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August 7, 1933: Cornwall's "Great Fire"

Appeared in the Senior Citizen, September 2017.

In total, dozens of people lost employment, over thirty-one businesses were destroyed, fifteen families were left homeless, and there was $1,000,000 worth of damage on Pitt Street between Second and Third Streets alone.

On July 27, I was given an incredible gift. I received an original copy of Cornwall’s Standard Freeholder dated August 9, 1933. To most, this date would not jump out at them for any specific reason. When I saw the date, my eyes lit up because I knew exactly what the reporters would be discussing in this issue.

On Monday, August 7, 1933 a group of about three or four young boys were seen playing behind Fursey’s Garage and the Victoria Arena. (Today, this area is behind Riley’s Bakery where the new Courthouse presently is.) In the midst of their amusement, it is claimed by news reports that the boys decided to make a small fire that they never bothered to put out, believing that it would tire out on its own. Minutes after witnesses saw them leave the rear of Fursey’s Garage, Cornwall would witness its biggest disaster, causing businesses between Second and Third Streets (on the West side of Pitt Street) to be completely gutted and destroyed by flames. The estimated cause of damage was $1,000,000. The Canadian dollar experienced an average inflation rate of 3.53% per year between 1933 and 2017. $1,000,000 Canadian dollars in 1933 would be the equivalent of $18,366,197.18 Canadian dollars in 2017. The loss was substantial.

At 12pm, Dr. A.W. Brown from 219 Augustus Street noticed the fence burning behind Fursey’s Garage (at 234 Pitt Street), and phoned to alarm the City Hall Fire Station. Within four minutes of the call, firemen were at the scene of the blaze. With a heavy wind coming from the West, it wasn’t long before the entire fence was engulfed in flames, igniting three buildings along with it (including the garage itself.) Within seconds, large clouds of black smoke were spewing out of the garage and into the Streets and sky. What started off as a “small backyard fire” turned into an entire Street being ignited within thirty minutes.

Despite all of the commotion, including a crowd of 7,000 spectators gathered in Cornwall’s downtown core, there were only fifteen injuries in total. Fire Chief George J. Hunter, Deputy Chief Cory Moore, and Fireman Arthur Conliffe, were amongst strong fumes when a drum of waste oil exploded in the rear of Fursey’s garage. (They recovered shortly after the explosion.) Fireman William A. Milligan fell from a porch at the rear of the Glengarry Block, having been overcome by heat and smoke. (He too, recovered shortly after his fall.) Leo Caron from the Stormont Electric Light and Power Company received cuts on his forehead after a window exploded in his face. Earl Whitford, a volunteer firefighter, received several cuts on his hands from falling glass. Harry Plumley Jr. ran into a burning building to save his mother, and suffered from smoke inhalation. Vera, Naomi and Alberta Hemond (young siblings) were hurt after being struck by a car during the chaos. The biggest injury seemed to have happened to Mrs. Heber Hill of 321 Pitt Street who was knocked down by a firefighting hose and carried 100 feet along the pavement. Mrs. Hill had moved from the crowd of people onto the street to get a better view of the fire, when a coupling in the hose pulled apart and whipped back like a snake, knocking her along the pavement. She fell directly into the path of a strong water stream from an adjacent hose, which carried her 100 feet along the pavement.

Aside from firefighting hoses, the every day garden hose seemed to play an important role in this fire as well. With such a strong West wind blowing on the giant fire, embers were being carried to far distances throughout Cornwall. This caused a great danger to other buildings around town, because if a fire broke out, firemen would not be able to assist other families. In order to prevent more fires, families all over Cornwall attached their garden hoses to their sinks and placed the hoses along the shingles of their roofs, keeping an active stream present. Although people took precautions, this did not stop the embers from sparking another seventeen homes in flames. These smaller fires occurred on Sidney (this is how the street was spelt in 1933!), Amelia, Third and Fourth Streets. One of the most fearful “ember fires” that occurred, was when an ember lodged its way into the grandstands at the Athletic Grounds (This is the field across the street from Cornwall’s Armoury.) Although it was put out by civilians who noticed it, substantial damage was done to the stand at the top of the stairs, as well as several large holes throughout the entire structure.

Among those that suffered at the hands of the Great Fire, a family with little money was also targeted by the flames. Andrew Bough, his wife, and their eight children were forced to leave their apartment at 248 Pitt Street when the store beneath them (operated by Miss Rose Leger) became engulfed with flames. After hearing some commotion, one of the younger boys noticed the flames and the firemen quickly gathering around them and the buildings adjacent to them. After letting out a shriek, the family soon realized what was happening. The family of ten escaped out the only route they could; a rickety flight of small steps leading up from the lane in the rear of the store to their small apartment. Bough and his family had no choice but to flee through the thick smoke down the small stairway. Bough was quoted in the newspaper, “The only thing I saved, besides the clothes we have on our backs was a teaspoon [that] young Donald was carrying. He had been eating when the fire started, and still [has] it clasped [tightly] in his little fist.” Andrew Bough was middle aged at the time of the tragedy, and unemployed. The only work he had at the time, was cleaning the streets of Cornwall two weeks per month. He was the only breadwinner of the family, his eldest child being a little girl of thirteen, and his youngest was a fourteen month old boy named Donald.

The Great Fire of August 7, 1933 was the worst disaster that occurred in our city. Mayor Aaron Horovitz received several sympathy telegrams over the next few days after the fire. Messages came from the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, Dr. H. A. Bruce, the Mayor of Toronto, W.J. Stewart, and the Mayor of Montreal, Fernand Rinfret, amongst others. In total, dozens of people lost employment, over thirty-one businesses were destroyed, fifteen families were left homeless, and there was $1,000,000 worth of damage on Pitt Street between Second and Third Streets alone.

Photo Credits:
Top: Photo from my personal collection.
Bottom: Photo courtesy of the collection of Lily Worrall.