The 1907 Minto Skating Club Fire

Illustration of a skating carnival at the Old Rideau Skating Rink, 1895. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

In November of 1949, the Minto Skating Club suffered a devastating loss when a harrowing fire destroyed its rink on Waller Street in Ottawa. Unbelievably, it wasn't the first time the Club had suffered at the hands of flames. Forty-two years prior, during the reign of King Edward VII, the exact same thing happened.

Around six o'clock in the morning on Friday, January 25, 1907, a young girl named Gravelle was on her way to an early mass service at the Sacred Heart Church when she saw smoke billowing out of the south end of the Rideau Skating Rink on the corner of Theodore (now Laurier) and Waller Streets.

The Rideau Skating Club (left) and No. 2 fire station (middle) on Theodore Street. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

Summoning her courage, she ran to the No. 2 fire station and told an engineer what she saw. He sounded the station's gong and sent another man to pull an alarm box. 

By the time firemen made it next-door to the Rideau Skating Rink, the occupants of the caretaker's quarters were in grave danger. An article from the January 25, 1907 issue of "The Ottawa Citizen" recalled, "Firemen entered the building by breaking in a window. Clouds of smoke were coming out of the tea room part of the rink and sweeping up through the air space to the northern section, where the caretaker resided... The firemen made their way up the two flights of stairs to where [Sol] Hebert lived and first brought down the old lady - Mrs. Turgeon. Then Miss Maxwell and Mrs. Hebert and daughter [Pearl] came down safely. By this time the caretaker's part was filled with smoke and Hebert, himself, who had stayed behind to endeavor to save some household effects, found his exit cut off. He went to the top window, however, and the firemen spread a net, into which he jumped and escaped with a shaking up."

Though eleven streams of water were aimed at the Rideau Skating Rink, a draught caused flames to sweep towards the rink. As the fire intensified, the rink's girders gave way and the main part of the building collapsed. 

Though some pairs of skates managed to survive the blaze because they were located in a check room near a set of dressing rooms that weren't badly damaged in the fire and building collapse, pretty much everything in the rink was destroyed. The Cliffsides, Emmetts, Bankers and Crescents hockey teams all lost records and equipment which they had stored there, as did the Minto Skating Club, which had its headquarters there.

Ironically, the biggest victim as a result of the tragedy wasn't anyone who was even at the rink. Because pretty much every fireman nearby was responding to the fire at the Rideau Skating Rink, Captain Joseph A. Mills of the No. 1 fire station on Duke Street was left alone to respond to an alarm from box 126, which ultimately only turned out to be an overheated pipe at a house on Murray Street. While rushing around the corner of Barrett's Lane, the thirty-three year veteran of the Ottawa Fire Department was thrown from his hose sleigh when rushing around the corner of Barrett's Lane. When he was found, he was unconscious, blood was oozing out of his nose and ears and two of his ribs were broken. It was later determined that he had a fracture at the base of his skull. After spending almost a month in the hospital, he was released but he suffered a permanent vision impairment and was unable to work again.

The cause of the blaze was something of a mystery. The rink had been packed with 'fancy' skaters the night before and the Minto Skating Club's secretary J.H. Labbe said that when he left at 10:30 at night nothing was amiss. Sol Hebert and another rink employee, William Lemieux, told authorities that when they finished well after midnight, there was no sign of fire anywhere. They asserted that there hadn't been any heat on in the part of the rink where the fire started but those who were first on the scene seemed to think the fire started in the rink's tea room, where a range would have been used. The damage was estimated at approximately twelve thousand dollars and the rink was only ensured for about five thousand dollars of that.

The destruction of the Rideau Skating Rink necessitated the cancellation of the 1907 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, which were tentatively slated for late February or early March, but it inspired an incredible response from Ottawa's skating community. In seven days, seventy-five thousand dollars in capital was assured by a group of investors known as the D.V. Rogers Syndicate, to build a new skating rink in Ottawa "of the same dimensions as the big one in Montreal". 

A view of Theodore Street at the turn of the century. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

That a skating club has lost everything not once, but twice, and kept on going strong is a testament to the perseverance of Ottawa's skating community.

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