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

“Tragic Scene” 100 Years Ago as Syndicate Block Fire Kills Four

Brandon Sun, January 18, 2016 - David McConkey

Monday, Jan. 17, 1916: Brandon’s deadliest fire. The fire at the Syndicate Block, Seventh and Rosser, killed four employees of the department store Doig, Rankin & Robertson. The story of the fire was made more dramatic because it was during the Great War. And because the fire happened just days after Brandon’s deadliest disaster.

In 1916, the world was at war. And the war was not just overseas, but here at home. Thousands of soldiers were training east of Brandon at Camp Hughes. The newly constructed three-storey Gordon-McKay building at Seventh and Pacific was serving as a barracks for soldiers of the 79th Battalion. Soldiers were at the armoury at 11th and Victoria. And they were across the street at the Winter Fair buildings, guarding hundreds of imprisoned enemy aliens.
The Syndicate Block fire was in the shadow of the train crash the Wednesday before that killed 19 workers. The dead from the crash were taken to the city’s three funeral homes. A few were taken to a new firm, George Brockie & Co. Most were taken to two older companies. One was Campbell & Campbell. The other was Macpherson & Bedford, which was located in the Syndicate Block.

On the day of the fire, Irene Matthews was one of the employees working at Doig, Rankin & Robertson. She was head of the dressmaking department, catering to the needs of Brandon and area women. After shoppers selected the fabric and the pattern they wanted, their outfits were made at the store. Matthews and her crew of dressmakers worked on the third floor.

“Miss Matthews is a dress suit maker of the first order,” the store stated in a 1913 Brandon Daily Sun advertisement, announcing her arrival from Toronto. “Miss Matthews is an artist in her profession.”

Each year, the store sent Matthews to New York City to bring the latest fashions back to Brandon. “Miss Matthews has spent the last month in New York,” the store said in one ad, “and returns with a fund of new ideas pertaining to her art, which will be appreciated by the ladies of Brandon.” Matthews, the store said, is “one of the recognized leading modistes in Canada.” 

Matthews lived in a house at 510 - 10th St. The house was right beside the Winter Fair buildings, then being used to intern the enemy aliens.

Matthews survived the fire and was later praised for helping others to escape. Matthews had to leap to safety from the third floor. She was seriously hurt when she landed and spent several weeks in hospital recovering.

Dressmaker Dorothy Hearn was the last person to get out of the burning building. Hearn, 18, lived with her widowed mother in the next block at 231 Seventh St. Seeing the injuries of those who had jumped before her, Hearn first hung down and then dropped. Her fall was cushioned by a firefighter and snow on the ground.
The four killed in the fire were all in their twenties and worked on the third floor. Three were dressmakers: Sadie Eggertson, Jane Marsh and Caroline McCort. The fourth was the head of the home furnishings department, Clarence Walker.
The fire destroyed the Doig, Rankin & Robertson store, which was at the east end of the Syndicate Block. There was less damage to the two businesses at the west end of the building: men’s and boys’ clothing store H. W. Ball & Co. and furniture store and funeral home Macpherson & Bedford.

During the fire, soldiers from the nearby 79th Battalion helped to whisk goods to safety from H. W. Ball. For their efforts, the soldiers were given mitts and tuques.

After the fire, Doig, Rankin & Robertson carried on. The business set up in a temporary location; competitors offered their help. H. W. Ball and Macpherson & Bedford held fire sales. “A large part of our stock was saved without any damage by water or smoke,” H. W. Ball informed customers in an ad. The store proclaimed that theirs would be: “The greatest sale a fire ever started!”
The day after the fire, the Sun reported that the ruins of the Syndicate Block “presented a weirdly picturesque sight.” The Sun described the view: “ice hanging like the edges of a great glacier” and “the sun rays glittering like countless diamonds.”

“Girders, iron supports and parts of the interior which had withstood the flames were twisted and covered with ice, standing like giant polar bears looking down on the tragic scene.”

* * * *
See also:  

“A Gloom Over the City”

Two Sides of News 100 Years Ago: War and Shopping

Dark Side of Brandon’s Past

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

Reflections on the Great War



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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