Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Hintonburg & The Great Ottawa-Hull Fire of 1900

Thursday April 26th, 1900 was one of the most significant days in Ottawa's history. On that day, the entire city was nearly wiped out by fire. What began as a small fire in a chimney in Hull resulted in an inferno that quickly caused devastation on both sides of the River. Devastation which could have been way worse, especially for Hintonburg, had it not been for a little luck. Actually a lot of luck.

The fire began in the late morning, as a chilled resident of a flimsy wooden shack on the outskirts of Hull stoked a fire for his home. Within minutes the stovepipes became overheated and set fire to the roof of the tiny dwelling.  Fanned intro an uncontrollable fury by extreme winds which had picked up suddenly, the fire ignited an adjacent home. Before noon the entire business district of Hull was engulfed. Citizens and firefighters fought the flames, but to no avail. By 1 p.m. the E.B. Eddy plant and Hull Lumber Company were ablaze, and the fire had leaped the Ottawa River at the Chaudiere Falls to ignite a stable on the Ottawa side of the river. Within seconds two lumber yards were alight and the entire City of Ottawa was severely threatened. The battle to save Hull was abandoned, and all available hands fought to control the blaze in Ottawa. Emergency calls for assistance had been sent out to all points as far as Toronto, Montreal and Brockville, but with the numerous lumber piles situated throughout LeBreton Flats and Rochesterville, the fire could not be stopped, and in fact grew to monstrous proportions. The fire moved so quickly, citizens were unable to save any belongings. Virtually the entirety of the LeBreton Flats and Preston Street neighbourhoods areas were completely burnt out all the way south to Carling Avenue by dusk.

Speaking of the Preston Street community specifically (then known as "Rochesterville"), the Journal wrote: "The fire broke out in different sections of this district, almost at the same time, early in the afternoon, and swept with great rapidity in a south-westerly direction. Once it got into the entirely wooded district, lying south of Somerset street, the clean sweep was made with awful rapidity. Once the fire appeared to be coming in that direction, nearly all the residents tried to pack their effects. The streets soon became a confused mass of household effects, rigs of all kinds and goods of every description. Many farmers had come in from the country to assist in drawing effects away, but numerous and all as the rigs were the percent of those who got their stuff removed to places of safety was very small. In most cases it appeared to be either that effects must be burned in the house or in the street and not strangely it was in the latter that the great quantity of effects was destroyed. Residents who knew that there was not a shadow of a chance to get their goods removed to a place of safety, hurriedly packed up everything they had and dumped it into the street. Their work simply meant that they were kept busy and had something to do. Not to stand around idly seemed to be the main idea, even if the work done counted for naught."

The Citizen added "in the section lying south of Somerset and west of Division Street (Booth) an entirely frame district, the flames cleaned everything out until it presents the appearance of a barren field. There is actually not a stick standing in this whole latter area extending three-quarters of a mile southerly and half a mile westerly."

A view south of Somerset, looking towards Hull
(source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN  3363983)

Queen Street looking west during the fire
(source: LAC, MIKAN 3193237)

View of the fire from downtown  
(Source: LAC, MIKAN 3246703)

In the end, there were miraculously only seven deaths reported due to the fire (though others would pass away due to illness and disease from their homelessness and crude accommodations after the fire), A total of 15,000 were left homeless, and there was a total of $6.2M in property losses in Ottawa, plus an additional $3.3M in Hull. Aid from throughout the world poured in, resulting in $957,000 received. Both Ottawa and Hull were left smoking and scarred, the scene which must have compared to a world war bombing.

A plan showing the entire burnt-out area of Hull and Ottawa can be seen below. (For a better look, you can view it at the LAC website at

Source: LAC website

For weeks following the fire, temporary homeless shelters were established in the Cartier Square Drill Hall and at Lansdowne Park. These shelters were organized operations, serving meals and providing a safe place to stay while new accommodations could be found (or constructed).

While the story of the Great Ottawa-Hull Fire is well documented, and I have just covered the basics here to introduce the story, I chose a couple of notes from the newspapers the week of the fire, which really illustrated the horror of the event:

"Last night presented scenes of desolation and pathetic pictures that are simply indescribable. Old men and women, young men and women and children sat alone, or perhaps in hundreds of small groups, with a few chairs, bundles and a scanty lot of household goods around them. It was all they had in the world. One white-haired old lady in widow's clothes with a fine face sat in a chair beside a few little bundles of goods. She might have been sitting in church for all the story that her face told. There was a look on that old lady's face that caused a dozen people to stop, gaze at her and pass, within the minutes that a Journal representative was near. Another old woman sat alone on the sidewalk with a quilt wrapped around her and a man's hat pulled down over her eyes. She was the picture of despair."

"The waterworks lot on the south side of Somerset street, between Lyon and Bay streets furnished a camping ground for a great many last night. There were hundreds who moved their effects to this spot, and it was simply littered with goods. Scores camped out on the lot last night to watch their effects."

"Sleep, which is generally a temporary relief to all ills, always has an end, and morning found the homeless face to face again with their troubles. There was a general rising shortly after six o'clock, a scramble for the wash basins, and faces in a short time looking as much brighter as plenty of soap and water would make them. Everybody lent a hand to help carry the mattresses and blankets outside, where they were left during the day to air. Mothers hurried about trying to separate their children from the general throng in order that the family might have breakfast together if possible. There were many touching scenes among the little groups around the tables, and there were many eyes that showed traces of tears, both among fathers and mothers, as they thought possibly of the last Sunday morning breakfast, when they had a home. There were plenty of willing hands to help wait on tables, wash dishes, and make tea and coffee. The needy ones appear to help themselves as far as possible. Like the all day restaurant, it was very much a case of meals at all hours. There were those who were not averse to spending the night with poor friends, but those who did not want to saddle them with their keep and who dropped into one or the other of the relief stations for meals."

While central Ottawa escaped disaster thanks to the natural cliffs and ridges east of Booth Street (Nannygoat Hill, etc.), Hintonburg on the west escaped for two reasons. Firstly, the direction of the wind had changed by late afternoon, and did not blow to the west. It's intensity had also died down. But perhaps most importantly, the Canadian Pacific and Canadian Atlantic Railway tracks which ran where the O-Train route runs now, created a fire break which prevented the flames from easily jumping along.

It is likely that day that Hintonburg residents were out in full force near the edge of the train tracks, ready with water pails in hand to control any flying embers or cinders which may land on any of the primarily wood-framed houses along the eastern border of the village. The residents for the most part were successful.

Lost in the fire that day was the wooden Somerset Street bridge, which existed where it does now. Everything on the east side of the bridge was burnt and it was likely unavoidable that the fire would latch on to the bridge as well. It is impressive that the fire which came over did not spread.

J.R. Booth kept large lumber piles alongside the east side of the CP Rail tracks as far south as the Ottawa & Parry Sound Railway tracks (now the Queensway), while the west side of the tracks (the Hintonburg side) was more or less vacant ground to Bayswater or beyond. While this would prove to be positive for the Hintonburg neighbourhood, Booth's wood piles (the enormity is best demonstrated through this fire insurance plan from 1895 shown below) helped fuel the fire in Rochesterville.

1895 Fire Insurance Plan showing the Booth wood piles on the east
side of the CPR tracks (Preston running along the bottom, and
"Cedar" at right is now better known as Somerset). Everything
shown in this plan was lost to the fire.

Initial rumors that circulated in Ottawa held it that Hintonburg had been burned to the ground. The thick smoke that blanketed the City throughout the evening into the darkness of the night, combined with the loss of all electricity and electrical light meant that Hintonburg's status was a question mark until the morning. The village was even cut off from Ottawa with the loss of the Somerset bridge!

Here is a bit of the (limited) newspaper coverage related to Hintonburg from the local papers the following day:

Ottawa Journal - April 27, 1900

Ottawa Citizen - April 27, 1900

Ottawa Citizen - April 27, 1900

Ottawa Citizen - April 27, 1900

The rumor mill was rampant that day, in all the confusion, and in fact Hintonburg was not lost altogether, the Oliver & Son furniture factory was saved, and even the Mason mill on Fourth Street (Bayswater) did not lose any lumber to the fire.

In all, only four houses in Hintonburg were lost, all at the south end of the subdivision on Fourth Street (now Bayswater). It was likely due to burning timbers being blown through the air from Booth's piles which resulted in these isolated fires. These were the only houses on Bayswater in the area of what is now Gladstone. The houses were owned and occupied by yeoman George Rochester (lot 27, now the site of 142-144 Bayswater), builder David Cuthbertson (lot 28, now the site of 146 Bayswater), culler John F. Kennedy (lot 34, now 168 Bayswater), and shipper James Campbell (lot 38, now the site of the slow lanes of the westbound 417). See the map I labelled below for more info on the Hintonburg homes lost during the Great Fire of 1900:

1912 Fire Insurance Plan view of the Oliver & Sons factory
site on the south-east corner of Gladstone & Loretta (at this
time the Oliver factory was the east end of Gladstone, it was
 cut off at the tracks, while it ran no further than Bayswater
to the west)

Hintonburg was thankfully spared, and other than some relatively minor inconveniences for a few weeks following the fire, the village was preserved.

Ottawa Citizen - May 5, 1900

George Mason's lumber mill was located at the north-west corner of what is now Bayswater and Somerset Street. He did a fantastic business following the fire, for many Ottawans wished to rebuild as quickly as possible. Within days new homes were springing up in the fire swept neighbourhoods.

Ottawa Journal - May 1, 1900

Ottawa Journal - May 2, 1900

The affect of the fire to Hintonburg was less felt during the fire itself, but more so in how the village developed afterwards. Following the fire the Somerset Street bridge was rebuilt as one of the top priorities for the city. Not only was it really the only access to the west from central Ottawa, but street car service to Holland Avenue relied on this access point; the new Britannia line extension down what is now Byron Avenue was scheduled to open in May (indeed the first car to Britannia ran on May 24th, less than a month after the fire).

Hintonburg grew in population substantially as many of the displaced Rochesterville citizens took up residency in Hintonburg, sharing accommodations with existing villagers, or building new houses of their own with the insurance payouts. Businesses also prospered in light of the lost commerce in the Flats and Preston areas.

The fire also showed Ottawa that a second access point to the west was required, and immediately it planned construction of the new bridge over the Railway yards. This is better known now as the Bayview Bridge or Scott Street Bridge. (Editing this for posterity's sake... This was known as the Wellington Viaduct, completed in 1909, which directly extended Wellington Street east. See the photo below, but to get an idea of it's positioning, the City Centre tower was constructed immediately next to it. The viaduct remained in place until 1969, when it was demolished in favour of the new bridge connecting with Scott Street over Bayview - the bridge which we know today.) Below is the first evidence of the discussion towards this end, which did indeed soon after result in the construction of this bridge, in exactly where it was originally proposed in 1900. A second entrance point into Ottawa from the west! A positive development and legacy from a horrific event which came so very close to destroying Hintonburg and probably Mechanicsville as well, if the wind had just been blowing a little harder to the west, or if the railway tracks property had been less wide. A lucky day for Hintonburg for sure.

Ottawa Journal, June 1, 1900

The bridge over the rail yards years later.


  1. Dave- I am thoroughly enjoying your blog. Thank you!

    1. Thanks very much Catherine! I appreciate the feedback. All the great comments I receive helps fuel me to continue on. Thanks for reading!

  2. Great post Dave! A couple of observations. The new bridge was actually the Wellington Street bridge, which was south of the current Scott Street/Bayview bridge. It was directly aligned on Wellington Street. An other impact of the fire on Hintonburg was the migration of many French-speaking residents of Hull to the neighbourhood, changing it from a predominantly English speaking one to one with a large French speaking population. This had a lasting effect. As late as the 1951 Census, 65% of residents of Hintonburg claimed French as their mother tongue.

    1. hi Paul. Thanks so much for your comments. Your point about the influx of Hull residents is a really interesting one, that I hadn't considered. Excellent point. I would have to guess that the area appealed so much to Hull residents as they were both very similar communities at that point - even the layout of streets, and the construction to the curb matches the Hull style.

      As for the bridge, you're right there too, and I made a mental note after posting the original article that I wanted to go back and clarify my comments about the bridge. The original Wellington Bridge/Viaduct indeed was more south of the current bridge, and existed until 1969, when it was replaced with the new Scott Street bridge. I'm guilty of being poorly incomplete in that last paragraph. Thanks again for taking the time to add these great comments. Cheers!