An abridged version of this story was published in The Montreal Gazette on September 9, 2008.
In early February of 1907, a major Montreal newspaper reported yet again that a significant number of this city’s schools were still without the legally prescribed fire escapes, so essential to a successful emergency evacuation of pupils.
Referring to a blaze that had transpired in the late evening of January 25th of that same year, the news item went on to quote a local politician as saying: “This school has no fire escape apparatus and if the fire had occurred during the day time the pupils would have been panic-stricken and probably a catastrophe would have followed.”
Prophetically, less than three weeks later, that much feared calamity took place.
It was early afternoon, Tuesday, February 26 when fire broke out at the Hochelaga School on Prefontaine Street, just north of St. Catherine in the city’s East End. The institution consisted of 170 pupils, four teachers, and had an annual maintenance budget of $2,920. The educational edifice was insured for $11,701.
The school catered mostly to the children of the blue – collar workers who toiled at the Angus Shops and the nearby wharves. Constructed in 1890 by the then Hochelaga School Board, the rather plain-looking building consisted of four classrooms: two at the north end for the boys and two on the south side for the girls. The Witness, a Montreal newspaper of the day, described the institution as “not fitted for a modern school. The stairways were crooked, the passages narrow, and there were no fire escapes.” Yet another journal labelled the shabby structure “a death trap.”
The four teachers (one of whom, Sarah Maxwell, was also the principal) first realized that something might be amiss when each spotted, at different intervals, a thin veil of smoke in the corridors of the school. It would appear that none of them thought that much of it, however, as the soft-coal furnaces (there were two; one at each end of the edifice) had not functioned particularly well that winter and it was not uncommon to see fumes in the building. According to newspaper reports of the time, Miss Maxwell, 31, had communicated, as early as November, her concerns about the apparently flawed boilers to the Protestant School Board of Commissioners (as it was known then). Nevertheless, little or no action was ever taken to correct the lamentable state of affairs.
A short time later that afternoon, a 13 year old boy, John Gilbert, observed an inordinate amount of smoke coming from a hot air register located in the passageway between the two classrooms on the main floor. The startled student immediately reported the fact to his teacher, Miss Maxwell, who, by then having seen enough, instructed her pupils to leave the building as quickly as possible and go directly home. The head teacher, with pointer in hand, stood dutifully at the hall door directing the endangered scholars outside. Nevertheless, throughout the course of the incident, it would seem that within the school no fire alarm was ever rung. Gilbert himself, undoubtedly thinking of his younger sister on the floor above, took all of ten minutes to exit the edifice. Meanwhile, clouds of murderous smoke proceeded to rise rapidly throughout the tattered structure.
As the gravity of the situation was fully appreciated, yet another peculiarity quickly entered into play: as it turned out, all of the older children were on the ground level of the school while the younger (and more vulnerable) pupils were on the top floor, including the kindergarten class. One of the reasons advanced for this relatively common practice of the time was to avoid the tiny tots being trampled to death by the older students descending the stairwells in a fire and smoke-induced panic.
The always tendentious procedure of sequestering the youngest of the children on the upper floors of an academic edifice became even more controversial after the Hochelaga fire. One father, whose two children frequented Victoria School on St. Luke Street (today de Maisonneuve) stated openly in a March 1907 “Letter to the Editor” that he had absolutely no intention of returning his children to the institution before that policy was overturned, and until exterior fire escapes were installed.
Be all that as it may, within a very short period of time Hochelaga School found itself engulfed in both smoke and flame. The commotion from below was eventually heard on the second floor. Miss Catherine Campbell, whose classroom was located immediately above that of Sarah Maxwell, opened her door to investigate and was astounded at what she saw. The corridor was, in fact, enveloped in a thick, noxious, black vapour that was rising rapidly from the stairwell across from her teaching area.
Reasoning quickly, she assembled her frightened wards near the classroom door and marched them towards that same nearby staircase in the despairing hope that they would dutifully follow her through the poisonous fumes and to the safety of the outdoors. Not surprisingly, many of them instinctually balked at this audacious scheme. Campbell herself later judged that about a third of her terrified pupils made a despondent dash down and through the staircase inferno, scarcely making it to the safety of the street below. The rest, almost frozen in fear, warily followed their teacher back to the classroom.
Once there, Campbell immediately broke several windows (years earlier, for some unknown reason, they had all been sealed shut by a carpenter) with her hands and placed the children near them. She then called for help to men working in an ice house across the street from the school. A ladder was quickly deployed and the composed pedagogue nimbly passed her charges to the labourers assisting in the improvised rescue. She herself was the last to leave her classroom in that same fashion, but seconds before leaving Catherine Campbell called out vociferously several times through the dense smoke. There was no response. As Campbell descended, she could see the firemen arriving from the station just around the corner and briskly positioning their ladder to the other second floor casements, those of the kindergarten class.
Meanwhile, with the evacuation expeditiously completed on the main floor, Sarah Maxwell (although advised by the caretaker, Mrs. William Hands, not to) rushed to the little learners above. She ran up the stairs accompanied by Miss Margaret Carley, the grade three teacher, whose students had all also successfully departed the now fiery school. There, not surprisingly, they discovered a situation of ghastly pandemonium. The last of Catherine Campbell’s class were being removed through the windows while, across the hall, Miss Keyes’ kindergarten pupils were anxiously clustered around their equally-frightened teacher with no possibility of escape. Only moments earlier, Keyes had also used her bare hands to break several window panes in order to provide air for both her and her charges. Amidst this veritable nightmare, here and there the odd child who had broken away from their group could be heard crying and choking in the horror that had become both the hallway and stairwell of their school.
Principal Maxwell huddled quickly with the Mrs. Hands (who had followed her up the stairs) but when the firemen finally arrived with ladders at the windows of the kindergarten class, the youthful head teacher entered the room and assisted in its clearance. Meanwhile, Miss Carley, recognizing quickly the hopelessness of the situation, grabbed a couple of overcome youngsters from the smoke- congested staircase and made a risky beeline with them for the outside. In her gamble, Carley succeeded. She did not return to the ill-fated building.
In the meantime, the first down the now deployed ladder on the second floor was Miss Ethel Keyes herself (whose dress was actually smouldering as she was brought below). Petrified, she had been threatening only moments earlier to jump to the ground, some thirty feet below. The children nearest her quickly followed, leaving Miss Maxwell alone with those strays who remained. So intense was now the conflagration, and despite the sub-zero temperatures, those who were fortunate enough to find themselves descending the ladders near the burning school were all deliberately doused with water by the fire fighters below.
By this time, however, the thick, black, poisonous smoke had completely overtaken the room, along with an occasional burst of huge flames. Then, suddenly, there was heard a powerful explosion but, here, Sarah Maxwell, ignoring pleas from fire brigade Captain Christopher Carson and Foreman Hormisdas Benoit to “save herself”, chose to stay along with some thirty of the remaining kindergarten children scattered about her. Over a period of several heart-rending moments, amidst smoke and fire, she handed to the men (whose ladder itself was now scorched) as many of the tiny tykes as she possibly could before finally falling inward, dead, from exhaustion and asphyxiation. Only seconds earlier, there had been in fact a brief struggle between her and those same two fire officials who attempted, against all hope, to drag her from the now blazing structure.
Miss Maxwell’s badly burnt, bruised and smoke-covered body was later found, surrounded by those of the eight boys and eight girls she was unable to rescue (one of whom was said to be in her arms). Two of the girls were sisters, Myrtle and Mabel Spraggs, the latter only three years of age and visiting her sister’s school for the first time that day.
An hour or so later, with the fire completely extinguished, the covered remains of the little ones were removed from the premises. Frantic mothers converged on the site, some pulling back the blankets in order to reveal the face of the now tiny corpse under it. Shortly afterwards, a hush fell upon the crowd as firemen (still on ladders) boldly struggled to bring down, in as dignified a fashion as possible, the remains of Sarah Maxwell.
The seventeen bodies were then taken to the new Montreal morgue on Notre Dame Street where a large crowd of anxious parents and morbidly-curious spectators had gathered. By seven o’clock, the evening of the conflagration, some two hundred people had gathered outside the municipal mortuary to view, and give formal identification to the dead. Admitted only seven or eight at a time, it took well over an hour to enter the room which contained the largest number of cadavers that the morgue managers had ever had at one time. The sixteen youngsters lay together, with Miss Sarah Maxwell’s body just a little further along. Miss Maxwell’s remains were oifficially singled out by her brother, William C. Maxwell.
After describing Maxwell’s body as that of “a slightly built young woman,” Dr. Duncan MacTaggart (the Coroner’s Medical Officer) went on to observe in his post-mortem report the presence of “burns about face, legs and abdomen. The front part of the dress at bottom burned and bloomers sinjed (sic) also underskirt. Marked rigor mortis present.”
If not sad enough, one particularly sorrowful story to emerge from this terrible event was that of William Hingston. When word of the fire spread to his work, the shop foreman rushed to the scene and, at great risk to his own well-being, personally aided in the rescue of 22 children (including one of his own) who were paralyzed in terror within the burning building. Nonetheless, in so doing, it was Hingston’s great misfortune to stumble upon the charred remains of his own six – year old daughter, Gladys.
At ten the following morning, Montreal’s Coroner (and Westmount’s Municipal Magistrate), Edmond McMahon, started his enquiry into the dreadful occurrence. The investigation required three sessions, the last taking place March 8. There were 18 jurors assisting him in what would prove to be one of the most important professional assignments of his rather lengthy career.
As it came to light, it was the school board’s own medical inspector, Dr. William Opzoomer, who alerted the local fire precinct that the building was ablaze. Dr. Opzoomer had arrived at the edifice at 1:40 that very afternoon, ironically in order to continue his assessment of the institution’s ability to deal with a situation of fire. Upon entering it, he observed smoke coming through the floor boards, then seconds later he encountered Miss Maxwell who asked him to call the fire department at nearby Station 13.
Revealingly, in the part of his report dealing with ‘fire protection’ that he had drawn up only the day before, Opzoomer had inscribed in the appropriate space “nothing of any kind.” In fact, to make matters even worse from a safety outlook, one of the only two exits from the building was not functional. According to Reverend Dr. Henry Jekyll (the Anglican vicar of the adjacent St. Mary’s Church), “I believe the entrance from the north-west has been closed for some time,” he told a startled Edmond McMahon on the first day of testimony before the Coroner’s Enquiry.
Although the question of mandatory fire escapes came up repeatedly throughout the inquest, as it turned out only the newly-constructed Technical and Commercial High School on the northwest corner of Sherbrooke and St. Urbain (a building which still stands today and houses the O.L.F. office) and Baron de Hirsch School on Bleury Street (now demolished) were equipped with the requisite auxiliary stairs. Even so, Reverend Dr. William Shaw, chairman of the Protestant School Board curiously argued that the use of such outdoor escapes would only augment the level of panic in the event of a real fire! Besides, all schools had in place, according to Protestant Commission Secretary A. H. Silver, “a magnificent system of fire drill,” rendering fire escapes unnecessary.
Regardless, evidence shows that both school commissions had been regularly advised of the legal necessity of installing such emergency getaways but neither the Catholic nor Protestant boards took any action, and no fines were ever levied. All the same, witness after witness who came before Edmond McMahon asserted their belief that no one would have been killed had fire escapes been in place on the exterior walls of the institution in question.
In the end, no one was ever held criminally responsible for the Hochelaga Schoolhouse Fire. Mrs. Hands (who had been caretaker for some 15 years) had testified that, when alerted to the presence of smoke in the building, she ran down the stairs from her top floor flat and noticed that a pile of kindling wood on the boys’ side of the basement was alight. How that came to be was never determined by McMahon’s enquiry although several youths were questioned by him about it. In closing his narrative, McMahon simply attributed the fire to “someone’s carelessness” while the jury criticized the failure of Miss Maxwell to have rung the school’s internal fire alarm. In a strange twist, the panel also recommended that the caretaker should, in the future, be a man!
At 2:00 P.M. on March 1, in the shadow of the ruins of the ill-fated school, a funeral service was held at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church for most of the young victims of the of the controversial tragedy, including the two sisters. Arthur Spraggs, whose wife had died less than two years earlier, had now lost his entire family. Prostrate with grief, the poor soul had to be carried in a dead faint to the vestry of the church. The sombre occasion was semi – civic in nature, accentuated by the presence of a police detachment of thirty patrolmen under the command of an inspector. The corps accompanied the tiny flower-covered coffins (including one wreath from the Boys Sunshine Club of Westmount) to Mount Royal Cemetery where they were placed in vaults while they awaited a spring burial.
Early the morning following the fatal fire, the body of Miss Sarah Maxwell was removed from the morgue and taken to her mother’s home (with whom she had lived) on St. Urbain Street near Prince Arthur. All that day, crowds tarried about the house but only relatives, colleagues, and intimate friends were admitted to view her remains.
The next day, on a dull, grey Thursday afternoon, an immense cortege (the like of which Montreal had rarely seen) followed her casket through the streets of the city to Christ Church Cathedral where, in her lifetime, she had been an active member of the congregation. Outside Miss Maxwell’s home, the crowd of mourners was so large that it was necessary to call for a squad of police to clear a path for the doleful procession. At the Anglican Cathedral, all 314 teachers of the Protestant School Commission were present to honour their colleague at the 2:00 P.M. funeral service (Afternoon classes were cancelled by that same authority). In addition, Westmount School Board Commissioners John MacKergow, Thomas Harling, John Macfarlane, and along with secretary E. W. T. Raddon represented that jurisdiction at the very touching observance.
The burnt-out Hochelaga ruin was re-placed on the same spot with a state of the art modern facility which opened in the autumn of 1908. It was fittingly styled the ‘Sarah Maxwell Memorial School’ with which epithet it endured for a lengthy period of time. Interestingly, however, around the time of that same building’s eventual demolition in the spring of 1984, a mural remembering the 1907 fire was painted on the side wall of a tenement on nearby Adam Street. Now, greatly weathered by time, its historical significance is virtually unknown to those whose pass by it.
As for the site today, nothing remains from that era. Immediately after the disaster, the city administration promised a lasting municipal memorial to the courageous head teacher; however, it never materialized. Consequently, the name Sarah Maxwell lives on in only two places: a library room that carries her name at the EMSB building on Fielding Street, as well as a simple plaque in the city centre commemorating her remarkable heroism in February of 1907. The latter, a memorial tablet, is found on the west wall in the nave of Christ Church Cathedral, that same place of worship from which her funeral took place on a cold, late winter’s day over a hundred years ago.
Little ironies: As an aside, it should be pointed out the tremendous paradox in the fact that one of the survivors of the school fire, Elsie Villiers, was subsequently killed in the train wreck that occurred within Windsor Station on St. Patrick’s Day 1909. On the other hand, Orrin Rexford, another who pulled through the Prefontaine Street tragedy, went on to make a career as both a teacher and later an administrator with the PSBGM. Finally, it should also be noted that less than twenty years later another conflagration took place just around the corner from that of 1907. Appallingly, the Laurier Palace Theatre Fire of January 1927 took the lives of 76 young children and it happened in the very shadow of the Sarah Maxwell Memorial School.
LIST OF THE DEAD:
Miss Sarah Maxwell, 31
William John Zimmerman, 7 (
James Pilkington Lindley, 6
Edith Golson, 6
Albert Edward Jackson, 6
Lillian Rich, 5
Edna Davey, 5
Ethel Lambton, 5
James McPherson, 7
Annie Jackson Andrew, 8
Cecilia Forbes, 6
John Lomas, 6
James Frederick Anderson, 6
Gladys Florence Hingston, 6 (her body was found by her father)
Joseph Johnson, 7
Myrtle Spraggs, 5
Mabel Spraggs, 3