Ottawa’s Great Fire of 1900 – Another Close Call for what is now the Glebe Annex

By Sue Stefko
(Appeared in the Glebe Report, May 2018)

An earlier article explained how what is now the Glebe Annex area was spared the great fire of 1870. (In essence, the waters of Dow’s Lake were allowed to flow to the Ottawa River at Preston St., creating a moat type of effect, helping to stop the fire’s expansion eastward. This spared our community and heart of the city 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 managed to be held along Booth St. (then Division St), just one block from our current neighbourhood.

The fire started as many fires of the day did – by a spark from a chimney that landed on wooden roof shingles. This time, it started at about 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 29th, on a house near the business district of Hull – a house packed tightly next to other wooden buildings. The game changer this time, however, was a strong northerly wind, which fanned the flames from one roof to another, quickly spreading the fire. It soon became apparent that the fire exceeded the capacity of the Hull Fire Department, which called for help from the Ottawa Fire Department. Understanding that this was a chimney fire, the Ottawa department at first displayed little concern – having already successfully dealt with more than 60 chimney fires since January that year. However, it soon became clear to all 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 were blown across the Ottawa river by the strong winds, landing 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 railways station, and dozens of industrial establishments were burned to the ground in a howling inferno – obliterating the whole industrial section of west Ottawa and plunging Ottawa into darkness for days. (In fact, two industrial buildings survived – Bronson and Weston Carbide Works, which was sheathed in sheet metal, and ironically the J.R Booth saw mill, which had its own water pumping system. This, combined with the efforts of Booth’s employees, saved the saw mills, 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. In fact, the well-known but by this time ageing ‘Conqueror,’ Ottawa’s steam-powered fire engine, was one of the pieces of equipment 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 out 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’ tactic, passing buckets to each other along the chain to throw water on homes on the east side of the street. This, combined with the cliff that functioned as a fire break at Nanny Goat Hill, and a fortunate 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.

As it was, by these efforts, and by the luck of weather, the great fire was pushed back towards areas it had already engulfed, running out of fuel, and burning itself out by midnight. While our community was spared, all around, there was devastation. 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 began to flow in from across Canada as well as Great Britain, the United States, France, Chile and other British colonies. By the end of the year a massive rebuilding campaign was started, and more than 750 new homes were rebuilt in the area – only to be burned to ash once again just 3 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, as well. Perhaps the Glebe Annex should adopt a new slogan – “The land that fire forgot,” or perhaps, “Narrowly avoiding disaster since 1870.”

 

Photo: The map shows the areas that were devastated by the Great Fire of 1900 in both Ottawa and Hull. Source: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-028177 (not in copyright)

 

Photo: The view of the devastation from Somerset Street, just a few blocks north of our neighbourhood, looking south. Source: Souvenir Photo Views of the Big Fire, Ottawa & Hull, April 26th 1900 (not in copyright)

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