The Great Fire of ‘09

Wetaskiwin’s Railway Street looking south.

In the early days of Wetaskiwin and other small communities around Alberta, fire was force to be reckoned with. Before the advent of actual fire departments, small towns would do their best at fire prevention using fire brigades. Poor building codes or none at all, and the fact that all structures were made of wood, meant lots of fires. Such was life at the turn of the century, a time when fire was dreaded by all. Some disasters stand out more than others. A little more than two months after a portion of Turtle Mountain broke loose and demolished the mining town of Frank, taking 66 lives, Wetaskiwin’s downtown business core was decimated by the worst fire in the town’s history on June 22,1903. The only good thing to come out of this fire was the recognition that Wetaskiwin needed and got a fire department later that same year.
    The fire started at about 2:30 am in the ladies dressing room in Heric’s Opera House of an unknown cause. One of the first to notice the fire was the manager of the Clara Hanmer Opera Company. “He saw the reflection from the Criterion Hotel and rushed to the Opera House to try and save some of the valuable props and wardrobes, but the heat was so intense he couldn’t enter the building. With the exception of three small trunks, the company lost everything, including their jewelry and other personal property amounting to approximately $7,000”. As the fire rolled on through the town lighting the night sky people lost a lot more.
    Strong winds from the northwest, though saturated with rain, fanned the fire so the flames leapt across the vacant lot between the Opera House and the Criterion Hotel, and the hotel was soon ablaze before smaller connecting shacks also ignited. The fire spread rapidly from the Criterion to Patenaude’s Livery Stable, with barely enough time to get the horse out. With the wind howling and rain coming down, guests at the Driard Hotel hustled to move their belongings into the street. The fire was relentless and powerful, and “was soon devouring the largest hotel in town”. 
    Efforts of a town brigade were hopeless. Flying debris and flames crossed Pearce Street, and in less than 20 minutes the large John West Department Store was a pile of rubble. As the fire continued south W.J. McNamara Real Estate and Brown and Duries Law Offices “went up like match wood”.
    After running rampant through almost a full two blocks of downtown, the fire met its match when it ran into the brick building of Nils Schmidt the liquor dealer. Seeing their chance to stop the fire, the town fire brigade was reinvigorated and began tearing down a number of stables and small buildings at the rear of the brick, while they used a hand pump to its capacity. The liquor store was gutted and most of the contents lost. After all of this, they probably needed a drink. The fire was finally brought under control at Railway Street and the remainder of the block was saved.
    Damage to buildings only marginally touched by fire was exacerbated by the continuing heavy downpour. Many merchants brought goods into the street in an effort to save them from the fire only to have them damaged by rain. The fire brigade was handicapped due to having to fight the fire on two fronts at the same time. John West’s furniture store and warehouse were only twenty feet from the Driard. “If that building caught it would have meant the end of the Pearce Street business area”. The fire was so hot it scorched paint on businesses a hundred feet away.
    “A group of men saturated by rye and with good intentions thought it would be a terrible shame if the 32 foot mirror at the back of the Criterion Bar got damaged. They wasted no time taking it off the wall and bringing it into the street, but they didn’t know where to put it. One bright lad said to take it across the railway tracks and lean it against the B&K Elevator. The eight mirror bearers headed across the street and through the big sloppy pond. Someone swayed a little too far and all the men lost their footing, and in seconds the mirror became a galaxy of bright shattered pieces on the sodden ground”. There were a few people that took advantage of the confusion and excitement and made off with goods they weren’t entitled to. Mayor Dickson wasn’t going to stand for this and ordered “anybody in possession of fire related proceeds to return them immediately or be prosecuted”.
    A combination of change in wind direction, the continual downpour, and the unrelenting efforts of the town fire brigade and volunteers, finally subdued the inferno. Total losses amounted to $200,000. The biggest loss was suffered by John West who saw $65,000 in buildings and contents reduced to ashes. The way the windblown fire levelled building after building taught the community an important fact. Wooden structures were no match for fire. As a result many new buildings after this were built out of brick. Luckily no one died in this fire except for a few pets. Out of this, a town fire department was created later the same year. A vast rebuilding process began immediately which gave way to the thought of a fairly new idea, electricity.

References : Siding 16 Vol. 1 and The City of Wetaskiwin Archives

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