Published in the Westmount Examiner on November 19, 2009
A recent visit to an antiquarian book show led to an intriguing find. Stashed in among a collection of vintage post cards were three black and white photos taken after a long-ago winter fire. I stared at them intently, wondering where and when the massive conflagration took place.
All three images depict the near-total ruins of several buildings encased heavily in ice. Several people can be seen standing about, seemingly satisfying their curiosity through their presence.
One photo, and only one photo, provides some clues as to the possible location of the blaze. On it, amidst the abundant verglas, can be seen several words – ‘Goulden and Casey, Sherbrooke W., Melrose 930’. With this limited information, I decided to play my own version of history detective and conduct a search into the precise whereabouts of this fire. The starting point for me was obvious.
Lovell’s Street Directories of the City of Montreal and surrounding suburbs are now available on – line. They usually can provide a wealth of information in any local history investigation. These records start in 1842 and continue virtually uninterrupted into contemporary times. Judging from the winter dress of the handful of people seen standing around in the photos, I decided to start my search at 1915 and, by so doing, I quickly learned of the existence of a Goulden & Casey Pharmacy at several different sites within the confines of Montreal.
Furthermore, Bell Canada’s telephone directories are available in microfilm form at the Quebec Archives on Viger Square. They helped me pin down the exact location of the building in question. The January 1922 edition held an entry for Goulden and Casey at 5628 Sherbrooke West (the old civic address). The reported telephone number was Melrose 930. The same listing was no longer found in the July 1922 publication (there being two annual editions of Bell Canada’s directories in those days). Clearly, the fire took place during the first three months of 1922.
Somewhat excited at my relatively rapid progress in learning more about the blaze, I decided to begin a day-by-day search through the microfilmed copies of the old and now-defunct Montreal Star. A conflagration of such magnitude would surely have been a significant news story, I reasoned.
My quest did not require too much effort before coming to a dramatic dénouement. Totally unexpectedly, it also proved to be quite tragic.
The Monday, January 23, 1922, edition of the Montreal Star (and all local newspapers, for that matter) reported about a blaze that completely engulfed the Harvard and Vimy Apartment blocks in the very heart of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Newspaper reports put the damage at between $250,000 and $400,000 in money of the day. Much more important, two firemen were killed in fighting the blaze when a wall fell upon them. Another four were injured, illustrating once again the dangers of the profession.
Dead were Lieutenant Napoleon Desloges, 33, and Fireman Louis Paul Presseau, both of Station 34. They were accorded a civic funeral a few days later. A Requiem Mass was sung at St. James Basilica (today, Mary Queen of the World) on Dorchester Street in the city centre and a funeral procession snaked through the streets of a grieving metropolis. Yet a bigger surprise came just a while later.
The three photos reflected a fire of great destruction. In fact, only the shells of the buildings destroyed remained standing. Demolition would have seemed inevitable.
However, when, a few days ago, this particular history detective decided to check out the intersection in question (Harvard and Sherbrooke), I was astonished to observe that the surviving facades were completely re-integrated into the structures fashioned to restore those ruined by the blaze, which took place all those years ago!
Below, the restored building as it appeared in the autumn of 2009