Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/1/2016 (512 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A century ago, the residents of Brandon were bidding farewell to the darkest month in the city's history.
The year began with the First World War raging and hundreds of families dreading the arrival of a telegram informing them a loved one had become a casualty. At least one Brandon soldier was killed, and two were injured in the first few days of January.
The city was also experiencing one of its worst winters on record. By mid-January, Brandon had received more than 105 centimetres of snow, three times the amount that fell the year before, and the city was also in the midst of a cold snap.
The adverse weather shut down the city's streetcar system on numerous occasions. It was also considered a prime cause of the Brandon train disaster of Jan. 12, 1916, the city's deadliest day, when 19 rail-yard workers were killed when two trains collided in the heart of the city.
Just four days after that tragedy, the city experienced what is believed to be its deadliest fire when the Syndicate Block burned to the ground, taking four young lives with it.
The Syndicate Block was constructed in 1892 at the southwest corner of Rosser Avenue and Seventh Street. At three storeys and 110 feet wide, it was an imposing building at an important intersection.
One of the block's first retailers was Wilson, Rankin and Company. Originally a furniture and carpet shop, they soon expanded into clothing and dry goods to become a full department store. They used the slogan "Brandon's greatest store," advertised regularly in Winnipeg newspapers and distributed a catalogue throughout Western Canada.
Over the decades, partners in the store came and went, with the exception of Andrew Douglas Rankin, a Scottish immigrant who cut his retail teeth working at the Hudson Bay Co. in Winnipeg and co-owning a dry goods store in Calgary. By 1916, the Brandon store was known as Doig, Rankin and Robertson and took up more than half the block, sharing it with furniture dealers McPherson and Bedford and H.W. Ball and Company, purveyor of "gent's furnishings."
Just after 9 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Jan. 17, 1916, some employees smelled smoke coming from the staff cloakroom, followed shortly after by the sight of flames. Within 10 minutes the interior of the store was completely ablaze, sending the nearly 40 employees on duty scrambling for their lives.
When 16-year-old elevator boy Reggie Wells heard saw the fire burning, he took his elevator up to the third floor to call out to the dressmakers working there. He stayed for about a minute, thinking he could hear their machines working, but he could not get their attention. He didn't have the time to leave his post to get them because flames were already starting up the elevator shaft.
Wells stopped at the second floor on his way down, where he was able to pick up a number of employees. When they reached the ground floor, the main staircase, in flames, was beginning to collapse.
People on the upper floors, now trapped, scrambled to the building's fire-escape ladder, but flames and thick smoke pouring from the building's windows soon blocked their route. They had no choice but to jump to the ground below. A roll call was done after the evacuation, and four employees were missing.
Fighting the fire was difficult because the cold temperatures had frozen two key fire hydrants near the intersection. A number of firefighters suffered frostbite to their feet. Fire Chief John Melhuish had a close call when he nearly collapsed from heat exhaustion while searching another store within the block, and also suffered a cut to his leg. He was helped out by some of his men.
A number of soldiers from the 79th Battalion, some of whom had assisted at the train crash in the CPR yards just a couple of blocks away, lent a hand. Among them were a few Winnipeg firefighters who worked with the Brandon crews. Others acted as crowd control and tried to save merchandise and wagons from neighbouring businesses.
At its peak, it was reported the flames rose as high as 10 metres above the roofline and threatened buildings across Rosser Street. Area businesses such as Aagard's Café, the Palace Hotel and Dowling & Creeman provided the men with soup and sandwiches, warm drinks and changes of clothing as the battle wore on into the afternoon and late evening.
Two charred bodies were found in the wreckage that afternoon.
Clarence Walker, 27, was manager of the furniture department. He was married and had a 14-month-old child. Witnesses said he had escaped, but when he saw the scale of the fire he rushed back in to try to save employees.
Caroline McCort, 22, lived on Seventh Street with her parents. For them, the death must have been especially shocking. Their son was overseas fighting with the 45th Battalion and likely couldn't have imagined it was their daughter, a dressmaker, who would be killed.
The remains of the other two victims, also dressmakers, were found side by side the next day.
Mary Marsh, 23, lived on 21st Street. The body of Sadie Eggertson, 25, was found by her fiancé, who came to help with the search. The Winnipeg Tribune reported that "when the charred remains were discovered, (he) became prostrated with grief."
The blaze completely destroyed the block and its businesses. The damage was estimated at $350,000. It also ground Brandon's downtown to a halt as it took more than a day to fully restore power and gas service. A number of streets had become skating rinks, which took days to grind down enough to allow for vehicle and streetcar traffic.
The first inquest into the fire was conducted by Brandon's coroner, Dr. More, and began Jan. 19. Because of the frozen state of the building's remains and the fact six employees were still in hospital and too injured to testify, the coroner's jury had little to say about the cause of the fire.
Their findings, though, reflected some of the complaints they heard from the dozen or so witnesses they spoke to.
They recommended easier access to fire escapes, such as doors or hinged windows, rather than having to push open a heavy, timber-framed window. They also called for more fire alarm stations, bells in large buildings and mandatory staff training on how to use them.
The second inquest began Jan. 21, led by assistant provincial fire commissioner Harry O'Connor of Winnipeg. Brandon city council wrote to the commissioner's office asking for someone of his calibre to come to do a full investigation so they could ensure such a tragedy never happened again.
It took until June for O'Connor to submit his findings, which gave him time to examine the scene in detail and interview dozens of witnesses.
O'Connor found despite the fact smoking was officially forbidden inside the building, employees did so in the back rooms, including the cloakroom. There was also a large, uncovered waste bin in the cloakroom. Earlier that morning, the floors were swept in preparation for the store's opening, and the debris and Dustbane, a compound for cleaning floors, were emptied into the bin.
His conclusion was a smoker discarded a match into the bin, which eventually ignited the sweepings and other debris inside. He did not identify the employee, but some witnesses testified the company's accountant, a smoker, was the last person they remembered seeing in the room minutes before the fire started.
The City of Brandon, O'Connor noted, had to take "contributory responsibility" as the requirements for fire escapes and the method of accessing them were, "anything but what one would expect to find in a city like Brandon."
In the aftermath of the fire, Brandon made improvements to its fire code, even closing down the city's opera house for weeks until a new fire-escape system could be installed.
A couple of months after the fire, Doig, Rankin and Robinson opened a temporary store on 10th Street and vowed to rebuild on their original site, which they did. Their new, custom-built and "virtually fireproof" store opened on Rosser Avenue on July 10, 1916.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.