Great Fire of 1852

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Destruction of the Hays House in Dalhousie Square, 1852.
Map of buildings destroyed by fire, published in La Minerve, July 15, 1852.

The Great Fire of 1852 was a fire in Montreal that began on July 8, 1852, and left as many as 10,000 people homeless, at a time when the city's population was only 57,000, and destroyed almost half of the city's housing. The fire occurred at a time when the city's recently constructed reservoir, located at the site of today's Saint-Louis Square, was drained and closed for repairs. The first fire broke out at a tavern on Saint-Laurent Boulevard and spread quickly, fanned by strong winds and hot, dry summer weather.[1][2]

The fire that started on Saint-Laurent Boulevard originated from a wooden house, as was typical at the time. It spread from there to the block in between Saint Denis Road and what was known as Craig Street (now Saint-Antoine Road). The flames engulfed the Saint-Jacques Cathedral, the hospital on Dorchester Street, and the Theatre Royal. Within hours, one quarter of Montreal was destroyed.[3]

Before the Great Fire of 1852[edit]

Montreal was developed in the 1600s. The wealthy French-Canadians moved to the area in search for a new place to settle. The new colony formed their own government and education system and were growing as the years went on. Later in Montreal's history, the diversity of citizens increase as work was becoming more available. The diversity mostly included Irish and Asian tenants who were coming to North America in search of work, but ironically they were the ones who were affected by the fire the most. Before the Great Fire of 1852, there were several other fires and problems that came prior. The first was in 1849 when the Parliament building was set ablaze. The city was in economic turmoil and this left houses and stores left with out any business or tenants. After Parliament had been set fire, the early 1850s had four fires that consumed many of the housing district of Montreal. These fires destroyed over 350 different buildings in the span of two years. This however is no where near the amount of homes engulfed by the Great fire of July 8 and 9 of 1852.

Montreal Fire Department[edit]

The Montreal Fire Brigade, or Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal, originated as a service of volunteers which was not the most effective service to combat fires. In the beginning of the brigade, the only way to get water to the homes of civilians was by going to the public water pumps, private wells, or to the nearby river or lakes. While combating fires, it would be incredibly hard for the volunteer firefighters to go from the burning houses, back to the water supply, and back to the place of emergency, taking too much time, and the fire would continue to rage on. One way that they tried to solve this problem was to have carters going from the water supply to the homes in Montreal. These carters would carry buckets of water to the city and try to get there before any other carters could. This was due to the incentive of three dollars extra pay for getting there first. This of course would cause for the carters to rush, not fill the bucket all the way, or spill some of the water on their course over to the house. Spilling the water would have caused major problems while fighting fires because there would not be enough to put out a house fire, and when they ran out of water the fire would rage out of control.

The Montreal Fire Brigade at the time of the July 8–9, 1852 fire was a group of around 12 volunteer fire fighters. The coordinator of this company of volunteers was a man named John Perrigo. Perrigo was not the most impressive fire chief that had served the people of Montreal, and his actions to combat the fire showed just that. His main plan was to destroy buildings that were on fire to cause a firebreak. The small number of volunteer fire fighters was no match for the fire. They required help from soldiers to dismantle buildings in order to bring a cease to the destruction.[4]

The professional era of the fire brigade came to be in the late nineteenth century. The city's government found it too expensive to hire the manpower to operate the equipment used in the earlier nineteenth century. The new steam fire engine allowed for the city to hire the men who were trained in the use of the machinery, and the art of fire fighting. This new technology and the need for professional firefighters changed the Montreal Fire Brigade for centuries to come.


The disaster led to the construction of the newer and larger McTavish reservoir, and the dismissal of the city's chief engineer, who co-ordinated Montreal's all-volunteer fire companies, for failing to respond quickly enough to stop the spread of the blaze.[1][2]

New architecture[edit]

After the fire, Montreal began to urbanize and industrialize. With the progressive movement, newer and safer houses would need to be built in order to provide shelter to the new inhabitants of the city. New fireproof technology was introduced to the architecture of the houses in order to prevent future fires that threaten with destruction. Much of the blame is placed upon the wooden gutters that were used in Montreal at the time. When the gutters caught fire, they caused the rafters to be set ablaze as well, which would cause the inside of the building be engulfed as the fire grew.[5] A witness to the rebuilding stage stated that the new buildings were of great quality and that the lots that were not being built on were some of the best areas in the city.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Kalbfleisch, John (12 July 2003). "The Great Fire of Montreal". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 1 January 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Le Plateau historique : Carré Saint-Louis". L’Avenue du Mont-Royal (in French). Société de Développement de l’avenue du Mont-Royal. Retrieved 1 January 2012. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ “The Great Fire of Montreal.” Accessed September 8, 2014.
  5. ^ a b Redfern, Bruce D. “The Montreal Fire Department in the Nineteenth Century: Its Transformation from a Volunteer to a Professional Organization.” Concordia University, 1993.