Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fire of 1819


In the predawn hours of October 27, 1819, two young apprentices, sleeping in a shop garret on Notre Dame Street, were roused from their sleep by disturbing sounds. A glance at the peculiar glow outside their window quickly confirmed that a major fire was raging in their vicinity. They raised the alarm and the tocsin was urgently sounded, calling citizens to help contain and subdue the flames. The Gibbs & Kollmyer tailoring shop where the apprentices resided was spared, but not so the three adjoining buildings and another across the street. Despite all efforts, the home of the Howard sisters, the business and home of confectioner Jean-Baptiste Girard, as well as that of Paul Kauntz, also a confectioner, burned to the ground.

Flying embers set fire to the Bossange & Papineau bookstore across the street. The blaze was so intense that residents had to climb out of their windows, wearing nothing but their nightclothes, to reach the safety of a snow-covered street. Blame for the fire was eventually laid on a maidservant who had gone up to the garret with a candle the previous evening.

The story of the fire had a considerable impact, being picked up by about a dozen American newspapers, but also fueling pointed discussions in Montreal. Although members of the Fire Club, the Police and several Sulpician brothers from the nearby seminary had rushed to the scene, it was repeatedly remarked that a relatively small number of people came out to help. A few made heroic efforts to save nearby businesses, but others seemed content to simply watch, apparently indifferent to the suffering of the victims. Thieves also took advantage of the situation and made off with many of Mr. Bossange’s books and others helped themselves to Mr. Girard’s goods.

One newspaper offered this description: “Some votaries of Bacchus appeared not by any means dissatisfied with the taste of Mr. Girard’s wine. To those in the habit of exercising their risible muscles, it was no small treat to behold, at 6 o’clock on Wednesday morning, a drunken soldier and Indian on the opposite sides of a cask of the above liquid, the head of which had been broken in, drinking sociably to each other out of rusty tin cans, and eloquently descanting on the scene before them in language as unintelligible to each as Hebrew and Arabic.”

Criticism was levelled particularly at the firemen who, though quite willing to do their duty, seemed disorganized and lacking in training. The extent of the damage was also blamed on the short supply of water and the lack of sufficient fire plugs – fortunately, the Sulpicians had been able to pump water from their own garden. The garrison was also criticized for apparently not coming to the aid of the firemen even though soldiers not on duty that night had been immediately dispatched to the scene by their officers. However, when they arrived, there were no fire magistrates to be found and the officers did not think it appropriate to simply let the soldiers act without specific orders. (Apparently there was some concern about the depredations some of them might commit without adequate supervision!)

On a personal level, the event dealt a cruel blow to the Girard family. Mr. Girard was a former Napoleonic soldier, who, at the end of his military career, emigrated to Boston and later Portsmouth, New Hampshire, before settling in Montreal in 1816.

While in Portsmouth, the umbrella manufactory and confectionary/ice cream business he had set up escaped unscathed the devastating fire of December 1813 which destroyed about 250 buildings. On that occasion, Girard had been among the first citizens on the scene who had spared no effort in trying to stop the spread of the flames. At the time of the Montreal fire, Girard had been out of town, travelling to Pointe Claire to deliver writs as part of the duties of his other profession as bailiff of the Court of King’s Bench. The sight that greeted him on his return must have been jarring. The card of thanks he placed in the Canadian Courant newspaper expressed his “most ardent thanks to all those individuals who so generously exerted themselves for the preservation of his family and property during his absence.” The family lost everything. Girard continued working as bailiff for some months, but when he was given a donation of a home and property by his father-in-law in Epsom, New Hampshire, the family left Montreal.

The buildings occupied by Girard and the Howard sisters today correspond to #221-229 Notre Dame Street West. The current building is in the Art Deco style and was constructed in 1930. The Kauntz property was located at #215. The building which stands there today dates from 1866. Across the street, the location of the Bossange & Papineau bookstore is now part of the Exchange Bank building, dating from 1874.

Canadian Courant (27 Oct. 1819)
Canadian Courant (30 Oct. 1819)
Courier du bas Canada (30 Oct. 1819)
Montreal Herald (30 Oct. 1819)
New York Evening Post (5 Nov. 1819)


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The Past Whispers
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