What Hath God
The Great Montreal Fire of 1789
By Chris Oakley
The year 1789 witnessed three of the most significant events in the history of the Western world: the inauguration of George Washington as the first President of the United States, the French Revolution, and the April 3rd conflagration that left much of Quebec’s provincial capital Montreal in ruins. The Great Montreal Fire was a catastrophe that shook Quebec to its core and would have profound implications for the rest of Canada as well; Montreal’s destruction dealt a serious blow not only to British colonial administration of Quebec but also to the hearts and souls of the Quebecois, not to mention trade and commerce in the province. While Montreal was a relatively small outpost then compared to the gigantic megacity we know today, it still played a sizable role in the economic and social life of Quebec and by extension Canada as a whole; the fire of 1789 set the city’s growth back by at least a decade and in turn hampered Canada’s efforts to build herself up from a distant colony of the British Empire to a sovereign independent nation.
Like another blaze that destroyed a North American city, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Great Montreal Fire of 1789 started in a barn. Also like the Chicago blaze, it was touched off when an oil lamp was knocked over; depending on which version of the story you believe, it was either a horse or a drunken farmhand who knocked over the aforementioned lamp. In any case, once the fire got started it didn’t take long to spread. A British Army sergeant posted to the city’s main garrison would later recall: "The first Alarm was sounded at seven o’clock...a Score of men from houses directly in the vicinity of our fort rushed on horseback towards the barn from where the first clouds of smoke had been sighted."
By the time that alarm was rung, the fire had already been raging for 90 minutes and spread a block beyond the barn from which it had originated. The barn itself would collapse around 7:15 PM, killing two men and seriously injuring a third. Montreal’s main British military garrison, now on full alert, deployed nearly a full battalion into the city to assist in efforts to douse the growing blaze; the garrison’s commander sent dispatch riders to fetch additional manpower for those efforts.
But containing the inferno would prove easier said than done. Like many other towns and cities of that era, Montreal was comprised mainly of wooden buildings; in such an environment, fires can and often do spread rapidly. In fact, as a bishop from the city’s largest Catholic church put in a letter written thirty years after the event: "Only by the grace of God were we spared from total destruction."1 Not until the Chicago Fire of 1871 would a fire of this scale afflict a major North American urban area; not till Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans in 2005 would civic authorities be faced with a comparably difficult recovery job.
It took the dispatch riders the better part of three hours to reach the nearest provincial militia outpost; at that point more than a third of the city was in flames and the rest was in severe danger despite volunteers’ most diligent efforts to bring the fire under control. By midnight on April 4th the fire had reached the site of the present-day Bell Centre sports arena2 and the streets were packed with throngs of refugees trying to get to safety. This human tidal wave made the volunteers’ already difficult job of putting out the blaze that much tougher. Some of the volunteers, in fact, had the misfortune to get caught in the crush of these refugees; at least a quarter of the deaths incurred among the men who battled to extinguish the Great Montreal Fire were the result of refugees inadvertently trampling some of the volunteer firefighters under their heels.
At 3:30 AM on the morning of April 5th, provincial militiamen from the outlying towns of Fredericton and Sherbrooke finally arrived in Montreal to assist the city’s beleaguered citizens in getting the fire under control. At that point the fire had destroyed half of the city and was posing a severe danger to the other half; it was questionable if anything would be left of Montreal proper by the time the sun came up. And it didn’t help matters much that many of the very streets down which these militiamen would need to go to fight the fire were jammed with wreckage, dead bodies, or some combination of the two. To reach the fire the militiamen had to traverse what amounted to the world’s largest obstacle course, and this meant the fire had more time to burn down buildings.
By 5:00 AM, just ninety minutes after the militamen from Sherbrooke and Frederickton reached Montreal proper, the city’s largest church lay in ruins and the flames were getting perilously close to the main British military garrison. Some of Montreal’s surviving residents were afraid the city might be totally wiped out by sunrise, and those fears were somewhat justified given the destruction the blaze had already inflicted. But around 5:40 AM the firefighters got a timely and much-needed break-- a moderate rain began to fall on the city, dousing some of the flames and making it easier for the volunteers to get the fire under control.
Around 10:30 AM on April 5th, the last of the flames were finally extinguished and the Great Montreal Fire came to an end. With the fire out, it was now time for Montreal civic authorities to begin the tasks of laying the dead to rest, finding shelter for the survivors, and clearing away the wreckage the fire had left in its wake. And in 1789 there weren’t the kind of post-disaster recovery mechanisms which we take for granted today; the surviving citizens of Quebec’s provincial capital largely had to depend on their own resources to rebuild their city in the aftermath of the fire.
It took until 1892, just over a century after the Great Montreal Fire occurred, for Canada to become a viable independent country. The fire took a huge physical and mental toll on Montreal’s population; it also dealt the city and the province of Quebec as a whole an economic blow from which it would take generations to recover. The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain only served to exacerbate the difficulties of that recovery; with the British constantly needing to be on guard against American incursions into Quebec and Ontario, there was little time or opportunity for British colonial authorities to do what needed to be done to strengthen Montreal’s economic health. Not until the 1820s did Montreal businesses start to return to the vitality they had enjoyed before the 1789 fire; in fact, many business establishments were permanently closed as a result of the disaster.
As late as 1861, when the American Civil War started, the downtown part of Montreal still bore some noticeable scars from the 1789 fire. Even now, you can still occasionally find a small scorch mark in the earth here and there providing silent hints to the fire’s devastation. The most conservative estimates of the casualty count from the Great Montreal Fire suggest that the blaze killed at least a third of the city’s population; another ten to twenty percent are thought to have died from diseases that spread among Montreal’s population during the weeks and months after the fire.
Tragic as it was, the 1789 fire did have two positive lasting effects for Montreal and its people. First, it spurred the formation of Canada’s first professional fire department in 1791, and second, it fostered a stronger sense of community among Montrealers, a "we’re all in the same boat" feeling which cut across linguistic, cultural, and ethnic lines. That sentiment only deepened as the city struggled to rebuild in the fire’s aftermath; as a result, the separatist attitudes so popular in much of the rest of Quebec during the second part of the 20th century would have a hard time gaining much political traction in Montreal’s French-Canadian community.
In 1889, to mark the centennial anniversary of the Great Montreal Fire, the Quebec provincial government erected a bronze statue in the heart of Montreal to honor those killed by the fire itself and by the disease epidemics which swept through the ruined city in the aftermath of the fire. The dedication at the base of that statue, in simple but eloquent tribute to the victims of the 1789 fire, says "Pour tout les morts (For all the dead)".3
1From the personal papers of Bishop Michel Jourdans, McGill University Historical Archives.
2The Montreal Canadiens hockey team has long been in the vanguard of Montreal civic institutions honoring the victims of the Great Fire of 1789. At every stadium the Canadiens have called home since the team was first established, a plaque has been erected commemorating those killed and injured in the fire; every year on the fire’s anniversary, the flags outside the team’s front offices are lowered to half-mast in memory of those who died fighting the blaze. Also, there’s a clause in the Canadiens’ franchise charter that provides for a certain portion of the team’s annual profits to be donated to the 1789 Fire Museum in the heart of downtown Montreal. Finally, during the team’s 1989 Stanley Cup run-- which coincided with the fire’s bicentennial anniversary --Canadiens players all wore patches on their uniforms bearing the word Souvenez("remember") in tribute to the victims of the 1789 conflagration.
3During both World Wars this statue was a popular backdrop for posters urging the Canadian people to support the Allied war effort, first against Kaiser Wilhelm in World War I and then against Hitler in World War II; in more recent times it has been the scene of vigils remembering those killed in the 9/11 attacks and the Indonesian tsunami of 2004. It was also the focal point for a diplomatic row between Canada and France in 1967 when then-French president Charles de Gaulle, during a state visit to meet with Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson, gave a speech before that statue in which he uttered the now-infamous comment "Vive le Quebec libre!"(Long live free Quebec!); de Gaulle insisted those words were just meant to express the hope that Quebec, and Canada as a whole, would stay democratic and safe from Communist totalitarianism, but Pearson’s administration saw it as an implicit endorsement of the Quebecois separatist movement and angrily cut de Gaulle’s visit short. The controversy would affect Canadian-French diplomatic relations for over a decade afterwards.