The Railways of Ottawa

Finding No. 21   Railway Structures Destroyed (Mainly) by Fire

Grand Trunk Ottawa Freight Shed burned 15 August 1915

Ottawa Citizen 16 August 1915

Disastrous Blaze wipes out Grand Trunk freight sheds; three persons are injured.
Damage to the extent of $100,000 officially announced and in addition to the sheds twenty-eight cars have been destroyed. Several explosions. Follow the wake of the fire. Barrel of gasoline is hurled a long distance by the outburst.

Commencing with an explosion in a freight car, fire broke out at the G. T. R. freight sheds, near the Central Station early last evening and completely destroyed them along with 28 cars, 20 of which were loaded. The loss is estimated at from $90,000  to $100,000, practically all covered by Insurance.
It was a most spectacular blaze, the fire spreading with lightning rapidity, the shed and cars seeming to break into a mass of flames at once, the fire being attended with several explosions in addition to the primary one.
Three men were injured in the explosion. Though there were all kinds of rumours that some men were caught in the shed and lost their lives these reports fortunately proved to be unfounded. The injured men are not dangerously hurt.
Three Men Injured.
The injured men are:
Andrew Doherty, 120 Besserer street, caretaker, head cut and badly burned around the face and hands. In the Water street hospital.
Felix Bellefeuille, 182 Dalhousie street, porter, cut and burned on the face, cut over the right eye, hair burned. At his home.
Albert Renaud, 329 St. Andrew street, porter, face and hands slightly burned. Attended to at drug store.
Over In Forty Minutes.
The first explosion took place at 5.50 and within forty minutes the shed was flat and all the cars burned were beyond saving. Such a wide area was covered by the fire that various estimates were given of the loss, some estimating from a quarter to half a million dollars.
The railway officials, after reviewing the loss together, gave out the following losses:
28 cars burned, estimated loss on each, $650, total, $18,200.
Contents of twenty cars, estimated at $1,000 each, $20,000.
Frame freight sheds, 800 feet by 40 feet, $15,000.
Contents of freight sheds, $35,000.
Sundry other losses, say $10,000
Loss Upon Company.
The loss on freight, except in. the case of those who had accepted delivery, is borne by the company which has a blanket insurance policy covering everything. The officials state that the exact loss and the individual shippers can -- not be given till the books and papers are checked up. The office part of the freight sheds was saved but as the books and papers were carried out these were considerably tossed and so it was impossible to get the contents of each of the cars figured out.
Cars Pulled to Safety
About forty other cars which were on the sidings were pulled out though there was some delay in doing this as the yard engines had gone to the roundhouse. Among those cars pulled out was the Cornwall. The private car for His Excellency the Governor General. This was on a siding quite close to the fire. Incidentally, the fire chief and one of the railway officials had a tiff owing to the official ordering a crew to pull out cars which were burning. The chief claimed that it would have been better to have left them where they were as the fire could have been more quickly extinguished than on the other tracks where they were brought to.
Fire Started in Car
Dynamite, gasoline, carbide and other chemicals are variously credited with being responsible for the first explosion. The railway officials, until a full investigation is made, would not express an opinion either as to the explosion in the car or the subsequent explosions the most severe of which were from the contents of the shed.
As far as could be learned last night the fire started in a car just opposite the second door from the office in the freight sheds. It was a terrific explosion, the roof of the car being lifted off and flames being thrown in all directions. In an instant the fire was inside the shed and to adjacent cars.
Shed All Ablaze.
Fire Chief Graham, who was at No. 2 fire station when the alarm came in, made a quick run in his auto but by the time he reached the fire he states that the shed for its entire length, as well as both tracks of cars were on fire.
Heaviest Explosion.
The heaviest explosion, following the two at the start of the fire, took place about twenty minutes after the beginning of the fire and was in the center of the burning building. There was a loud report and burning embers were hurled for long distances,
A few minutes later, a metal drum which had contained gasoline or some other explosive came hurtling through the air like an immense red ball and landed on the tracks a couple of hundred feet from the shed.
Splendid Work of Brigade.
But for the splendid work by Fire Chief Graham and his men, the loss would have been much more serious. The large coal sheds of J. J. Heney and other coal dealers took fire time and time again but the fire was not allowed to get a start and the damage to them is practically nil. These sheds are well filled with coal and a fire in them would have been disastrous as once a good start was secured it would be most difficult to get it under control.
The flying burning embers were also carried onto the roofs of houses on Nicholas but prompt work by the firemen prevented any appreciable loss to them.
Residence Damaged.
The only house seriously damaged was the residence of Mr. James Behan, 39 Mosgrove street, and his experience gives an excellent idea of how the fire spread. He, his wife and four children were at home. Mr. Behan was standing outside when the explosion took place, the force of it hurling him against the side of his house which is located near the end of the freight shed office. He ran into the house as soon as he saw the fire and by the time he got his wife and children together his house had taken fire and it was impossible for them to get out the front door on account of the heat. They got out the side door but had no time ta save any of their furniture. The firemen prevented the house burning down but there is considerable loss to the furniture and the building, which is owned by Mr. W. D. Morris.
Oil Car Exploded.
Near the conclusion of the most serious part of the fire, there was a spectacular explosion of the contents of a car of oil, etc, standing on the track. The firemen from No. 7 station had just been pulled back by the deputy chief when the car blew up in a cloud of flame many feet high.
As might be expected the contents of the cars and sheds were most varied. The burned cars contained flour, dressed lumber, feed, bananas and fruit, paper, hardware, etc.. including a carload of underwear designed for the soldiers. The sheds contained all manner of merchandise. The officials state that the contents of cars and sheds were just about the normal amount. With few exceptions the contents of the cars were freight ready to be taken out on the night trains and for these the company must bear the loss.
Pressure Was Good.
On the first alarm the men from stations 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8 responded. The second alarm turned in immediately brought out stations 6 and 9. There was excellent pressure, the valves being opened to allow of the high pressure from the booster system being effective. Three pumpers also added to the pressure. The special pumping plant at the station was also in operation, supplying four or five streams with great pressure.
It was a wonderful fire to watch, though not as spectacular as it would have been had It occurred after dark. The people on the bridges got a great view. The sight from Laurier avenue bridge was particularly fine and the bridge was densely crowded with hundreds of people and automobiles. Traffic was completely blocked. Big crowds also saw the fire from Connaught place, the canal bank, Nicholas street and other points of vantage.
Thought Train On Fire,
At the start of the fire the first explosion caused a rush of people in towards the fire along Mosgrove street. Then the second explosion came and word went along, that a munitions train was on fire. A big part of the crowd immediately found it more attractive to run in the opposite direction to that in which the fire lay.
There were some remarkably novel displays. Comment was made on the way huge clouds of smoke would break suddenly with the flames inside, with striking effect.
The fire came just before the majority of the firemen had supper. They therefore greatly appreciated the thoughtfulness of John Heney and Son in getting in a big supply of sandwiches and coffee, which was served to the men as long as they would take them.
Business As Usual.
The G.T.R. will be doing freight business as usual today. The office is intact and for the present freight cars will be used for receiving and delivering freight.
The burning of the freight sheds has again raised the question of the advisability of removing the freight and coal sheds to another part of the city.
The firemen did, good setvice in paying particular attention to the train wires which pass near where the fire was. In one place they go quite near to the roof of the Behan house, which was partly burned. By keeping water on the roof of this house, on the poles and wires, the  firemen were able to keep them intact and so the train wire service for outside points was not interrupted.
The military police were again called on and did admirable work in assisting the local police handling the crowd.
Woman Fainted.
Railway employes worked like beavers. The work of the train crews in pulling out the cars was particularly plucky.
Officials of the railway are outspoken in their praise of the prompt response made by the firemen and the courageous way in which they stood up to the fire.
One woman fainted following an explosion and was taken to a drug store, where she soon revived.
The concussions of the explosions hurled many people who were near either to the ground or against buildings or poles. With the exception of the railway men, no one was injured.
Big Day For Firemen.
It was an exciting day for the firemen. In the morning they had a fire which they fought In imminent danger of an explosion from calcium carbonate. Later there was an alarm for the Victoria Museum, which fortunately was only from the automatic fire alarm going on a rampage. At three o'clock a run for a small fire on Victoria street was attended by the big motor truck colliding with a limousine, both going into the excavation for the government building at the corner of Albert and O'Connor streets. While the freight sheds fire was In progress an alarm came in from the corner of Nelson and St. Patrick streets. The chief and part of the apparatus responded but the fire was very slight, being caused from the electric wiring and gas stove connection. The damage being nil.
Albert Renaud's Injury.
According to Albert Renaud's story he was putting on his coat with some other man when an explosion occurred and fire shot through the building, burning their faces and hands. Barrels which were piled nearby were flying about, so he ran to the door and on his way was struck on the leg by a barrel. When he was outside he immediately went to the Standard Drug Store, where he had his burns dressed and then went home. He was only slightly burned and was out last night.
Near doors number two or three, some empty barrels, which had been brought in a short time before, and which were said to have contained spirits of alcohol, were piled.
Bellefeuille Bruised.
Felix Bellefeuille was standing behind Mr. Renaud when he was injured, but how, he does not know. He was also putting on his coal when the explosion occurred, burning his face and hands, and tearing the clothes from his body. He received a cut over his right eye and his back was bruised. He was taken to Dr. Ballantyne's office on Riddeau street, by a friend, Mr. Gauthier, of Water street.
Doherty Burned.
Andrew Doherty, night watchman for the past eight years, made it his custom to go to the shed every evening about five o'clock together [sic] up some ticket boxes which were placed at each door. Last evening he had just completed his task and was somewhere near the office end of the building, he does not remember where, when the explosion occurred. He received bad burns about the hands and face and his head was cut. Asked as to what happened or what caused the fire his mind was a blank, not knowing what happened till he found himself in the Water Street hospital. Nobody knows how he got out. Another man, Harry Daust, from Hintonburg, was unaccounted for for a while but later turned up none the worse for his experience.

Ottawa Citizen 17 August 1915

The three men who were injured during the fire, which destroyed the G. T. R. freight sheds on Bessemer Street, Thursday evening, are recovering from their injuries. Andrew Dogherty, 120 Bessemer Street who was injured the most severe of the three and was taken to the Water Street hospital, was reported to be progressing favorably according to reports from the hospital last night.
Felix Bellefeuille, 182 Dalhousie Street, who is suffering from burns and cuts, is at his home, under the care of Dr. C. T. Balentine, and is also making favorable progress towards recovery. Albert Renaud, who was only slightly burned about the hands and face was out Thursday night visiting his injured comrades and was none the worse after his thrilling experience.
Updated 19 October 2021

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