Manitoba’s first legislative building — December 3 fire destroyed A.G.B. Bannatyne’s home

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

When the fire broke out on December 3 in the Manitoba Parliament situated in the home of A.G.B. Bannatyne, hundreds of people — Winnipeg’s population was just 3,500 in 1873 — surrounded the building to watch the spectacle, while others rushed inside to fight the fire or save its contents. 

“While some people threw items out of the upper storey windows, others went to work on the lower floor, removing the speaker’s chair as well as the members’ desks and other furniture. An attempt was made to remove the safe from the building, but this was found to be impossible so it was left to its fate. “No fears are felt, however, for the safety of its contents,” according to the December 6, 1873, Manitoban.

The Manitoban said the building appeared to be emptied of everything except the books in the legislative library. “The work of taking the books from the shelves and handing them out of the windows occupied some time, and before all the volumes in the room could be got out, the fire had reached the stairway, warning the intrepid men in the upper story (sic) that it was time to abandon their work and seek their own safety.

“One or two, more daring than others, remained till the last moment notwithstanding the shouts of people calling on them to come out. It is wonderful that no lives were lost.”

Bucket brigades poured water on the fire without effect. 

Some time after the flames were well underway, the fire engine from Fort Garry was on the scene, manned by the military. The  soldiers from Ontario and Québec (Dominion Infantry and Artillery) occupied barracks inside Fort Garry until Fort Osborne Barracks was established in 1874 on land called the Dominion Reserve, situated along the banks of the Assiniboine River where today’s legislative building now stands. 

Osborne Barracks was later relocated to Tuxedo. 

What type of fire engine was used   by the soldiers only becomes clear from brief descriptions in newspapers of the time. The Hudson’s Bay Company brought a chemical fire engine to Upper Fort Garry in the 1860s. Chemical engines used acid combined with soda dissolved in water to start a chemical reaction that would produce carbon dioxide. In this process, the carbon dioxide expanded, pressurizing the tank and propelling the water-chemical mixture out of a hose line and onto the fire. 

John McTavish, who was in charge of the HBC’s operations at Upper Fort Garry, offered the community the use of the Company’s fire engine in 1871. As a result, a group of Winnipeggers formed the Nor’West Engine Company, No. 1, with each member paying an initiation fee of 50-cents. The Manitoban on April 13, 1871, said the engine “is not one of the most modern institutions of its kind, but in the hands of the men now managing it, we are sure it can be made immensely successful.”

Although the men did practice firefighting with the HBC engine, it seems the company was more of a social club rather than an effective fire department. There is an absence of records mentioning the company ever engaging in battling fires.

On the other hand, the military were specifically mentioned as bringing out the fort’s fire engine in 1873. In fact, accounts of another fire just a few weeks later say the engine was monopolized by the military. 

The Manitoba Free Press on January 24, 1874, published a letter from Elias Swayze, the proprietor of the Dominion Hotel (then 149 Main St., now 218-224 Main St.), deploring the military’s commandeering of the fort’s fire engine. When a fire struck at the cookhouse and bakery in the fort, Swayze ran to the fort and grabbed hold of the “brakes,” but found the engine was not working due to the water inside being frozen. 

A Free Press account of the January 1874 fire, said the “square in the fort was chuck full of humanity,” and Swayze as well as other citizens were manning the engine.  

Lieutenant-Colonel W. Osborne Smith arrived on the scene and ordered Swayze away, actually issuing the command to have him removed to the fort’s guardhouse. An outcry arose against this order among the civilians, which ended when two soldiers spirited Swayze away and let him go.

All the civilian firefighters abandoned the fire engine and Colonel Smith  detailed a party of soldiers to take over the “brakes.” As was commonly the case during this period for most fires, despite the exertion of the people manning the “brakes,” the cookhouse and bakery succumbed to the flames.

The reference to “brakes” gives a clear indication that the soldiers in January had at their disposal a hand-pump fire engine, which makes it certain that the same engine was used during the month-earlier parliament building fire. “Brakes” was the term used for the two sets of opposing pump handles. Firefighters had to pump the “brakes” of the engine in unison, keeping an even pace to ensure the proper flow of water, which required a great deal of stamina.

In anticipation of battling the parliament building blaze, the militiamen attached the hose to the engine, but  “... the cry arose that there was no water.”

Neighbours in the vicinity used their water sleighs to haul water from the Red River, “and from this moment there seemed to be no lack of water, the water sleighs keeping up a regular communication between the river and the fire-engine.”

The Manitoba Free Press reported water was also found in a tank immediately in front of Bannatyne’s store.

When the soldiers became exhausted through pumping, “idlers” offering no initial assistance, were solicited as replacements only through a great deal of cajoling.

Since it was bitterly cold, many of those battling the flames became frost-bitten, although in some cases, “through the excitement of the moment, were unaware of the fact for some time.”

The Free Press reported that it was only a brief time since the fire began that flames were seen breaking through the roof. “For fully half an hour the flames were confined to the roof and garret, and had there been any sort of a fire preventative organisation (sic) in the city the fire could have been subdued, at any time during the half hour spoken of, $500 would have covered the entire damage.”

While a party of soldiers manned the fire engine, another group was commanded by their officers to guard the furniture piled high on the streets. 

Among the furniture were three impressive chairs bearing the initials M.L.C., which stands for Manitoba Legislative Council (the Upper House, or senate, was abandoned  in 1876). Ironically, a fire in 1959 almost ended the chairs’ historic tenure in Manitoba, but they were saved from the flames that destroyed the former Law Courts Building. Today, the chairs reside in the present Law Courts Building. 

Another historically significant item saved from the fire was the sergeant-at-arms’ mace, which was carved by a soldier of the 1870 Red River Expedition led by Colonel Garnet Wolseley. The soldier carved the mace from the hub of a Red River cart wheel, incorporating in its design the national emblems of the dominant groups in community at the time — the  English rose, Scottish thistle, Irish harp and French fleur-de-lis. 

The mace was carried by the sergeant-at-arms to signal the opening and closing of daily legislative sessions until its retirement and replacement by a new mace in 1884. The original mace is now on display in the Speaker’s Office at the Manitoba Legislature. 

For years, the legislature was referred to as the Manitoba Parliament, and while those elected to the legislature are now called Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), they were initially termed Members of the Manitoba Parliament (MPPs).

As the fire raged in the parliament building, some of the soldiers procured ropes to pull down the burning structure, risking their lives in the process to attach the ropes to the upper storey windows. They were unsuccessful as the structure was termed by the Manitoban as “very strong” and “substantive” and resisted their efforts.

The fire threatened Bannatyne’s nearby store. The source of eminent danger were wooden sheds and outhouses to the rear, one of which was used for the storage of coal oil and completely saturated with the fluid.

The Free Press reported Bannatyne’s store “was looked upon for a time as good as gone.”

“A number of men having gained the roof of the warehouse lately erected by Mr. Bannatyne, and attached to the store ...” While on the roof, “wet blankets and buckets of water were handed to them, and in this way they managed to prevent the building from igniting, although at one time the fire did catch on it but was speedily quenched,” reported the Manitoban.

The adjacent Pride of the West saloon was also threatened by the fire, forcing the proprietors to keep a vigil until the danger passed.

The Manitoban speculated that had the fire occurred in the summer, nothing could have saved Bannatyne’s stores or the Pride of the West saloon. If these buildings had caught fire, the newspaper claimed half the town would have gone up in flames.

“In fact the snow on the roofs was to a great extent the salvation of the surrounding houses.”

It was reported “huge flakes of flames” fell in every direction, endangering nearby properties.

C.W. Radiger, an adjacent Main Street store owner, was observed with a Babcock extinguisher on his back, “ready at any moment to douse any suspicious flames that spring up amongst the surrounding buildings.” 

Babcock extinguishers were filled with water and loaded with cartridges of dry acid and bicarbonate of soda. As the chemicals dissolved, the gas was generated, the pressure raised, and the water charged by absorption. The pressure of some 80 pounds was sufficient to project a stream 50 feet or more. In many cases, however, while the apparatus was in storage, the pressure escaped after a short time, and the machine when needed was found to be useless.

For those manning the “rickety old ‘masheon’ (fire engine) which resides in the Fort ... a stream was shortly pouring safely on the roofs and sides of a very vulnerable ‘lean-to’ in rear of the shop,” according to the Free Press.

The general consensus, according to the Free Press, was to allow the fire to “burn down quietly, so the minimum of sparks and cinders should be raised.”

But, there were those gathered around the burning building who thought they had to “do something, no matter how foolish, no matter how dangerous ...”

One “lunatic,” said the newspaper, proposed to blow up the burning parliament building using gunpowder, although cooler heads eventually prevailed. Still, a keg of powder was procured and hauled to the spot.

The Free Press said the “powder idea” would have only spread sparks across the city, setting fire to other buildings.

The newspaper also criticized those who tried to use axes and ropes to pull down sections of walls, “thus affording the best possible chance for the wind to fan the flames into greater fury.

“There were in the doorway three harmless looking pieces of scantling which consisted the framework of the door. These became obnoxious and a rope was attached to them and axes were sunk into them and muscle and ‘he-ho-hes’ jerked those three pieces of scantling clean out of their places. They were saved, and are probably worth nineteen cents for firewood ...

“About this time the connecting link between the main building and a smaller one, occupied by Mr. Crowson, was torn away, thus ensuring the safety of the latter. In the aftermath of the fire, Crowson removed his effects into a new home he had erected behind “Mr. Higgins store,” which was directly across the street on the west side of Main.

In another reference to the bitter debate over the incorporation of Winnipeg as a city, the newspaper said: “From the chambers above, where the members of the Government were wont to concoct mischief, the fire came down, just like the members of the Government, to the Assembly rooms below, and although these rooms had often witnessed red-hot scenes, they presently witnessed one which was a trifle more so, Fahrenheit speaking ...”

When the chimney toppled, the newspaper almost woefully said it struck “where it would have crushed clerk and speaker had they been in their place.”

One military man shouted out: “There is no use in trying to save that building; it’s gone, it’s gone.”

By midnight, the “stately edifice was a smouldering heap of charcoal, and bricks, and plaster, and public documents, and cartridge cases, and departed glory, and ‘fall in’ was shouted over the fence through a tin horn by a corporal, and the engine was put in travelling shape and the ropes were manned and the military and machine went home together, and the crowd gradually dispersed.”

To forget their frost-bite, many of those who fought the fire dropped into the Davis House (Hotel) for a nip of their favourite intoxicant. 

While the fire smouldered for hours, a watch was kept to ensure the high winds didn’t scatter burning embers to other buildings in the vicinity.

“The ruins present a desolate appearance,” reported the Manitoban, “and the absence of one of the largest buildings in Winnipeg creates a great void in our principal street.”

Once the excitement of the actual fire died down, recriminations and speculation about its origin arose. 

Primary among those interviewed for answers to the blaze was Crowson, the parliament building caretaker who raised the alarm.

Crowson told the Manitoban, he was getting ready for bed when he heard “something crackling.” His wife said the noise was coming from a fire lit in his daughters’ adjoining bedroom.

He suspected the noise was from another source, and set off with his wife to investigate.

“Mrs. Crowson opened the hall door and I said, the house was on fire; first saw the fire in the ceiling over the hall ... to the left side and two feet from the chimney ... the flame was just making its appearance.”

The two tried to douse the fire with water but were unsuccessful and the gathering smoke began to suffocate them.

Crowson sent his young son for help. In the meantime, another person entered the house and asked for an axe. After receiving an axe from Crowson, he proceeded up the stairs to the second floor. By this time, other people began entering the house, trying to save its contents and extinguish the flames.

Having given up on the fire, Crowson returned to his apartment where he found all his furniture had been removed and his wife “fainting.”

“I took her away and did not return that night,” he told his interviewer.

Soon after the December 3, 1873, fire, a commission was appointed by Clarke to investigate its cause, although little additional information came out after several sittings. But, it was generally conceded the fire had originated in a second-storey wall partition where a stove pipe was located. 

Although the office stoves were not replenished with coal every evening, Crowson said he generally filled the hall stove every evening with coal. He said the stove pipe from the hall stove ran into the pipe from where the fire commenced. 

While the Free Press claimed in its December 6, 1873, report that fires could not originate from stove pipes, it is now known that a creosote build-up can cause a fire to erupt under the right conditions. Creosote is a tar-like build-up on the interior of pipes made up of a residue of highly-flammable compounds which have failed to burn during the initial combustion process in a wood or coal stove. A creosote fire can burn with “blast-

furnace  intensity,” crumbling and cracking mortar, shooting flames up a chimney and causing flue seams to burst open, spreading flames outward to other combustible material in a building.

Fortunately for Bannatyne, his building was insured for $5,000 by the Isolated Risk Fire Insurance Company. His claim for $4,700 was quickly settled by the insurance company.

But the Manitoba government had no insurance on its property, which included the documents and books lost to posterity in the fire.

One positive result of the fire and the danger posed by the outbreak of more fires was city council’s decision in 1874 to purchase Winnipeg’s first horse-drawn steam-powered fire engine. On September 2, the Free Press — which  bitterly complained about the lack of fire equipment and organization following the December 3, 1873, disaster — reported the purchase of a No. 3 Silsby engine at a cost of $500. 

To prepare for the arrival of the new steam engine, city council began to place water storage tanks at strategic locations along Main Street. For $1,000, council also purchased an old log building on Post Office (Lombard) Street as a fire station, and began to organize a volunteer fire brigade of two companies made up of a hose-and-engine outfit and a hook-and-ladder outfit. 

The new fire engine arrived on November 21, 1874, and was designated “Assiniboine No. 1.”

Noting the loss of irreplaceable records and books as a result of the “Manitoba Parliament” fire, the federal government decided to house a chemical fire engine at its Dominion Lands Office “for the protection of that building, and the valuable records, maps, etc. it contains,” reported the Manitoban, on February 7, 1874. 

The newspaper said the fire engine was a “boon to the community,” as the government also made it “available in case of a fire in another portion of the city.” 

The engine came with 50 feet of half-inch rubber hose, four rubber buckets and 100 pounds of chemical.

Made homeless by the fire, the legislature was re-established in the Provincial Courthouse and Gaol at the corner of William Avenue and Main Street. This was its home until 1882 when the “north wing of what was known as the old law courts building, now used as a university annex, was pressed into service and used as the legislative building until 1883,” according to a July 16, 1920, Free Press article by A.G. Dexter, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Manitoba.

The first building specifically built to house the legislature was begun in 1881 and located on the Dominion Reserve fronting Louise Street, about 100 metres from Broadway. This  structure cost $300,000 and was built by the federal government on behalf of the province, which was “unable to bear the expense of so large a public undertaking.”  

The present legislative building, begun in 1913 and completed in 1920 using provincial funds, is on the same reserve, which ran from the Assiniboine River to what is now York Avenue, west from Kennedy Street to present-day Osborne Street North, although in a different location from the 1884 building that was demolished in 1920.