Opinion Editorial

Pembroke's great fire of 1918: 'A sorry sight'

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

The station captain wearily reached for the ringing telephone. The firefighter was done work for the day and just wanted to go home for supper. Whatever the emergency, he thought, the evening shift could handle it.

"The stables are on fire!" the panicked voice at the other end shouted. "For God's sake come quick."

Within minutes, the Pembroke fire brigade was speeding downtown with their equipment. Already a thick black column of smoke was billowing from Laundriault's Livery barns on Prince Street. They had no time to contain it. Flames leapt to an adjoining office building and then the department store of Bernard Legacy and Company. If the firefighters and ordinary citizens didn't act quickly the entire town could have gone up in flames on the night of June 18, 1918.

The fire was first spotted at around 6:30 p. m. by a night watchman named Godin. He raced to the nearest telephone and called the fire brigade, which arrived within minutes. While it's generally agreed the blaze originated in Landriault's Livery, some claimed it started in the alley behind Dr. G. H. Bellaire's office. As flames climbed the stable walls, a small band of volunteers freed the horses, who were initially reluctant to leave their pens. They finally stampeded into the street as the stable went up like a tinderbox.

The inferno quickly spread across Prince Street to Pink's Garage and the Woolworth's department store in the O'Kelly Block. Sparks ignited the roof of Legacy's Store and homes in the Thackeray Block. Residents began fleeing, carrying what they could on their backs. Others stood in the middle of Pembroke Street in a hysterical state. The fire tore through building after building on both sides of the main street. The O'Kelly, Legacy and Thibodeau blocks were razed to the ground within the hour.

So many hallmarks of the downtown business core were lost in the opening moments of the conflagration.

Gone were Dunlop's Hardware Store, Bremner's ladies tailoring parlours, the Paris Café, the Clark and Andrews Harness Shop, Irwin's Drug Store, Ringrose's Print Shop, Beal's Marble Works, Jewell and Brunette's

gents' furnishings and Lance's Shining Parlour. The worst casualties were Pembroke's prestigious opera house, the Casino Theatre, and the Royal Bank.

The immediate concern for the firefighters, however, was keeping the blaze from engulfing the entire downtown, especially as flames drew nearer to the Pembroke lumber yards and the Thomas Pink munitions factory. If they went up, the two factories' combustible elements would have been like pouring gasoline on the fire (the munitions factory was situated on Lake Street and still in production for the European war effort).

The weather was working against the fire brigade. A northwest gale had blown up, fanning the flames further. The fire jumped Pembroke Street and began consuming buildings along Moffat and Renfrew streets. The biggest danger here was not only to the residential neighbourhoods but several churches including Calvin Presbyterian, the Bishop's Palace and St. Columba's Cathedral (today known as St. Columbkille's). Here's how the Ottawa Valley Advocate described the scene:

"The hazard was very great and for a time it seemed as if these splendid structures, standing as sentinels on the hill above the seething furnace, were doomed. The large, wide-spreading shade trees in front of the churches and the Convent undoubtedly were largely responsible for the saving of these buildings by preventing the great heat from reaching the woodwork."

The belfry tower at Calvin caught fire but quick thinking saved the church. Forming a line, parishioners poured buckets of water on the belfry, dousing the flames within minutes. Assessing the fury of the inferno, Mayor W. R. Beatty called in help from other towns. Renfrew dispatched 25 men on the evening team, even loading a boxcar with a steamer to pump water.

The fire brigade's progress was being impeded by the throng of spectators who flocked to the downtown to see the spectacle. Automobiles and horse-drawn carriages blocked the way for some fire crews to move from building to building. This prompted Colonel Mackie, the Member of Parliament, to call the Militia Department, which sent a contingent of soldiers from Camp Petawawa to control the crowd and maintain order. During the night, the soldiers patrolled the area to intercept looters.

By 10 p. m., the blaze was under control. At least 28 buildings were diminished to smouldering ruin. Forty families were homeless. While rumours ran wild that two women burned to death, remarkably there were no fatalities or injuries. The Advocate noted:

"The devastated area presented a sorry sight. A fine commercial section, where but a few hours before business went on briskly and everyone seemed prosperous, was a mass of ruins, reminding one of the pictures frequently seen of devastated towns in France."

The morning after, smoke was still rising from smouldering heaps of rubble as embers flamed out. Soldiers erected 50 marquee tents to shelter the homeless. Elsewhere, men from the Pembroke Electric Company worked feverishly to restore power, telephone and telegraph wires.

The fire levelled every building within two city blocks, namely the block between Prince and Alexander streets and the block bordered by Renfrew, Moffat and Isabella streets (a few walls of the Thackery block remained tentatively standing). Buildings north of Lake Street and west of Alexander were severely damaged. Surprisingly, the fire could have spread further west of Moffat Street and reached Isabella and Mary Streets had it not be blocked by the large brick buildings that it did consume. In its path was the Hotel Pembroke and all its guests. Similarly, brick structures prevented the fire from breaking out east and striking Albert and Victoria streets.

Damages were estimated well over $400,000.The town's fathers made up a relief committee. A probe into the catastrophe was launched and within weeks an inquiry was convened by the fire marshal, William Pointon. While officials professed it seemed likely the fire was an accident, the widespread belief was that it may have been deliberately set. Testimony centred on the two night watchmen who were in the area of Laundriault's Livery prior to the fire.

Godin, the one who had raised the alarm, told the inquest he had been called away from his post by a fellow watchman named Donegan. Donegan excitedly told Godin "come and see what I have done." They went into a room where a resin vat was brewing (resin is traditionally used in varnishes, perfume and other chemicals. It was often prepared using distillation). When they entered the room, Godin noticed the resin was running down the side of the vat. He claimed it then burst into flames.

The inquest heard a conflicting account from James Fraser, who lived near the munitions factory. He saw the fire sparking from behind the livery, but said it had been started by an incendiary device. He didn't expand on what he meant. It should be noted that other fires struck in the town during this time, however, this one eclipsed them all.

To this day, it remains inconclusive how Pembroke's greatest disaster started on a windy spring night 90 years ago. Had it not been for brick and mortar, the fire could very well have redrawn the map and changed the course of the city's history.

schase@thedailyobserver.caNext week: The first electric

light shone early in Pembroke.

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