Arts & Culture

“At midnight, Victoria Tower’s clock sounded 11 times, then collapsed” — new exhibit recalls 100th anniversary of Parliament Hill fire

Ontario MP Francis Glass was in the House of Commons Reading Room the evening of Feb. 3, 1916 when he smelled smoke. And then he saw fire. He tried to douse the flames but failed. The Centre Block, including the Commons and Senate chambers, had to be evacuated. The main building of Canada’s Parliament was destroyed.

This traumatic event in Canada’s history is being revisited with an informative exhibition at the Bytown Museum, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the fire. The exhibition was curated by the museum’s Grant Vogl and can be seen starting Jan. 29, the first day of Winterlude, at the museum nestled against the east slope of Parliament Hill beside the Rideau Canal.

The fire occurred mid-way through the First World War. Thus, German saboteurs were initially suspected. But an improperly discarded cigar was more likely the cause, says Vogl. Ironically, some pieces of copper from the roof of the burned building were turned into ash trays. You can see some in the exhibition. Seven people, including one MP, were killed in the fire. The East Block and West Block were unaffected.

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Courtesy of Bytown Museum

Through the use of photographs, etchings, artifacts, a slide show, a magically created “video” of the fire, and text panels, the exhibition traces the history of Parliament Hill, or as it used to be called, Barrack Hill. Initial plans after the War of 1812 were to turn the Hill into a walled fortress. Who knew when the Yanks would invade? Military installations, including barracks and a hospital, were situated on the Hill, in part to be close to the construction sites along Colonel By’s Rideau Canal. Most of the soldiers left in 1856 to help Britain in the Crimean War.

When it was decided Ottawa would be the Canadian capital, Barrack Hill was designated as Parliament Hill. The groundbreaking was held Dec. 20, 1859, but by 1861 the project stopped amid squabbles between Public Works and the contractors. About 1,700 labourers were laid off. The government did what it always does with a difficult issue —it called a royal commission. By 1863, construction resumed. And by June 6, 1866, the Centre Block was officially opened, although the Victoria Tower (the precursor to the Peace Tower) and the Library were not yet completed.

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Courtesy of Bytown Museum

The initial cost of the Centre Block construction was to be $480,000. In fact, costs ballooned beyond $3 million. The rebuilding from scratch after the fire cost $12 million. The new building kept to the footprint of the old building, but was one storey higher, and the new Peace Tower was much taller than the destroyed Victoria Tower.

Ottawa historian James Powell dramatically recounts the events on the evening of the Feb. 3, 1916 fire in his website Today in Ottawa’s History. Powell explains how the Commons was debating some fisheries issues when R.C. Stewart, the Commons’ Chief Doorkeeper, rushed into the chamber exclaiming: “There is a big fire in the Reading Room; everybody get out quickly.”

“Within seconds, the corridor leading to the House of Commons was in flames,” Powell writes. “With smoke billowing into the chamber, members, officials, and visitors in the gallery fled for their lives. It was a close call. Coughing and gasping for breath, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had to be helped outside by a 15-year old page.”

Courtesy of Bytown Museum

In fact, Borden had to crawl part of the way on his hands and knees along parliamentary corridors to make his escape. Other MPs formed a human chain to help colleagues find their way to safety.

There were many heroes that night, including Commons employee Walter Todd, who saved a large portrait of Queen Victoria by cutting the canvas from its frame. A relative of Todd’s had done the same thing to that painting in 1849 when there was a fire in what was then the Montreal-based Parliament. Another hero was Connolly MacCormac, a Commons messenger, who shut the heavy iron doors separating the Library from the rest of the building, saving the books and iconic architecture we can still admire today.

Powell’s website discusses the seven people who lost their lives in the fire. Two were women visiting the Speaker’s apartment and were overcome by smoke; a third woman with them escaped by jumping from a third-floor window into a net. Nova Scotia MP Bowman Law died along with some firemen and public servants.

At midnight that night the fire still raged. The clock on the Victoria Tower sounded 11 times. Before it could peal for the 12th time, the tower collapsed. The fire was not extinguished until the early hours of Feb. 4. Although constructed of stone, the building could not be salvaged and was demolished. For four years after the fire, the Victoria Memorial Museum, now the Canadian Museum of Nature, housed Parliament

The cornerstone for a new Centre Block was laid Sept. 1, 1916. The building was completed in 1920, although the Peace Tower was not yet finished.

These days Parliament is facing a different rebuilding. The Parliament Buildings are in the midst of a $1 billion renovation, expected to be completed in 2020.

The exhibition Forged in Fire: The Building and Burning of Parliament is at the Bytown Museum from Jan. 29 to Oct. 31.

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Courtesy of Bytown Museum