The Fire of 1916

The Fire of 1916

February 2, 2016 3:35pmET
Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of the fire that gutted the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Watch more with CPAC’s Philippe Murat:

 

At 8:37 p.m. on Feb. 3, 1916, a fire begins in a wastebasket in the Centre Block’s Reading Room. By the time someone can take action, the fire is out of control and begins to spread.

PHOTO GALLERY – Parliament of Canada / Library and Archives Canada

The House of Commons is still sitting that night. A doorkeeper interrupts proceedings to announce that everyone must evacuate the building.

Here's how the House of Commons looked in the old Centre Block in 1895. (Library and Archives Canada)

Here’s how the House of Commons looked in the old Centre Block in 1895. (Library and Archives Canada)

Most people manage to leave on their own or by following others in a human chain. Some manage to save files and artwork, including a portrait of Queen Victoria, and even some furniture.

Others are trapped inside, succumbing to either the smoke or the fire.

 

Parliament's Centre Block burns on the night of Feb. 3, 1916. (Library and Archives Canada)

Parliament’s Centre Block burns on the night of Feb. 3, 1916. (Library and Archives Canada)

Only half an hour after the fire is noticed, an explosion rocks the building. At least four more are observed through the night. The central clock tower collapses just after midnight, faltering from structural damage as a breeze pushes the fire towards the Senate side of the building.

The fire rages on for almost 12 hours before finally being doused. The next day, the Centre Block’s blackened remains are caked in ice and surrounded by snow.

Library and Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada

The only part still standing is the Library of Parliament, saved by the quick thinking of employee Michael MacCormac and the skill of the firefighters.

MacCormac

Michael C. MacCormac, who closed the steel doors separating the Library of Parliament from the rest of Centre Block as it burned in 1916. (MacCormac family photo)

Seven people die that night, including two women visiting with the Speaker’s wife, an MP, a House of Commons clerk, a pipefitter working in the building’s boiler room, and the rescue party that trying to save him. Several others are burned from the fire or injure themselves while trying to escape. Many on the second floor jump out of windows into the snowbanks below.

(Toronto Public Library)

(Toronto Public Library)

In the midst of war, there are rumours that German saboteurs are to blame, but no solid proof is ever found during the subsequent investigation.

Parliament has to resume sitting, and MPs and senators immediately move to the Victoria Memorial Museum building (now the Canadian Museum of Nature), remaining there in the years to come while Centre Block is reconstructed.

The House of Commons in its temporary home at the Victoria Memorial Museum Building on Mar. 18, 1918. (Library and Archives Canada)

The House of Commons in its temporary home at the Victoria Memorial Museum Building on Mar. 18, 1918. (Library and Archives Canada)

Centre Block’s new design is chosen to match the original style, but with updated materials and an extra floor for more office space. Architects John A. Pearson and Jean-Omar Marchand change the interior layout to incorporate the Beaux-Arts design.

Construction begins on the new Centre Block five months after the fire and is completed in just four years; finishing the ornamentation takes another three years. It officially opens on November 11, 1920 with the new clock tower named as the Peace Tower, in honour of those who fought during the First World War.

The new Centre Block in 1920. (Library and Archives Canada)

The new Centre Block in 1920. (Library and Archives Canada)

-Andrew Thomson