A wreath was placed Friday at the site of the city’s worst firefighting tragedy, where four firefighters lost their lives 90 years ago.
"This is a very serious but special day for us," Alex Forrest, a fire captain and president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, told the crowd that had gathered at the corner of Adelaide Street and Notre Dame Avenue.
At that location, just before 10 a.m. on Dec. 23, 1926, four firefighters were killed after entering the burning Winnipeg Theatre to look for anyone trapped inside. The fire department was told there may have been an after-hours Christmas party in the theatre the night before. When they were inside, the walls of the timber-frame theatre that had a brick veneer began to buckle, and the firefighters were ordered to get out. Before they could escape, part of the building collapsed, and the four men — all veterans of the First World War and fathers with young families — were killed. Many other firefighters were injured, including nine so badly hurt they never returned to work, Forrest said.
At that time, there was no workers compensation. Winnipeggers, he said, rallied to help the families and raised $20,000 — almost $280,000 in today’s dollars. A joint funeral was held for Donald Melville, 41, of Langside Street; Robert Stewart, 37, of Seymour Street; Robert S. Shearer, 33, of Ashland Avenue and Arthur Smith, 38, of Strathcona Street.
"Every day, our firefighters and paramedics show up, and every day, they face that risk — that hasn’t changed," Mayor Brian Bowman said at the sombre gathering.
Their memories will be honoured with a plaque at the site of the destroyed theatre this spring. That’s when Manitoba Hydro expects to complete a $62-million substation that is under construction at that corner.
"It was necessary to find an appropriate way to honour these firefighters," Manitoba Hydro president and chief executive officer Kelvin Shepherd said at the wreath-laying ceremony.
Shepherd said they learned of the Winnipeg Theatre tragedy when they were researching the history of the property. The plaque at the substation will give passersby an opportunity to stop and read about that tragic day in Winnipeg’s history and the firefighters who died in the line of duty.
The site of the old theatre that burned down in 1926 is next to today’s Towne Cinema. The Winnipeg Theatre was built in 1883 as the Victoria Theatre and was the city’s first large meeting place that could seat up to 1,400, a 2015 Free Press article states. For a time, the theatre was leased to fill in as Winnipeg’s city hall when the building housing civic offices had to be torn down and until the "gingerbread" city hall opened in 1886.
The Victoria Theatre was sold in 1897 to owners who updated it with a full-sized stage, sloping floors and seating for 800. They renamed it the Winnipeg Theatre, and it became a hub for vaudeville acts passing through town.
In 1903, a fire at a Chicago theatre killed more than 600 people. Theatres built around the same era — including the Winnipeg Theatre — were being identified as fire traps. In 1926, the City of Winnipeg upgraded its building bylaw so theatre owners would have to include new fire protection measures, such as sprinkler systems and fire alarms.
On Dec. 8, 1926, a representative for the owner of the Winnipeg Theatre went before the civic safety committee to argue the seldom-used facility should be exempt from the new bylaw because it hosted only occasional events. Two weeks later, on Dec. 23, the fatal fire occurred.
Three separate investigations into the cause of the fire were held, including one by the fire commissioner, a coroner’s inquest and a city operational review. The cause of the theatre fire was never determined.
Building codes, bylaws and fire prevention equipment have changed over the last 90 years, but the bravery of emergency responders — who run towards danger when others are running away from it — has not, Bowman said.