Sunday, 22 January 2012

West End History: Minto Armouries Fire (1956)

Source: Winnipeg Fire Museum

At 5:25 a.m. on Sunday, January 22, 1956, Bert Polson, the Minto Armouries' night furnaceman, was eating lunch when he noticed smoke entering the boiler room and called the fire department. 

When firefighters arrived at the St. Matthews Avenue building, they found the main entrance to the massive structure was located directly underneath the second floor area that was burning. Add to that temperatures in the minus 20s and they knew they had their work cut out for them.

At the other end of the building, a different drama was unfolding. The Armouries' live-in caretaker couple, Robert and Lily Mainer, had fled to the roof to escape the smoke. Due to the darkness and the noise of the fire, they spent half an hour crying out in vain.

Lily, who was partially paralyzed due to lateral sclerosis, recounted: "Does anybody hear us? Like heck they do. They're (neighbours) all asleep. Half an hour we stand there screaming and shivering and shivering and screaming." (January 23, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press.)

They were finally spotted by a passing police car and firefighters were alerted. The couple, and their pets, were saved.

As news of the fire spread, soldiers came to the Armoury.

The first to arrive was a Lt. Smith, who drove ten vehicles out of the basement. Others removed the remaining vehicles as well as regimental trophies and records, musical instruments, kilts, rifles and "refreshments", (the newspapers didn't elaborate on the latter.) Sadly, though, not all of the records and photos were saved.

January 23, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press

The twelve-hour blaze took its toll on firefighters, injuring two and costing Battalion Chief Andrew Hebenton his life.

Hebenton, 65, was a 42-year veteran of the force and entered the building numerous times over the course of the morning. On one trip he had chest pains and had to be helped outside by his men. He refused to leave the scene and directed the fight from his car. When his chest pains continued he was brought, against his will, to hospital.

Hospital staff thought that the feisty Hebenton might be delirious from heat exhaustion and began asking him questions, to which he shot back: “I know what day it is. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s Sunday. And there’s a fire at Minto Armouries and I’ve got to get back there fast." He died shortly after from a heart attack. (January 23, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press.) 

It had been a devastating few weeks for the fire department. Chief David Clawson was unable to attend fires due to a heart problem, the deputy chief was injured when he fell at a fire in December and in November Battalion Chief Robert Beatson was killed at a blaze.

Morale had been low at the department for a number of years due to administrative matters. It was further lowered when a couple of firemen told the media that that the second alarm, called in from the site at 10:30 a.m., came hours too late, allowing the blaze to become an inferno.

March 3, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press

The fire caused $600,000 in damage and spawned a number of investigations.

The first was by the provincial fire commissioner on the cause of the fire. He ruled it was accidental, believed to have been caused by a smouldering cigarette butt on a chesterfield in the second floor Sergeants' Mess.

The the Public Safety Committee of city council ordered the fire department to do a special investigation because of the public comments made by firefighters at the scene about a delay in calling in a second alarm. 

The two firemen who went public about the delay refused to sign official statements to that effect. One said that he spoke out of emotion and couldn't remember all of the facts. the other denied ever speaking to a reporter.

Though some on council and in the media wanted a further, independent investigation, others felt that there was no point if there was no 'official' complaint by men on the scene. The report was "received as information."

The department's 68-page report came in early March and concluded that: "Fire department records indicate that proper fire fighting techniques were employed in the fighting of the fire" and that having additional firefighters on-hand earlier than 10:30 would not have made a difference. (March 3, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press.)

Minto Armouries

The Defense Department also explored whether or not the Armouries could be rebuilt. 

Initially, it was thought that the building might be a write-off, cheaper to rebuild than to repair. They hired consultants, including Green, Blankstein, Russell and Associates, to examine the structure and provide a cost estimate for reconstruction.

February 25, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press

While this was going on, a lobby began to have the Armouries moved elsewhere in the city.

Built in what was the outskirts of the city in 1913, the West End, west of Arlington Street, had grown into a mature, residential neighbourhood. The noise and traffic of an armoury was a sore point for some.

Some on council examined whether a zoning technicality could prevent the reconstruction, (it couldn't.) Then, the city looked into purchasing land immediately north of the Armouries to save any future expansion. They were too late, though, as DND had already purchased it along with a section of land to the south, across St. Matthews Avenue.

On March 16, 1956 it was announced in the House of Commons that the cost to restore the Armouries was $470,000, within what the department considered reasonable.

In July, plans for a $900,000 redevelopment, including new buildings to the north and south of the main building, were announced. Work began soon after.

One noticeable difference between the old and rebuilt structure is the height of the roof over the central drill hall.

Minto Armouries

Minto Armouries is still in use today. It is home to the
Royal Winnipeg Rifles and their regimental museum as well as the The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders Cadet Corps.

Armouries in Winnipeg Swept by $600,000 fire Ottawa Citizen (1956)
Visiting Winnipeg's Historic Minto Armouries The Bomb Garden
Photos of Minto Armouries


RM said...

Love these stories about the West End;s history and buildings. Thanks.

mrchristian said...

Thanks ! I enjoy writing them. There's more to come !

WonderBird said...

I remember walking with my dad the next day to view the damage. Back in the day when news came from the radio or the next day's newspaper rather than instant video uploads and people walked several miles to get the visual context for what they were hearing.

Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks, WonderBird!

Anonymous said...

As a member of the 1st.RCHA stationed at Fort Osborne we were called out to assist the fire fighters. I remember handling the fire hoses as directed and it was cold and icy . Thanks to Salvation Army who showed up to serve coffee and sandwiches.