David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

99 Years Ago: “Icy Ruins” in City

Brandon Sun, January 5, 2015 - David McConkey

Tragedy hit downtown Brandon 99 years ago. A fire devastated the imposing Syndicate Block at Seventh and Rosser, killing four people. Almost a century later, the fire is still the city’s deadliest and one of its most dramatic stories. The corner is still a vital one, the location now of the library and art gallery.
 
Monday, Jan. 17, 1916. It should have been an ordinary day. But it was an extraordinary time.

An extraordinary time because of the war. Young men from Brandon were overseas fighting and dying. And the war was not just in Europe. The war was in Brandon itself. Hundreds of men who were “enemy aliens” were imprisoned at the Winter Fair buildings at 10th and Victoria.

It was also a time of great political and social change. Later that January, women in Manitoba – the first in Canada – would get the right to vote.

And that month in Brandon was already extraordinary. Just a few days earlier, on Jan. 12, a terrible train crash had killed 19 workers.

But Monday, Jan. 17 should have been an ordinary day for the people going to work or shop at the businesses in the Syndicate Block. The Christmas rush was over. The city should have been settling in for a cold, quiet winter.

The Syndicate Block was a stately edifice on the southwest corner of Seventh and Rosser. Constructed in 1892, it had three floors and a basement. In January 1916, three businesses occupied the building. The largest, located at the Seventh St. end, was the department store Doig, Rankin & Robertson. In the middle was the men’s and boys’ clothing store H. W. Ball & Co. At the west end was the funeral home and furniture store Macpherson and Bedford.
 
But that Monday was not to be an ordinary day. Soon after opening, Doig, Rankin & Robertson was in flames. Four employees died. Three were young women who worked as dressmakers: Sadie Eggertson, Jane Marsh and Caroline McCort. The fourth was the head of the home furnishings department: Clarence Walker.

This story reminds us of how fire was a constant threat in Brandon’s early days. Fires were frequent. They were often downtown and they were often in the winter. In February 1894, for example, there was a small fire in the Syndicate Block itself. In November 1910, a huge fire destroyed the Asylum for the Insane. In early January 1916, fire partially gutted the Crawford Block, which was on Rosser just across Seventh St. from the Syndicate Block.
 
The Brandon experience encountering fire echoes that of other people in other places. Garment factories were especially dangerous; in some places in the world, they still are. One famous fire was in 1911 in New York City, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. (“Shirtwaists” were women’s blouses.) That fire killed 146 garment workers, mostly young women.

The story from Brandon in 1916 also reminds us of how regular life carries on – even during a world war. People go about their daily lives: doing business, going to work, going out to shop.
 
And this story reminds us of how an ordinary day can go horribly wrong. How a day that seems quite mundane can take a sudden turn for the worst.
 
During this year, I will revisit the Syndicate Block story. I will recall the city, the building, the employees, the fire, and the inquiry afterward.

And I am not alone in my fascination with this day in Brandon history. Local artist Janet Shaw-Russell draws inspiration from the story for her upcoming exhibition This Fragile Dwelling Place. In the project, she is blending her drawings and other artwork with historical artifacts. And she is incorporating sewing patterns.

Shaw-Russell told me her graphite and coloured pencil drawings on the delicate tissue of the patterns become “memorials to lives lost including the three young dressmakers.” The art, she said, evokes “the ephemeral nature of life.”
 
“This Fragile Dwelling Place” will be shown later this year at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. The art gallery is located where the Syndicate Block once stood and the fire raged.

Monday, Jan. 17, 1916: it was all over very quickly. By the afternoon, the Syndicate Block was a charred, frozen mess covered with ice from the water used to douse the fire.

The headline in the next day’s Brandon Daily Sun: “Four Bodies Found Amidst the Icy Ruins.”

* * * *
See also:  

This Fragile Dwelling Place

Discovering Historic Downtown Brandon

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Remembering Nellie McClung

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

 



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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
204-726-9440
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