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The Great Hull-Ottawa Fire of April 26, 1900 - the Wind-Driven Maelstrom

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

BONUS BLOG: Today, to mark the 120th anniversary of the Great Hull and Ottawa Fire of 1900, here's a personal account from my Aunt Rosa (Sarah Rosina Wright, great-granddaughter of Philemon Wright).

Hull-Fire Blasting across the Ottawa River - April 26, 1900


390 Sparks St.

Sunday April 29, 1900 My dear Mabel:

Sarah Rosina "Rosa" Wright at 10 years, 1879

Will you excuse this letter in lead pencil because the only pens I can find here don't suit me. I may as well begin with Thursday morning to tell you all I can about the fire. It is almost impossible to find time to write for there are so many visitors, and Papa[2] is dreadfully restless and I have to watch him all the time for fear he should get out on the street and wander away. He does not seem to realize his loss but knows something is wrong and is always wanting to start for somewhere. I do hope he will settle down in a few days for it is an awful strain to have him like this, but I’m thankful he cannot feel like he did a few years ago or his heart would be broken. That Thursday morning, I drove him to town, did some shopping and laying in a supply of groceries and a lot of things he wanted. I had left Molly and Lily[3] in Hull with the girls, and I called at Lizzie’s[4] on my way home, soon after 11 o’clock, and she said there was a fire in Hull. We phoned George[5] to find out where. It was away back of the Model school house fully half a mile from our place. We drove on towards Hull and up past where the Frank Scotts[6] used to live, and had a view of the fire but never dreamed it would be such a dreadful one. We only stayed there a minute and drove home.

CB Wright & Family at Home 1886, Rosa is seated on grass

I called the man to take the horse and he came running up from the stables and said he thought the hayloft must be on fire as the stable was full of smoke. I made him run up to see and ran after him into the carriage-house where I immediately saw some boards of the floor smoldering. I rushed out and down the road and shouted to the man to go and give the alarm at Eddy’s[7]. Then I tore back and met the blacksmith who had come up from the kilns to find the working-horses as usual. I sent him off for water and he was soon back with two pails which put out the fire, then they tore up part of the floor to make sure there was no more fire. That was about 11.30 a.m.

CB Wright Home on Philemon Island & Lime-Kilns, 1859

Rug[8] came driving up soon after and got all the buildings closed up and sent for his men and stationed them about with pails. We had lots of water from our dam but no force. By that time the flames had got really to Main Street. The maid was dancing with fright and though I never thought we should be burned up, I hated to see her so excited. So, my little maid took both the children over to Lizzie's through Hurdman's Lumber Yard. They could not get a car (electric streetcar) and she had to carry Lily all the way, but I was thankful later that I had sent them in time.

The other girl and I got all the tubs, wash-boilers, etc. filled with water and put them at different corners of the verandah and while the men and our boys and George B.[9] & Co. who arrived on the scene were working about the stables & yard putting out sparks, I kept tearing around the garden watching the corners and windows of the house and made frequent trips to the cupola to see if all was right there. Even when the boys made us leave the house, I never felt it was going to burn. One of my trips upstairs I gathered up my jewelry and put it inside my dress.

Main St. Hull before the fire, 1890

We worked like Trojans and the roof of the log stable caught fire time and again and was put out by our boys on the roof. Before the fire reached Main Street, Hull, the flying sparks set fire to the lumber on the Ottawa side directly opposite our house and soon stretched up and down along the river-bank. I took a photo of it from George's window but of course, my camera & everything is gone. Soon after, the lumber between us and the river was burning, also the dry-house at the foot of the road and the wood piled in our lower garden, but fortunately there was little wood left there then.

Then George (Wright) said we must get Papa and we girls were to go too. The horses were all away by that time for they would have been of no earthly use to us, they were so excited and wild. The men got Papa out and put him in our new carriage & with George, hauled him down to the lime-kilns the back way. I rushed upstairs and got two small handbags and gave one to the girl telling her to put her most cherished belongings into it, and I went around and gathered up a few things but think I was rather rattled. The boys came in one after the other calling to us to come at once. I was downstairs at once but had to wait for the girl and thought I should never get her down. At last Jim[10] went up and made her come down and they sent us down the back way.

Our big stable was burning on one side of the road and the sheds and ice-house and Eddy's sheds were ablaze on the other. The boys say if we had been 5 minutes later we would have been surrounded as they were big flames. We met George W(right) coming from the Kilns but he could not come back to the house, as we heard later, so he made his way to his own office and put things away in the vault & safe. The vault was not fireproof and nearly all the things were later destroyed. His safe he has not examined yet but thinks it is alright (later it was found to have dropped through into the basement and so was saved).

George B.[11] & Co., Rug & Jim stayed near the house till it became too hot. They brought out some of George (Wright's) books and put them in the garden but they took fire right off. When it got too hot there (in the garden) they wet each other all over from one of the tubs, then carried one down to the lower garden where they huddled together near the stone wall and kept themselves wet, waiting till the dry-houses would be burned down sufficiently to let them get past. They were joined by four men from Eddy's and had a terrible time for nearly an hour when the pail warehouse, on the other side of the fence, took fire and the flames came shooting over their heads. They could not stand it any longer and decided to make a dash for life. One of Eddy's men, a watchman, was an old cripple, 83 years of age, and twice when they lay huddled against the wall, they thought he was dead, for he lay there with his eyes closed and would not exert himself, and they kept wetting handkerchiefs and laying them over him.

When they ran to the wall along the foot of the garden they carried him and the tub too, but they could not get him over the wall, which was red-hot and burned their hands, so they carried him to a hole in one corner of the wall and left him there with the tub of water, never imagining he could survive (but he did, as they learned later). They got over the wall and into the pond, dived under water and swam to the other side, having to help another old man who could not swim and was frightened to death. They got out alright and up to Hull, between the burning paper mills on one side of the road and the burning match factory on the other, and finally ended up at Scotts', where Papa & I had got before them.

When the girl and I got to the Kilns, Papa was at the Office, and we stayed there as long as I dared, but when I saw the flames creeping down Main Street, I thought we had better move before we were surrounded. She and I took Papa between us and we walked slowly along till we came to the house of a man who used to work for Papa, and we went in there and Papa got a glass of milk, some bread & cold ham. Then I tried to direct my girl up to Mrs. Scott's to see if they could send down some sort of conveyance for Papa; she managed to find the place and they sent a horse and carriage by George Walker, who took us up there by a roundabout road, the only way we could go.

Extent of the Fire 1900

Then the flames were not on their side at the creek[13] but soon after they got there and their conservatory took fire twice and was put out. They sent first Mrs. Scott, then Papa & me, out to Mrs. Walker's on the Chelsea road. We called at the Garriochs' and took old Mrs. G. and the baby to the Col. Wright's[14] and someone else moved out Jeff. Mrs. Willie Garrioch had had a mishap two days before and was seriously ill in bed and they did not move her - fortunately - for the fire on that side was soon put out, and nearly all Eddyville (village d'Argentine) survived. None of the Garriochs seemed to be any the worse for the excitement. (Willie Garrioch is credited with having saved all the records from St. James Church[15]).

Before we left the Scotts', Rug, Jim, George, B. & Co., came along and had heard that the fire was raging in Ottawa and that the Cecil Hotel was burned, and a lot of exaggerated stories. So, I was in awful state about Lizzie, Stuart & Lily and implored their husbands to go right home, which they did as speedily as possible by the ferry, the only way for all the bridges were burned (this ferry owned by George Brigham).

I did not hear till 12.30 that night when Geo. W. came out to the Walkers', that they were alright. ln the meantime I put in an awful time, having to sit there and watch Papa, and not knowing how they fared. We were all made very comfortable at the Walkers' for the night - Mrs. Scott, Papa, George W., my girl & I, but it was pitiful seeing people spending the night by their belongings along the sides of the road, and it was a cold night too. All the householders were kindness itself and when their houses were full, would send out food, etc. to those in the open.

Jim W. spent the night at Charlie's[16] then later sometimes there and sometimes at Rug's, and he always calls here once a day. Friday morning the Scotts: took us there (Charlie's) and after dinner drove us down to the ferry, and we came across then to here in the cars. It nearly broke my heart to look at the four walls of our dear old home; we’ll never have another we will all care for so much, but I’m thankful we all escaped without injury. Rug, Jim, George; B. & C., had very sore eyes but they used boracic acid (sic)[17] and they are all pretty well now.

The old man they left behind was not burned after all and must have recovered his presence of mind soon after they left him, for when the fire got very fierce, he plunged his head then his back in the tub and kept himself constantly wet. When the fire had died away, he dropped himself down to the back of the island, got a plank and pushed himself across the slide, and was finally helped by someone. His escape is marvelous and the boys are so thankful for they felt dreadful at leaving him.

Dr. Graham's[18] house, Eddy's and all his mills & buildings, the Frank Scott house, all the Marston[19] property, one old church, the Smiths, Lyster's, Johnston & Brooks houses all are gone; also the post office, courthouse, George W'S[20] office (several blocks to the east), and all the Cement Works[21] & office; the fire going the whole length of Main Street, and back of it for a long way, then right to the river. You never saw a cleaner sweep in your life - there are hardly ashes left.

Looking North over LeBreton Flats during the Fire

In Ottawa it is just as bad; all along the Richmond Road is burned, and between that & the river; also, back of the Richmond Road to the Experimental Farm (the latter place is alright). The Dr. Marston 's place, Dr. Hill 's[22], Dr. Malloch's[23], Pinhey's[24] and a lot of other splendid places are gone - also McKay's big flour mills at the Chaudière, and everything else there. The iron of the bridges is all twisted. Ottawa has no street lights, many houses were in darkness for a couple of days, and the cars[25] were stopped till Friday morning.

Heaps & heaps of people we know are left without a thing but the clothes they stand in, and some have little or no insurance. The Lysters[26] have lost everything except his instruments & a baby carriage full of silver, and have no insurance. Anne Smith has only the clothes she stands in. We have a good deal of insurance I think, but George says it will never cover our loss, and of course all our little bits of sentiment are gone. I hardly think of it yet. Everything that brought us in rent is gone, except the farm, and it will be some time before George gets settled again. He & Mr. Brooke have taken offices over the Molson's Bank in Ottawa, but have got to get new furniture for them. It is awful that both lost all their books.

George looks very anxious & worried but is bearing up well and says it makes him sick to think of the narrow escape Papa & the rest of us had. I won't know how it will affect Rug for I am sure the Union Bank, who owned the Cement Works, will not rebuild, but he (Rug) has some kilns away back in Hull that will keep him going, if only the bridges are fixed up soon, and he can get stuff to town (Ottawa). Charlie's (the Sheriff) household effects were moved out but his house escaped, so he's alright, but his office in the courthouse is gone of course. All I saved for Jim was a breastpin, and for George some ties, collars, cuffs, handkerchiefs, hair-brush & a napkin ring.

I saved all my diaries[27] except this year's, and am so glad - a bit of the old life is still left. For the present I can get along with Lizzie's things till I have time to think, but until Papa gets settled, I'm hardly able to move. I sincerely thank you for your kind offers & sympathy and will let you help me later. What I want now very much is a pair of bedroom slippers, for Liz has only one pair and I often have to jump at night when I hear Papa move. So, if you want to present me with a pair, I shall be very grateful.

EB Eddy Match Factory & Main St., April 1900

Our poor driving horse was the only one cremated, but I'm afraid Jerry & three puppies have all perished and our canary which they let out of the cage. Just think of my dear old palm tree & the old oil painting of Grandfather Montgomery. I had been congratulating myself that Edith Hunter was not at our house and when I telephoned Percy, he told me she had suffered too. He came here last night & said she had just gone home as she had not enough clothes to stay. I am so sorry for her.

We have hardly formed any plans yet, but don't think it would be wise to rebuild in the same place, for it is bound to be a manufacturing centre. George wrote last night to Mrs. Fred, whose husband is away at the Klondike, and who with her two children is boarding in Aylmer, to see if she would rent us their house on the Aylmer Road near our farm; the house is just like ours where Uncle Ned Wright[28] used to live. It is furnished and has been closed up for a year and I hope we can get it till the 1st of October or November at a reasonable rate. Then the Cunninghams[29] could come to us tor the summer, and perhaps the Brighams[30] too, and we could live in picnic fashion and economize till we can look about us and decide our future. I could not stand the city (Ottawa) with Papa all summer.

In the meantime we shall stay here. George B. has been kindness itself and it is so nice to be with Liz, and I could not take Papa into anyone else's house. He seems dreadfully weak tonight. Geo. B's foundry was all burned but his ferry-boat is doing a rushing business now that there is no other way of getting to Hull, and has been making $200 every day since the fire. Liz is looking very white & is rather shaky on her feet, but has sent away her nurse and is going about now; she went tor a drive. today with Papa & Lily while I played nurse. The baby[31] is very good. Bea[32] is still in Stewarton but the other children[33] are at home.

I do wish you could come up for a day or two. I know Stuart[34] would be glad to give you a bed, or I even think some here would be wide enough for the two of us, and we could do such a lot of talking and I could show you the terrible sights. Do try to come. Everyone has been so kind & good and my opinion of the world is much better than it was. We have had so many kind letters & at least two offers of houses.

I don't think I can write any more, but this is a volume and I hope you’ll be able to read it and correct the mistakes as you go along for, I can never read it over. Please thank all the family for their sympathy which has been very sweet to us, and try to come up.

Your loving old chum Sarah

The footnotes to this letter were prepared by Patrick M, O. Evans, Wright genealogist. [1] Later known as "Aunt Rosa", a Wright family historian and genealogist. [2] Charles Brown Wright – son of Ruggles Wright Sr. [3] Youngest daughter of Charles Brown. [4] Rosa's older married sister, Mrs. Eliza Montgomery Wright Brigham. [5] Second son of Charles Brown. [6] Dr. William Francis Scott. [7] E.B. Eddy Co. [8] Ruggles, oldest son of Charles Brown. [9] George Brigham, Lizzie's husband. [10] James C., fourth son of Charles Brown. [11] George Brigham. [13] Probably Brewery Creek. [14] Likely LI. Col. Joshua Wright. [15] (From an abridged history of SI. James Church 1823-1948) "The greatest fire in the history of Hull occurred on April 26, 1900. Not only was a large part of the city destroyed, but the Church and rectory were reduced to ashes. A temporary building, known as the 'Tabernacle in the Wilderness' was erected on the Scott property." [16] Charles Montgomery Wright. third son of Charles Brown, he was Sheriff of Wright County. [17] Boracic Acid. [18] Dr. Charles Everett Graham. J.P. [19] George Jacob Marston's property, husband of Christiana Wright, granddaughter of Philemon & Abigail. [20] George Wright. Sarah Rosina's brother. [21] Cement Works, known as CB Wright & Sons. [22] Hamnett Pinhey Hill II, grandson of Dr. Hill. [23] Dr. E.C. Malloch's daughter Madge m. the son of Dr. Graham. [24] The Hamnett Pinhey family. [25] Streetcars. [26] Dr. H.V. Lyster m. Vera Marston. [27] Sarah Rosina burned her diaries in 1933 prior to giving up housekeeping & moving into the Elizabeth Residence - with her sister. Mrs. George Cunningham. [28] Probably Edward VanCortland Wright.

[29] Her mother's family name. [30] Her brother-in-law's family. [31] Rosa Wright Brigham b. 1899. [32] Beatrice b. 1892. [33] Molly, b. 1894, Charles James b. 1895. Lily Wright b. 1898., children of her sister, Liz & George Cunningham. Two more children were born alter the fire: Clare M. b. 1905 & George Murray b. 1909. [34] Her sister-in-law, Mary Stuart (MacArthur). Ruggles' wife.

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AWESOME personal account of the Great Fire! Gripping testimony! Thanks!

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