Pyromaniac — arson was believed to have been the cause of the tragic Radford-Wright Building fire

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

At the Queen’s Hotel on Portage Avenue, around 7 p.m. On March 9, 1912, the young purchased some cigars and a box of matches. He then strolled along Main Street to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) depot and at the rear of the immigration shed he found an outbuilding with hay inside. Striking a match, he lit the straw on fire. After walking two blocks away from the fire he started, the man watched until the fire had been extinguished by the fire brigade. Once that fire was out, he went to Higgins Avenue and crossed the CPR tracks, sauntering over to Sutherland Avenue. Near the Vulcan Iron Works, he found another pile of hay and set fire to it. Again, his procedure was to watch from a short distance away until the fire was extinguished by city firefighters.

He then proceeded west along Sutherland Avenue, crossed Main Street and went to the rear of the Radford-Wright Building, spotting some wooden boxes, one which held some straw, in a shed. He took a piece of paper and placed it among the straw so that its top stuck out. It was this piece of paper that he lit, starting a chain of events that resulted in what till then was the deadliest fire in Winnipeg’s history.

How do we know what exactly happened?

Well, when caught a year later, the arsonist confessed to setting the Radford-Wright fire, as well as some 97 more in Winnipeg and St. Boniface (he initially said he was responsible for 200 fires, but he later counted up all the fires he started that he could remember, arriving at a total of 98) over the span of at least an 18-month period. The young man’s matter-of-fact confession covered his movements that fateful day in March in great detail.

“I have tried my hardest to stop (setting fires),” James Dodds told Winnipeg Police Court Magistrate Hugh John Macdonald after his arrest a year after the fire, “but cannot.”

The confession made by Dodds gave an account of his actions that led to the death of five people in the fire he started, including a 12-year-old boy and two firemen, as well as the accidently death of another person who had been watching the fire from atop a roof a short distance away. About another dozen people were injured.

The damage cased by the fire was later estimated to be $250,000.

Dodds said at the time of the Radford-Wright Building fire that he was working for Irvine-Derrett, a sign painting firm at 284 Fort St.

The Radford-Wright Company was a window, door and sash manufacturer that had just relocated to 776 Main St., north of the Higgins Avenue subway. It was between the present-day Yellow Warehouse and International Harvester/Vineyard Church building.

In a March 11, 1912, Manitoba Free Press report of the fire, the blaze’s origin was termed “mysterious.”

Meanwhile, the same-day Winnipeg Tribune came a little closer to the truth when it mentioned that Fire Chief John Buchanan had said an “organized band of firebugs” had been responsible for a number of fires that evening that had kept the fire department hopping from location-to-location to douse the small blazes, one of which, of course, evolved into a conflagration with deadly consequences.

The fire chief was also aware that the Radford-Wright fire was the third such suspicious fire since the New Year at a sash and door factory. The first had taken place on January 14, 1912, when flames damaged the McCormack sash and door factory. On March 1, a similiar fire had occurred at the Nelson factory at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Princess Street. Firefighters regarded these fires as too similiar in nature to be a coincidence.

But regardless of the speculation, the mystery wasn’t completely cleared up until Dodds’ confession a year afterward.

The firefighters of No.3 Fire Hall on Maple Street had almost extinguished the small fire in the shed in the rear of the Radford-Wright Building, when an explosion rang out on the second floor where naphtha was stored in vats. Fumes from the naphtha vats had been ignited by the fire that had spread from the shed in the rear to the interior of the building. The explosion was said to have shook the earth for several blocks.

The explosion caught the firefighter entirely off guard, as it occurred just five minutes after they began to fight the fire at the rear of the building.

“Following the explosion the entire building seemed to burst simultaneously into flame. The roof had been blown up and its tremendous weight sent it crashing in sections down through the building. This afforded a clear draft for the flames, and fed by floor upon floor of the mostly highly combustible material in the shape of light sash and doors they were soon leaping in great twisting columns from one to two hundred feet above the building.”

As the fire initially progressed, what had started out as a small gathering of people to watch the flames turned into a much larger crowd after the explosion drew hundreds to the scene.

Many of those on the street had just watched the Winnipeg Victorias win 8-4 over the Toronto Eaton’s in the Allan Cup playoff game at the old Auditorium on Fort Street and were out for a leisurely stroll on a pleasant spring evening. Also taking to the streets in the area at the time were Saturday night theatre-goers filing out of venues when the evening’s entertainment ended.

The Tribune reported that among the crowd was Charles F. Herbert, the proprietor of the Savoy Hotel, who was a first-hand witness to the events: “There was a peculiar muffled roar, followed immediately by the crash of falling walls; an entire electric pole ripped into splinters and wires snapping and fell, lashing the ground like furious serpents. Then there was darkness, save for the myriad of stars that spluttered from the ends of the broken wires.”

Herbert said silence reigned for a few seconds that was broken only by the sound of rushing water and the crackle of flames.

“Then Babel  broke loose. Women screamed in terror, men shouted hoarsely, and I saw a dim black mass surge across the street, driven by a frantic crowd in the rear that wildly sought  safety in disorganized flight — and they were sweeping forward to the hissing wires that carried instant death.”

Herbert said he expected the electric lines to fall into the crowd until police on the scene forced them out of the danger zone.

According to the Free Press, before the crowd was dispersed three of their number were killed by the falling walls from the front of the building — Leo Blute, aged 24,  a bartender at the Manor Hotel, Walter Rowley, a 30-year-old watchman at the McLean Block, and Charles Chapman, the 12-year-old boy who had lived at 289 Patrick St.

In most cases, those who were killed and injured were simply passers-by unaware of the fire in the rear of the building.

“As the huge pile of debris struck the ground a cloud of dust that covered the neighboring buildings gray, rose from the ground, and dimly veiled the flashings of the electricity. Mingled with the shouts and cries of the spectators a number of piercing screams, which could be plainly heard above the uproar, came from the mist. They were the last calls of the two doomed men and the boy pinned in the debris.”

Firefighter Charles McPherson, aged 27, and Firefighter Edmond Molyneaux, aged 24, were buried by debris at the rear of the building. They were among the seven responders from No. 3 Fire Hall when the alarm was given that a small fire had broken out. McPherson died at the scene, while Molyneaux died from his injuries an hour after he had been pulled from the rubble while being treated at  St. Boniface Hospital.

The Free Press reported that the injured, stuck by flying debris, were “staggering aimlessly” on the street in front of the building.

“A number of people were thrown from their feet by the explosion, but managed to scramble to safety before being seriously hurt. Others, less fortunate were attacked by the wires and were thrown yards from the scene of the accident.”

The newspaper said the 12-year-old boy was walking with his brother past the building when the explosion occurred. His brother was a few feet ahead of Chapman at the time. “Charlie was thrown a few feet into the road and was completely buried in huge pile of debris. The other was also thrown to the ground, but was struck by a wire, and carried clear of the danger.”

Both William Mennie and Walter Rowley were a few feet behind the two boys. “Rowley was thrown into the road also, and was buried in an instant, while Mennie, more fortunate, fell toward the side, and escaped with a bad wound on the neck, where a brick had struck him.”

(Next week: part 2)