On this day 100 years ago: Catastrophic fire on Parliament Hill

Barker-Laberge

Oil painting of the fire on Parliament Hill on February 3, 1916 (artist unknown). Canadian Museum of History, 93-698, IMG2016-0016-0001-Dm

Oil painting of the fire on Parliament Hill on February 3, 1916 (artist unknown). Canadian Museum of History, 93-698, IMG2016-0016-0001-Dm

On this day 100 years ago, a disastrous fire ravaged the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Only the Library of Parliament survived.

Records indicate that the blaze started in the House of Commons Reading Room, possibly due to careless smoking. It spread quickly, fuelled by paper and varnished wood panelling. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, who was in his office when the fire broke out, reportedly escaped the burning building via a “messenger’s stairwell.”

Piece of wood from Sir Robert Borden’s office door in the original House of Commons. The small copper plate bears the inscription: "SOUVENIR OF FIRE PARL'T BLDG'S OTTAWA FEB. 3 – 1916. WOOD FROM SIR ROBERT BORDEN'S DOOR." Canadian Museum of History, 7255-3242-2567-057

Piece of wood from Sir Robert Borden’s office door in the original House of Commons. The small copper plate bears the inscription: “SOUVENIR OF FIRE PARL’T BLDG’S OTTAWA FEB. 3 – 1916. WOOD FROM SIR ROBERT BORDEN’S DOOR.” Canadian Museum of History, 7255-3242-2567-057

Firefighters had the blaze mostly under control by 3 a.m. Throughout the night, soldiers, police and fire crews struggled to save Parliamentary treasures, including works of art and furniture from the Senate Chamber.

Despite the tragedy, Parliament resumed the next afternoon. While the fire burned, Borden and his Cabinet met at the Chateau Laurier, where they discussed possible temporary homes for Parliament. The Victoria Memorial Museum — a precursor to the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian Museum of Nature — was immediately converted into a makeshift chamber to conduct the nation’s political business. Reconstruction of the Centre Block was undertaken that same year, officially beginning on July 24. The new building was not completed until November 11, 1928, when the central Memorial Tower, today known as the Peace Tower, was officially opened.

100 years later, key artifacts and archival photos from the fire bear testimony to this tragic episode in Canadian history, giving us a better understanding of this significant incident.

To learn more: www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/fire-on-the-hill-feature/

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