The fire is still raging at the hour we write, God only knows where it will stop. Our city seems to be doomed. - The Gazette, Friday, July 9, 1852
The despair in those brief lines sounds as bleak today as surely it was that terrible Thursday they were written. The most devastating fire Montreal had ever known had the city by the throat, and who or what would survive until morning was anyone's guess.
When The Gazette finally did appear the following day, much of the city was a smouldering ruin. Gone were numberless working-class houses, cheaply built of wood, as well as fine stone structures where the well-to-do lived. Gone was the new Catholic cathedral on St. Denis St. and the bishop's palace beside it. Gone were hotels and sawmills and other businesses - and the jobs that went with them.
As many as 10,000 people were homeless - this, in a city of just 57,000. At Côte à Barron, near today's St. Louis Square, a vacant field "was filled with groups of men, women and children and their little piles of furniture and goods," we reported, "while all around and below them was a smoking wilderness, covered with chimneys, like a burned pine forest with its scathed and charred trees. The Champ de Mars and Viger Square were similarly occupied with heaps of goods."
It was a disaster waiting to happen, a combination of bad fortune, bad weather and bad management. A reservoir had recently been constructed at Côte à Barron to supply Montrealers with fresh water and for use in fighting fires but, unluckily, it had been empty for more than a month to allow repairs.
A succession of hot days also helped make the city a tinderbox; on the day of the fire, it was well over 30C and a stiff southwesterly wind was a giant bellows that no one could turn off.
Finally, Montreal's chief engineer - that is, the co-ordinator of the city's half-dozen or more volunteer fire companies - was John Perrigo.
His questionable abilities had been exposed by other fires during his six-year tenure.
This time, he would fail again, quailing before the need to order threatened buildings blown up to create firebreaks.
And so it began. A fire broke out, apparently by accident, at Brown's Tavern on St. Lawrence. Fanned by the wind, it soon was roaring out of control, leaping inexorably northeast from street to crowded street.
"Within half an hour," we reported, "a hundred houses were on fire. They were generally the dwellings of poor artisans and labourers, and it was a heart-rending spectacle to see the poor people gathering their few household goods together and carrying them perhaps to some place where the fire reached them a few minutes after. ... In many instances the poor mother had just time to grasp her infant from the flames and rush to an adjoining field or garden and sink down despairing and exhausted."
And sometimes there was not enough time. A man named Laviscount, hearing the word "enfant!" in one woman's frantic cries, rushed into a burning house and up the stairs where he found a child still sleeping in its bed. He wrapped the child in a blanket, fought his way back through the flames and somehow reached safety, "his coat and hat nearly burned off him and his shirt on fire."
The volunteer firemen were stretched to the limit, and several collapsed in the heat. Soldiers pressed into the fight used their bare hands to tear down fences and even whole buildings lying in the path of the flames. Sometimes the desperation of the men was rewarded and some important buildings were saved, notably Notre Dame and a few other churches as well as the Montreal General Hospital, then on Dorchester St.
By late afternoon, just when the fire looked to be in retreat, church bells pealed out in alarm once more. Sparks had ignited a new fire closer to the waterfront, at the eastern edge of the old business district. The Hays House, Montreal's finest hotel, as well as several military buildings on Dalhousie Square were doomed; so, too, were some mansions and other buildings farther east. Only by about 4 a.m. Friday were the flames at last defeated.
Despite the devastating loss of property, there seem to have been few injuries, and remarkably, The Gazette reports, not one death. But misery was everywhere. Thousands burned out of their homes spent that night in the open, soaked to the skin by a violent thunderstorm.
By Friday evening, they were coping as best they could in tents set up by army and militia units. A few even found shelter in Griffintown in the hastily opened fever sheds, ramshackle structures thrown up five years before to house immigrants dying of typhoid fever.
On the Sunday after the fire, as if all this suffering weren't enough, some straw piled against a fence in Fortification Lane, with a line of powder leading to it, was discovered before the presumed firebug could touch it off.
"The being who could attempt such a deed as this at such a time," we icily observed, "must have been possessed by the great spirit of darkness."
In the fire's aftermath, a chorus of angry voices, including The Gazette's, hounded the thoroughly discredited John Perrigo out of office. He was replaced by one of his assistants, Alexander Bertram. As the volunteer companies were gradually disbanded over the next decade, giving way to a full-time fire department, Bertram became its chief.
That year as well, the aqueduct from the Lachine Rapids to Atwater Ave. was begun. When it opened four years later, Montreal had cleaner water for household use and far greater water pressure for firefighting.
There would still be fires in Montreal, many of them devastating - but never again on the scale of what befell the city that hot July day in 1852.
The 225th anniversary series will be archived on our Web site. Go tocanada.com/montreal and enter 225 in the Search Word box.
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