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Manitoba Hotel fire — smoke and flames originally observed in the hotel’s grand dining room
Mar 12, 2010

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

By two o’clock in the morning of February 8, 1899, fire had consumed the Manitoba Hotel from its north to south corners as flames leapt tens of metres into the air.

According to the testimony of some witnesses at the fire commission inquiry, the fire originated near a grate in the hotel’s grand dining room, which was 90 feet long, 50 feet wide and had a 26-foot ceiling. Just after retiring to his room at 10:45 p.m. on February 7, F.W. Sprado, the Manitoba Hotel manager, told the inquiry he was aroused by a night clerk who told him there was smoke coming up the east side of the corridor.

Sprado went to the second-floor grand dining room and saw a small fire burning in the grate. When he looked up the ventilation shaft, he saw sparks rising. Sprado and the night clerk, named Johnson — Johnson was not available for questioning at the inquiry because he immediately left for Vancouver after the fire — got out the hotel’s “small” fire hose. 

After instructing Johnson to direct water onto the fire, Sprado left for his room to call the fire department. The operator told Sprado a call had already been received (newspapers reported the first alarm was received nearly an hour after Sprado said he observed the small fire). He then gathered his wife and family and proceeded to the top stories in succession and down the back stairway, along the way warning other guests in the vicinity that they had to leave the building. As he warned the other guests, fire alarms were ringing and the fire brigade had arrived on the scene.

Sprado reported that he returned to the dining room which was by then filled with smoke and visible flames.

When specifically asked if he had formed an opinion about the origin of the fire, Sprado replied: “My  opinion is that it originated in the grate and by the fire passing through the floor of the grate.”

Sprado had a slightly different theory for the origin of the fire for a Morning Telegram reporter a day after the fire. He told the reporter, his theory was that the heat from the open fireplace in the dining room ignited a beam beneath the tiling and the flames crept along the beam until reaching the ventilation shaft. Once in the shaft, the fire was forced by an updraft to the upper floors and eventually got out of control.

During the subsequent inquiry into the fire, Sprado denied speaking to any reporters about the fire.

When he first noticed the fire, Sprado told the inquiry he “could have taken it out in my hands,” which implied that he did not think the fire was a serious threat. 

Some witnesses alluded to a vacant space or a mysterious “dark room” above the dining room covered by a wooden trap door leading to the upper floors that may have originally contained the fire while hiding it from view for a lengthy period of time. The vacant space held plenty of oxygen for a smouldering fire to feed on to the point of explosive ignition, allowing the fire to rapidly spread to the floors above.

James Sutherland, a plumber, told the inquiry into the Manitoba Hotel fire that the “dark room” had a depth of about nine to 10 feet (approximately three metres) with a floor of wood and pieces of brick, and a trap door lacking a covering of iron or tin to prevent the flames from reaching the upper floors of the hotel.

Sutherland testified the floor of the “dark room” was made of wood upon which was scattered mortar and pieces of brick.

William Carter, a foreman for the contractors Murray & Co. involved in the hotel’s construction, testified that there was  a false wall in the east side of the dining room. Around the fireplace was a space of about 12.7 centimetres (five inches) between the plaster and brick. Carter told the inquiry the only barrier to the flames were flammable trusses and wooden braces between joists and an “ordinary” ceiling.

Under cross-examination, Carter said there was a series of truss works of wooden braces between the joists in the small room, by which fire could easily gain headway through the floor of the ceilings between the upper and lower surfaces.

James McDermid, who did the woodwork at the hotel, said the architect had ordered a false wall be built in order to straighten out the dining room and make it square.

Kenneth McKenzie, a guest in rooms 454 and 455 on the fourth floor, said he heard the fire alarm and went down to the dining room at 12:13 a.m. where he failed to see flames, but dense smoke was collecting and filling the room.

After some time, he went outside to Water Avenue and saw flames coming out the windows on the fourth and fifth floors. At this point, he concluded the building was doomed.

Andrew May, assistant engineer at the hotel, testified that about midnight he was making his rounds when the night watchman told him there was smoke in the building. He went to the dining room and examined the east-side grate, but no fire was visible, although he saw smoke arising from the floor tiles. 

May confirmed the presence of the “dark room,” but  added to the earlier testimony of witnesses by explaining that there was a vacant space of just over a metre above the dining room ceiling.

He said the whole lavatory shaft was encased in sheet iron without a break throughout, and the ventilator opened from the dining room to the “dark room,” but no other flue opened out. The only opening out was by the trap door above the fourth-storey lavatory, May added.

Hotel guest R.D. McPhail testified that he and the day clerk went to the fourth flat (room) and perceived the odour of smoke, but could see no smoke in the corridor to the lavatory. They went to the dining room, but there was no smoke visible. They then proceeded to the fourth flat and found a great deal of smoke. He and the clerk trained a hose — fire hoses were available on all seven storeys of the hotel — on the smoke and flames until the fire brigade arrived on the scene.

“During his time between his first and second visits to the fourth flat the fire seemed to gain very rapidly,” the Telegram reported, paraphrasing McPhail’s testimony. “The smoke seemed to accumulate all at once and the noise of the flames could be heard as though rapidly progressing.”

The flats mentioned in McPhail’s testimony were second-storey rooms used as living accommodations. The Manitoba Free Press on December 19, 1891, prior to the grand opening of the hotel on New Year’s Eve, described the layout of the upper floor. A “spacious” main corridor was used to reach the grand dining room. At the farthest end of the dining room was a stone mantle and fireplace. “In a corresponding position at the opposite end is a spacious orchestra balcony ... Opening off the grand dining room are two smaller dining rooms ... Passing along the main corridor again one comes to a door leading out on a balcony over the main  entrance ... There are similar balconies above this opening into the several flats.”

Thomas Leslie, who lived in the adjacent Assiniboine Block, said he was awakened by a fire engine passing and while looking out a window saw flames rising from the rear wall of the hotel at the southeast corner of the Water Avenue (now William Stephenson Way) side of the building.

J.G. Codville, who occupied rooms 304 and 305 on the third floor at the corner of Main and Water, told the inquiry he was in the sitting room when a little boy ran toward him and said there was smoke in the hotel. He went into the corridor and saw men training the “little” hotel hose through the balcony door into the dining room below which was full of smoke. The hose was soon abandoned and Codville shut the door to the balcony to prevent smoke from filling the corridor.

Captain William “Fighting Bill” Code of the North Fire Hall, corner of Higgins Avenue and Maple Street, said the first alarm was  heard at the Central Fire Hall, William Avenue opposite Charlotte Street, at 12:10 a.m. and that his hall was called at 12:17 a.m. The South Fire Hall was at the corner of Smith Avenue and York Street. 

Code told the inquiry, the L.M. Jones steam pumper was brought out with the whole force in two and a half minutes, and a position was taken on the north side of the hotel.

Code went into the dining room and picked up the hotel hose which at the time was not manned but still had water running through it. At the time, the fire was burning in the northeast corner of the hall, though he admitted flames could have also been present elsewhere.

When Code emerged from the dining room, Fire Captain J.C. Walker was in the hotel hallway with some men and told Code he saw fire breaking out of the fourth storey of a southeast window over the courtyard. Code immediately went to the area and succeeded in beating back the flames, but through a window he saw flames  coming from another area of the fourth floor.

Captain Walker of the Central Fire Hall testified he entered the dining room when the ceiling was falling and flames were visible in the southeast corner. Captain J.E. Buchanan of the South Fire Hall said the whole wall in the dining room was enveloped in flames when he arrived, and concluded the fire must have been going for some time before the alarm was sounded. 

The firemen then went onto a fire escape where they worked against the fire until the top floors fell.

Testimony from the firemen on the scene revealed a litany of disastrous mishaps and missteps such as steam pumpers failing and hoses freezing up.

On Water Avenue, a hose was played on the fire until it froze. At this time, Code sent these men home as their clothing was covered in ice and the hose was useless.

Fire Chief Edward H. Rodgers testified that when he arrived the fourth floor was filled with heavy smoke which prevented him from proceeding more than half way down the corridor.

During the subsequent inquiry, the fire chief speculated the fire originated in the dining room fireplace and probably spread through an opening in the main lavatory shaft which ran from the basement to the top of the hotel.

He ordered one line of hose to be “played” in the dining room and another on the fourth floor. Rodgers then ordered a fireman to telephone the Waterworks Company to ensure adequate water pressure was made available, according to a February 18, 1899, report in the Manitoba Free Press.

He again went upstairs and saw flames breaking out from fourth floor windows in the southeast corner of the north wing immediately above the dining room.

Rodgers said the firemen were driven out of the hotel by flames after battling the blaze for two hours. The firemen then fought the fire from the outside “where bitter cold greatly handicapped the men.”

One hose was lengthened to protect the south side of the building while a second was allowed to flow to prevent it from freezing. A third line was also played on the fire. Throughout the early morning, five lines of hose — two  each from the Logan and T.W. Taylor pumpers and one from the L.W. Jones at Portage Avenue —  were at one time or another used on the fire, while the aerial ladder had been used for a brief time to train a water hose onto the dining room windows. But the fire chief said the hose on the ladder was useless due to the lines freezing up, greatly reducing the pressure in the hose.

“Suddenly light was seen in the upper windows of the office buildings, and two streams were immediately turned in this direction,” said Rodgers, “but the headway gained was too great, and the fire worked its way to the freight shed end of the building.”

The office building for the Northern Pacific was linked to the hotel by two wooden archways, one leading to the Manitoba’s waiting room and another from the basement. The office buildings did not survive the fire, although company records were saved. 

Rodgers reported that the lines, about 244 metres (800 feet) of hose, on Water Avenue were used in an attempt to save the offices. At the time, the fight to save the hotel was abandoned. 

(Next week: part 3)