maintain water pressure during the fire, untreated water from the Red River was pumped into the domestic water supply system which at the time was primarily provided by artesian wells. The untreated water was heavily contaminated with typhoid bacteria which led to a tripling of cases over the previous year. In 1904, the number of cases jumped to 1,276, resulting in 133 deaths.

On November 24, 1904, C.H. Waterous of Brantford, Ontario, inventor of the steam fire engine bearing his name, was in Winnipeg on a business trip. During his stay at the Mariaggi, Waterous claimed insurance rates would be reduced in the city because new engines and equipment would “re-establish confidence in the hearts of the insurance companies and once they are firmly convinced that their risks are not nearly what they thought, the rates will drop ... if they still persist in keeping them up to the high mark at which they are at present standing other companies will come into the field and take away a great deal if not all their business in this country.”

One of the new companies coming into the field was the Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company, named after the town in southern Manitoba where it was formed by Alonzo Fowler Kempton in 1896. By promising lower rates, the Wawanesa company by 1910 had become the largest fire mutual in Canada.