Vintage postcard illustrating Victoria Square in Edwardian times. Note the Herald Building in the background with its lethal water tanks on its rooftop.

Published in the Montreal Gazette in August of 2010

When Victoria Square was so agreeably reconfigured in 2002 – 2003, the extensive undertaking reminded Montrealers of the square’s vital importance in the city’s history. As it turns out, however, very few are   really aware of some of the more remarkable human dramas that have unfolded on the downtown site over the years. In fact, this month marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the worst disasters ever to have occurred in Montreal.

Situated on the southern flank of Victoria Square a century ago was to be found the imposing Herald Publishing Company Building. It was for its time ‘state of the art’ as befit a modern edifice overlooking the city’s most prestigious plaza. Founded on October 19, 1811, the Herald tabloid was by June of 1910 a Montreal journalistic institution.

Although the building had been there for a good number of years, the newspaper giant had occupied it only since Labour Day of 1905. Frequently victimized by fires elsewhere in the city, the owners decided to place a 30,000 gallon water tank weighing 300,000 pounds atop the five storey-structure in order to assure the necessary water supply and pressure in combating any future blaze. That approach, encouraged by the insurance companies of the day, was increasingly popular in the city’s business quarter where there were over 100 buildings with huge water receptacles on their rooftops. As luck would have it, however, what would normally have been considered a good idea turned out to be a very bad one.

At 10:40 on the morning of June 13, 1910, and with a tremendous roar heard throughout much of the city, the weighty cistern crashed through the roof, continuing its destructive way until it came to a stop in the basement of the battered building. The entire back portion of the edifice was instantly destroyed while the rest, ironically, was quickly engulfed in flames. There was a very brief interlude of silence, of disbelief, before shrieks were abruptly heard coming from the horrific sight.

Throughout the city, people quickly converged on the normally picturesque square to see what had happened and if they could be of any help. Nonetheless, most rapidly realized the scale of the destruction, the structure being essentially sliced in half by the force of the container’s decent.

There was no warning and, therefore, no possibility of escape for those busily at work that sunny, warm   Monday morning all those years ago. Over three hundred people toiled in the Herald Building, most near the front overlooking the tree – lined square. Many of those killed were young girls working in the bindery department that was located immediately under the water container near the back of the edifice.

For nearly a week, police, firemen, and volunteers extracted the remains of some thirty-three employees, 19 men and 14 women – some as young as 14. Many were charred virtually beyond recognition. The bodies were quickly taken to the city morgue where the difficult struggle to identify them began immediately.

Shortly after the tragic event, the requisite inquest was held to determine the cause of the structure’s collapse. As it turned out, City Hall had been warned two years earlier by various building authorities of the potential dangers posed by ponderous rooftop water tanks. However, no action was ever taken.

One of the incredible paradoxes in this sad story was that the Herald was able to publish its regular afternoon edition that very same day. Within a couple of hours of the dramatic events on Victoria Square, the Gazette offered those who survived the inferno the use of their facilities in order to put out the Herald’s usual afternoon copy. As a result the tabloid was able to report on its own catastrophe.

The Herald Building calamity was not, unfortunately, the only tragedy to occur on the square. In 1910, there was still a handful of Montrealers old enough to recall a violent episode that took place in June of 1853 on the north side of what was then called Haymarket Square. Bernard Tansey, a Montreal restaurateur, was one of them.

At the age of 18, Tansey witnessed a gory sectarian dispute that took place as the result of fiery lecture by Alessandro Gavazzi, an apostate Barnabite priest and self – described Italian patriot. Gavazzi eagerly travelled much of Europe and North America delivering his anti-papal diatribe to anyone willing to listen. In Montreal, where ethnic and religious tensions already flourished, he easily found just such an audience.

When the opposing factions faced one another outside Zion Church where Gavazzi was speaking, troops were called in to enforce order on the square. Inexplicably, the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing 28 people and injuring another thirty. By all accounts, Tansey remembered both that bloody event and the 1910 Herald Fire to the day he died.

Despite the fact that over 60 people were killed in the two incidents, there is no commemorative plaque for either. Today, the only reminder of the two events is   Victoria Square itself; ironically recently reconfigured to resemble more its original nineteenth century design.