Monday, 5 March 2012

100 years ago: The tragic Radford-Wright fire

Radford-Wright site in 1912 (source) and 2011

This Friday, March 9, 2012, is the 100th anniversary of one of Winnipeg's worst fires. The Radford-Wright blaze on Main Street killed seven, including two firemen, and injured a dozens more.

Today it is a garden adjoining the International Harvester / Vineyard Church building to the north but one hundred years ago it was a scene of death and chaos.

Ad, Winnipeg Stampede Program, 1913 (Source: Peel)

Radford-Wright building at far left, ca. 1910 (Source: Peel)

The Radford-Wright Company was a window, door and sash manufacturer that had just relocated to Main Street, north of the Higgins Avenue subway. (Between the present day Yellow Warehouse and International Harvester / Vineyard Church building.)

A fire began around 10 p.m. in a lean-to annex at the rear of the building. An employee working late at the neighbouring Stuart Machinery (Yellow Warehouse) building noticed smoke, ran to a nearby fire call box and also notified a police officer he saw on the street. His actions likely saved the entire block from being destroyed.

Fire Fighters Museum  of Winnipeg
Former Fire Hall No. 3 on Maple Street

Firemen from nearby Fire Hall No. 3 on Maple Street, (now the Winnipeg Fire Fighters Museum), had just arrived on-scene and began to spray the rear annex when an explosion "that shook the earth for blocks around” occurred. It blew open the massive cargo doors sending flames and shrapnel into the faces of the firemen. Then, the top portion of the rear wall collapsed to the ground pinning five of them under two meters of rubble.

Around front of the building, the explosion sent debris and live power and streetcar lines crashing down onto passers-by and onlookers. The neighbourhood was plunged into darkness.

A general alarm was immediately called in and firemen from most of the city's fire halls and every on-duty ambulance were summoned to the scene.

Rescuers dug through the rubble at the rear of the building to get at the trapped firemen. Charles McPherson was crushed to death but Edmond Molyneux was barely alive. They were rushed to St. Boniface hospital where Molyneux regained consciousness just long enough to witness the last rites being given to his colleague. He then died.

Ironically, the two men responded to a hay barn fire earlier that evening and both had to be pulled from the structure unconscious from smoke inhalation.

Sutherland Hotel
Sutherland Hotel, ca. 2011

The main floor of the Sutherland Hotel became a makeshift field hospital and morgue for the other victims. Ambulances were routed there, a doctor was dispatched. Police Sergeant Patrick, who was teaching a first aid class nearby when heard the explosion, brought his entire class with him to investigate.

Newspaper accounts from the Sutherland describe a terrible scene of crushed bodies with missing limbs and bloodied, bandaged wounded either lying on the floor or shuffling around the lobby in a daze. The din was interrupted by the odd cry when someone discovered a dead colleague or loved one.

Adding to the chaos outside was the lack of streetcar service. This was a Saturday night and late movies and a big hockey game recently let out. The only streetcar access to and from the North End in those days was via Main Street and hundreds of people had to stream through the bottleneck that was the Higgins and Main subway.

The building continued to burn and disintegrate into the next afternoon. It was only then that the rubble along Main Street was completely searched and the final body pulled out, that of 12 year-old Charles Chapman of Patrick Street who was attracted to the scene by the sound of the fire engines' gongs.

Winnipeg Free Press, March 11, 1912

The dead:

Fireman Charles McPherson (29) - Fire Hall No. 3

Fireman Edmond Molyneux (24) - Fire Hall No. 3

Clarence Wiker (21) - CPR Employee

Leo Blute (24) – Bartender, Manor Hotel

Charles Chapman (12) - From Patrick Street

Walter Rowley (30) – Night watchman, Vulcan Iron Works

Antonio Nuranno - Died later in hospital

The injured firemen:

Fireman Robert McDonald - Fire Hall No. 3
Two broken legs, internal injuries, critically injured

Fireman Charles Schram - Fire Hall No. 3
Leg injuries, serious burns

Fireman Jack McKinnon - Fire Hall No. 3
Leg injuries, serious burns

Funerals for most of the dead were held on March 12th. They were timed throughout the day for those who needed to attend multiple services.

The New York Times, March 11, 1912

Brandon Sun, March 11, 1912

Newspapers from around North America reported on the tragedy and there was a great deal of pressure on fire officials to discover what caused the blaze. They determined that the fire was due to arson, the resulting explosion was due to naptha, a chemical stored on-site. It would take over a year, though, for officials to get a break in the case.

Winnipeg Free Press, March 31, 1913

Patrick Dodds (23), a recent Scottish immigrant, was arrested on March 26, 1913, caught red-handed setting a fire on Smith Street. He soon confessed to setting 92 fires over the past couple of years, though police suspected that it was closer to 200. In the end, he was charged with the ten worst cases, prosecutors were concentrating their efforts on the manslaughter charges that would be laid later that summer.

He quietly answered "guilty" as each of the ten charges were read. He then dispassionately described to the court his actions on the night of the Radford-Wright fire.

Source: Peel

Strolling down Sutherland Avenue that evening, Dodds set a number of small fires. When he crossed Main Street he did the same thing behind Radford-Wright, using some hay and bits of cardboard. He then retreated across Main street to watch the fire take hold and the firemen arrive.

When the explosion occurred, he fled a short distance away but soon returned to look at the bodies in the street and watch the rescue efforts unfold. He stayed at the site until 3:30 a.m. then returned the next day to take photographs of the site.

Winnipeg Free Press, March 31, 1913

Dodds was sentenced to 15 years on each count, to be served concurrently. During his sentencing the magistrate said:

"You are a menace to the community and in any case you are a dangerous man to have out.... I will ask the prosecuting attorney to confer with the attorney-general's department as regards to an investigation of your sanity. There is little question in my mind but that you will be found to be a monomaniac. "
Winnipeg Free Press, March 13 1931

Dodds was found to be insane and transferred from Stoney Mountain to the Brandon Asylum.

In July he made a brief appearance in court to hear the manslaughter charges read against him but, in the end, he never went to trial due to his insanity. Instead, six years after going to prison, he was deported back to his native Scotland.

Winnipeg Free Press, March 11, 1912

James Dobbs - An Arsonists Flame Winnipeg Police Museum

Other news coverage from 1912:
Daily Phoenix (Saskatoon); The Evening Record (Windsor); The Gazette /Associated Press (Pittsburgh); The World (Toronto).

Biographical sketches of six of the dead:

Winnipeg Free Press, March 11, 1912

Here's an image of the street out front of the building around that time. Radford-Wright is out of view at the right. The passenger car shed that Wiker fell though can be seen at the left, behind the train station.

Here are images of some of the fire engines that would have raced to the scene, attracting little Charles Chapman.acing to a fire in 1909.


Anonymous said...

Charles Chapman, the 12 year old victim, was my great uncle. My grandfather, his brother, was only three years older than he was. His other brother, Joseph Chapman, was also close to being killed, but as the building front fell into the street a live electrical wire flew forward and threw him into the street. Joseph went on to serve in the Canadian Army in WWI and moved to BC upon his return from the war, where he died in the 1960's. Charles was not so lucky and was crushed under the building.

David Chapman, Fargo, ND, USA

mrchristian said...

Sorry, I just came across this comment. Thank you for adding it. It's great when family cam fill in some of the pieces.