Montreal, Saturday evening, March 7, 1903
“There was never a more spectacular fire seen in Montreal,” reported The Gazette the following Monday. “The whole southern part of the city seemed afire. But greater than all of this were the solid phalanxes of people who stood massed along Commissioners street (today, Rue de la Commune) from Jacques Cartier to Custom House squares. People were everywhere. They crowded over the flood wall, and filled up the open space on the wharves, as if they were intent on witnessing some great sacrifice……Between heaven and earth leaped the flames, and so great was the light on the 20,000 faces in front, that they all looked like a living picture, with old Mount Royal for a dark background.”
The conflagration referred to was not, unlike the Longue Pointe fire of May 1890 on the periphery of the city but instead, this time, in its very harbour, only a short and dangerous distance from the populated areas.
It was a cold and damp late winter evening now well over a hundred years ago when, at 8:55 P.M., assistant-superintendent James Ferns, who was associated with the alarm department at the old Montreal City Hall (destroyed by fire in 1922), first spotted high from that building’s tower a bright reflection from the direction of the river. He ran to a window with a hand telescope and took about a minute to make out more or less what was burning. Suspicious of its origin, he immediately rang the alarm but, unfortunately, it was far too late. The virtually completed R.&O. Steamship ‘The Montreal’ was already totally engulfed in flames while docked along side the King Edward Pier in this city’s waterfront. Only seven minutes later did the first alarm come in from the outside and, by that time, the ship was aflame from stem to stern.
The magnificent Toronto-built craft was to be the pride and joy of The Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company, perhaps the queen of its class on the continent. It was constructed by the Bertram Shipbuilding Company of that same city and was considered to be “the finest craft ever built in Canada”. Yet it was plagued with problems from its very inception. No less than seven strikes interrupted its progress in construction. It is even said that the bottle meant to christen ‘The Montreal’ missed the target as the vessel was first launched from the shipyard near Bathhurst Street. Nevertheless, as the “floating palace” entered the waters, it took to them, reported La Presse, with the agility of a duck! It eventually steamed down river to Montreal, suffering some relatively-insignificant damage as it voyaged through the Lachine Rapids. It was subsequently decided to transfer the vessel from Montreal to Sorel for the minor repairs and for the final painting and furnishing of the vessel. Another strike, however (the Montreal men felt they should be paid more for working in Sorel), caused the owners to move the steamer back to Montreal where it floated in this city’s harbour for the winter of 1902-1903.
The day following the fire, The Montreal Star reported that the blaze made a “splendid spectacle”. Writing of the ship, which was insured for $400,000, the account continued: “Her fine proportions showed up as if in gorgeous tints on the blackness of the night; her smoke stacks, white with the heat, stood, tall and erect, in the midst of the fiery mass, and at the top a wisp of dark coloured smoke curled lazily upward and floated slowly away into the darkness.”
“The glare lit up the city and showed thousands along the waterfront watching the progress of the fire; it shone out over the ice and on the shed where, warm and comfortable, spectators who had gained their position after great exertions, gazed upon the scene.”
Montreal Fire Chief Zephirin Benoit commented the following evening that the ‘Montreal’ was doomed “before the firemen ever reached the scene” and that the only thing left to do “was to save the sheds of the Allan Steamship Company” from destruction as well. Indeed, those sheds before the night was over would provide yet another element to the tragedy of that evening.
Along the west side of the Alexandra wharf, there were no fewer than four freight sheds to be climbed upon for a superior view of the spectacular fire which raged in the Montreal harbour. Police attempted to control the crowd -composed of mostly boys and young men- but without success as they seemingly all headed to one shed in particular. The one-storey unclad structure was owned by the Allan Line and stood only about a hundred feet from the burning vessel, itself about 1500 feet from the nearest spot accessible to the fire engines. “They seemed to be mad,” said Constable J. E. Huot of 109 Panet Street. “I tried my best to keep the people from getting on the shed, but it was no use. They were bound to get on it.” The officer continued, almost lamenting, “I did not take to club them for if I had the accident would not have, perhaps, happened, but I should have been hauled over the coals for using a club. So, there you are!”
The fire raged fiercely out of control. There were, in 1903, no hydrants on the wharves of the Port of Montreal. Further aggravating any attempt to deal with the violent inferno was the unfortunate fact that, it being the weekend, the gates which separated the harbour from Commissioner Street were locked shut. Despite this fact, even more individuals climbed over them and headed for the roof of that one same structure, which was known as the “Glasgow shed”. Onto it they ascended, jostling with one another for the best possible view. Finally, at the end, a veritable throng stood on the top of that one building – never constructed to endure such a charge.
The accident to which Constable Huot had eluded finally occurred around 9:45 P.M. when suddenly, very suddenly, it was noticed that the greatly over-burdened structure began to sway. Many attempted to scramble to safety but it was too late. The shed first tottered and within seconds collapsed like a house of cards. The disintegration started with the truss at the southeastern corner of the building and then spread to all of the rafters which in unison gave way. At the last, there was an ominous crash as gravity claimed its prize. It was surely a very terrifying moment for all involved.
Amidst the debris, there was human carnage beyond imagination. Moans, groans and shrieks could be heard throughout the site as those conscious and with only minor injuries tried to extricate themselves from the pile of wreckage which once composed the Allan Freight Shed. The Gazette reported that “a panic ensued. The big crowd settled back, those around the shed yelled, but many inside were silent, not dead, but insensible, with the beams across their chest.”
An eyewitness – a student from McGill – later recorded his observations. “I was attracted to the fire and had made my way out on to the tongue-like pier which juts out into the St. Lawrence. I noticed about 300 people squatting on the skeleton roof of the shed, and thought at the time some of them would get a tumble because the frame was not sheeted and lacked therefore the proper strength. Still I only thought a few of the spars would break. What did happen was this. The crowd was trying to work down to the end near the burning ship, when the ridge beam gave way. The end wall supporting the whole of the long roof bulged out.”
The enormous effort to assist people was a joint one. Doctors, the military (army) medical corps, medical students, police all streamed to the catastrophic scene as rapidly as possible. It was quickly realized that the four ambulances and handful of doctors initially dispatched to the dire site were woefully inadequate faced with the enormity of the mishap. A second call was made and 25 more physicians were sent to the harbour while police wagons and cabs were requisitioned to serve as ambulances. Some of the unfortunates were attended to at the scene while others were rushed to one of three Montreal hospitals: the Royal Victoria, the General (then at the intersection of Dorchester and St. Dominque), or Notre Dame, at that time located on Notre Dame, near Berri. Only one individual – Philias Paquin of 52 Dominion avenue – was taken with a fractured arm to the Western Hospital at the corner of Atwater and Dorchester.
One of the first horse-drawn ambulances and its heavy charge heading out to Notre Dame Hospital quickly broke down on the hill on Bonsecour street and the vehicle began to slide backward. Fortunately for its endangered human cargo, a large crowd of students was nearby. They immediately freed the horse from the ambulance and, with much energy and exertion, pulled and pushed the cart all the way to the hospital. It was not the first nor the last act of heroism that evening! There were, of course, the doctors and nurses about whom much could be written.
Below, Montreal General Hospital Ambulance, 1890
It was only logical that Notre Dame Hospital, being the closest of the three to the scene of the calamity, receive the greatest number of victims. They were also perhaps the best prepared in the sense that one of their doctors – H. A. Maillet – had actually witnessed the collapse of the shed and quickly alerted his hospital. It was, therefore, not long before the horse drawn ambulances began to arrive at that institution. Many individuals, after minor repairs, left the facility before their name and address (for billing purposes?) could be recorded. Others, many others, because of the gravity of their injuries were forced to stay. A total of 48 patients were cared for that unhappy evening by Doctors Fleury, St. Pierre, Ouimet, Leduc, Derome, and Beauchamp. The latter had divided themselves into two groups, one serving as a kind of triage while the other worked in the operating room. Dr. F. A. Fleury commented the next day: “In all we had seventeen medical practitioners at work, including those who came into assist us from outside. There were also a large number of medical students who rendered valuable assistance………The situation was complicated a good deal by the difficulty in getting the injured transported to the ambulance. When the patients were taken from the collapsed shed, they had to be carried across the railway track to the revetment wall and then handed over.” In short, people worked very hard that evening.
The situation at the General Hospital was little different. One newspaper reported that the staff worked “like Trojans” all night and the following day to attend to the needs of their many suddenly-arrived patients, everything possible being done to relieve their suffering. It was, however, at the General where the only death resulting from the horrible event took place. Nicola Fiorillo, ironically who had just arrived in Montreal from Italy, died from massive head injuries shortly after his admittance to the hospital.
The General Hospital also experienced the disaster in another sense. Three of its doctors were dispatched to the port to assist in any way they could as a result of the fire. They arrived well before the collapse of the shed. All three doctors were standing near the entrance to it, commenting to one another about the possible danger with so many people gathered on the roof. As someone led them to believe that an injured person was awaiting assistance inside the doomed structure, they gingerly entered it. At that very moment, the trusses gave way. Dr. Simpson being the last of the three was able to spring clear of the debris but Doctors Turner and Wray were struck, the former on the head and the latter on the leg. Both fortunately later recovered.
The Royal Victoria Hospital received six injured individuals, two of whom were in critical condition both suffering from severe spinal injuries. Several other patients willing gave up their beds in order to facilitate the comfort of the five men and one boy who were brought to the doors of that institution.
It is interesting to note that in those somewhat sectarian days no effort at all was made to sort the injured according to their language or religion. Therefore, many English-speaking Protestants were treated at Notre Dame Hospital and an equal number of French-speaking Catholics were received at the General and the Royal Victoria Hospital. No one apparently complained!
Quite naturally, the fire eventually burnt itself out. The next morning – Sunday – thousands of Montrealers streamed to the site to see the charred wreckage of the once magnificent vessel and the collapsed ruins of the now infamous shed. All day long they kept coming to stare at what remained of the double tragedy. The ship itself had been scheduled to be in service between Montreal and Quebec on June 1. Gazing at what remained of it, it seemed hard to believe. The Gazette reported: “Her two yellowish funnels stood high up in the air, but nothing was to be seen of the three decks. What was left seemed to be iron and steel, twisted into fantastic shapes. The steamer looked like a big platform, with a cutwater under it.”
The cause of the fire remained a mystery although there were, according to Chief Benoit, as many as 69 painters working on ‘The Montreal’ that very day. Fresh oil-based paint would have contributed greatly to the rapidity with which the flames spread, he argued.
The three Montreal dailies of the time –The Star, The Gazette, La Presse– all seemed to put their own spin on the dreadful event. The Gazette interpreted the conflagration as “a warning”. “Had the wind been blowing towards the city instead of down the river, several craft in the neighbourhood of “The Montreal” would probably also fallen a prey to the flames. Had it been summer much property on the wharves would have been imperilled.” The Star argued for the need of fire hydrants on harbour property with the belief that the ones on Commissioners street were just too far away (especially when the gates to the port were locked!) from the scene of the fire. La Presse powerfully headlined the event “EFFROYABLE CATASTROPHE” and, unlike the other two newspapers, they published in their March 9 edition photos of at least eighteen of the victims. All three dailies did publish extensive lists of the injured and the hospital to which they had been sent. These rolls varied ever so slightly, although La Presse did include five or six names more than the other two newspapers.
This ghastly occurrence was unlike any other in this city’s history. It taught many lessons with regard to fire fighting in general and security at the Port of Montreal in particular. Had this event taken place in the dryness of a breezy August night, there is no telling what might have happened. It also educated us somewhat about the paramount importance in a situation of this nature of crowd control. Again, had an efficient and effective system been in place, one life and many injuries may have avoided.
Finally, in researching this article, I had hoped to come upon a photo of this vessel which I could have shared with the readers. Unfortunately, I was not successful. If anyone has any suggestion as to where one might be found, I would be very interested in hearing from them.
Nicola Fiorillo, age 20, died an hour after arrival at the General Hospital
George Thornley, 710 William street
Emile Sauve, 32 years of age, 476 St. Andre street
Leo St. Germain, 27 years of age, 7 Wolfe street
John O’Sullivan, 104 Prince street
James M. Waugh, Pointe St. Charles
Harold Thomas, 12 years of age, address unknown
James Maloney, 334 St. Antoine street
William Bennett, 46 Montcalm street
Max Rutenberg, 45 St. Urbain
Joseph Raymond, 28 Marie Louise street (photo)
John Platt, 3 Mitcheson avenue
John Farrell, 901 St. Catherine
D. Madden, 94 Dorchester
Dominque Marrott, deMontigny street
Albert Olsen, 22 Albert street
George Dozois, 217 City Hall avenue
Colin Campbell, 297 1/2 St. Urbain
Leon Adler, 55 Roy ( first name reported as “Lucien”)
Joe Verner, 536 City Hall avenue
Frank Dufresne, 82b Visitation
Edmond Delfosse, 305 St. Hubert street (photo)
Joseph C. Wray, St. Dominique street (photo)
Russell Brown, 1002 Sherbrooke street
Emil Charest, 668 Dorchester street (photo)
Arthur Bulley, 159 St. Urbain street
Samuel McBride, 84 St. George street
C. H. Massiah, 21 Argyle street
W. Lunan, 107 Mitcheson avenue
Maxime St. Louis, 441 City Hall avenue
W. Flanigan, 52 Shannon street (photo)
Edmund Burne, 141 St. Dominique street
S. Fleet, 43a Champlain street
Robert Douglas, Blue Bonnets
J. M.Nicholson, Blue Bonnets
Joseph Caisse, 107 St. Hubert street
Grant Gordon, 3566 Notre Dame
Arthur Philion, 106 St. Hubert street
Leonil Sicotte, 36 Shuter street
Charles Laurent, 398 St. Christophe
Pullus Reiter, 140 Bernard street,
Henri Cinq Mars, 83 Vinet street, Ste. Cunegonde
Edouard Lamoignan, 1327a Notre Dame (photo)
Gustave Fauteux, 21 Emery street
William Cotton, St. Paul street
Alderic Sarazin, 231 Quesnel street, Ste. Cunegonde
Thomas Finn, 8 Richmond Square
David Dufault, 168 Sanguinet
Isaac Archorvietch (probably “Archovitch”) 659 Dorchester (photo)
Ernest Choquette, 872 St. Andre
Daniel Alexander, 40 St. Paul
Philias Beaudoin, 67 St. Sulpice (photo)
Ross Brown, Sherbrooke street
Theophile Faucher, captain no. 2 fire station, St. Gabriel street (photo)
Joseph Jeannette, 266b Montcalm street (photo)
Telesphore Tremblay, 47 St. Dominique
Albert Desormeau, Cote des Neiges
Samuel LeHuquet, police constable, 23 Cathcart street (photo)
Alphonse Gamache, Panet street
James Kelly, 104 Dorion
Adelard Lesperance, 687 St. Catherine
Henri Auger, 43 Sanguinet
Antoine Genoie, 67 Champs de Mars
Joseph Ruelle, 63 St. Antoine
Willie Amyot, 549 St. Patrick