Ottawa’s Great Fire of 1900 – another close call for Glebe Annex

map-of-burned-out-area

Area in Ottawa and Hull devastated in the Great Fire of 1900. Photo: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada

by Sue Stefko

An earlier article (Glebe Report, April 2018) explained how what is now the Glebe Annex was spared the great fire of 1870. In essence, the waters of Dow’s Lake were allowed to flow to the Ottawa River along Preston Street, creating a moat effect that helped to stop the fire’s expansion eastward. This spared our community and the heart of Ottawa itself.

What is now the Glebe Annex neighbourhood escaped even more narrowly from Ottawa’s Great Fire of 1900, which saw more than five square miles of land go up in flames, destroying more than 3,200 buildings. The fire raced from Hull through Lebreton Flats to what is now Little Italy, and south to the Experimental Farm and was held back at Booth Street (then Division Street) just one block from our neighbourhood.

The fire started as many fires of the day did – by a spark from a chimney that landed on wooden roof shingles. It started at about 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 29, 1900 on a house near the business district of Hull that was packed closely to other wooden buildings. The game changer was a strong northerly wind that fanned the flames from one roof to another, quickly spreading the fire. When the fire exceeded its capacity, the Hull fire department called for help from the Ottawa fire department. The Ottawa department at first displayed little concern, thinking that this was a chimney fire and having dealt with more than 60 chimney fires since January. However, it soon became clear that this fire was an entirely different beast.

By noon, the majority of downtown Hull was destroyed, with the winds throwing burning sparks and embers into the air, spreading the fire out of control. An hour later, burning shingles and sparks blowing across the Ottawa River landed on the massive piles of lumber at the mills of E.B. Eddy and H.F. Bronson. The worst fears of many, who saw these massive piles of wood as powder kegs, were now realized. By 2 p.m. a flour mill, grain elevator, electricity generating stations, a railway station and dozens of industrial establishments were burned to the ground in a howling inferno, thus obliterating the whole industrial section of west Ottawa and plunging Ottawa into darkness for days. Two industrial buildings survived – Bronson and Weston Carbide Works, which was sheathed in sheet metal, and ironically the J.R. Booth sawmill, which had its own water pumping system. This, combined with the efforts of Booth’s employees, saved the sawmills, although many of those workers lost their homes while fighting to save their employer’s mill.

The fire moved so quickly that it took on average 10 minutes for a house to alight and then collapse under the raging fire. Firemen were forced to abandon their firefighting equipment under the advancing flames and run for their lives. The well known but ageing “Conqueror,” Ottawa’s steam-powered fireengine, was lost to the fire. Lebreton Flats and Rochesterville (Little Italy) were quickly razed, although at Macadamized Road (now Carling Avenue), workers of the Central Experimental Farm managed to stop the southward advance of the fire.

By 3 p.m., buglers called the members of the military to action. Three companies of the militia – the 43rd Battalion (now part of the Cameron Highlanders), the Dragoons, and the Governor General’s Foot Guards – were dispatched. They worked on the cliffs of Nanny Goat Hill and on the lumber piles below, dousing the flames with buckets of water. A number were also dispatched along Division Street, using a “bucket brigade” to throw water on homes on the east side of the street. This, combined with the cliff that functioned as a firebreak at Nanny Goat Hill, and a shift in the wind, saved the Glebe Annex and the rest of Ottawa from ruin.

The following day, the Ottawa Journal commented on the community’s near miss. “Strangely enough, while there is scarcely a stick standing on the western side of Division Street except a few buildings at the extreme southerly end, there was nothing destroyed on the eastern side of the street south of Somerset. Division Street was a general dividing line on the east boundry [sic] of the fire district.”

The militia’s efforts did not go unnoticed, with area residents posting a notice in that weekend’s Ottawa Journal: “The residents of the west side of Division street are of the opinion that all the heroes did not go to the [Boer] war, after witnessing the almost super-human efforts of the militia bucket brigade to save their homes. Hour and hour these men worked like Trojans to save property and their success is well-illustrated in the long line of small wooden houses, all the property of working men, that remains on this and adjoining streets. They have decided not to let this pass without some slight token of recognition and a movement is already on foot to tender a banquet for the brave boys who for so long and so well worked in the scorching heat and the smothering smoke to save the homes and property of their fellow citizens.”

Although only seven people died, more than 14,000 people, almost a quarter of the populations of Ottawa and Hull combined, were homeless, with two thirds of Hull destroyed, and over 50 million feet of lumber burned to ash. The story made international news and aid flowed in from across Canada, Great Britain, the U S, France, Chile and other British colonies. A massive rebuilding campaign that year saw more than 750 new homes rebuilt, only to be burned to ash just three years later when the lumber piles at J.R. Booth’s mill along the Ottawa River alighted again. Once again, the Glebe Annex was narrowly missed in that fire.

Perhaps the Glebe Annex should adopt a new slogan – “The land that fire forgot.” Or – “Narrowly avoiding disaster since 1870.”

Sue Stefko is president of the Glebe Annex Community Association.

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