Montreal, QB St. James Hotel Fire, Mar 1873


Terrible Scenes Among the Boarders and Servants--A Woman Hangs to a Window-Frame for Half and Hour--Two Lives Lost.

The Montreal papers come filled with details of the terrible scenes connected with the partial destruction of the St. James Hotel, in that city, by fire, on Monday night. The hotel was a five story structure, and it was with extreme difficulty that the firemen were able to drag their hose up the stairs to the fourth story, where the flames first raged. Meanwhile the servants of the hotel on the upper floor, blinded by smoke and bewildered with terror, rushed frantically for the stairs, but in may instances were unable to find them, and , driven back by the flames, betook themselves to the roof or windows. The Witness says:

The fire was first discovered at one o'clock A. M., skipping from the rear of the laundry and forcing itself towards the front of the building where several servants slept in the upper attic. At this time they were making their escape from the windows, a large volume of smoke coming out with them. Two of the girls who came out of the attic windows on the roof were in the act of jumping off, but Mr. Perry, who happened to be on the spot before the alarm was given, appealed to them to remain quiet, until the Brigade arrived with the ladders, but the latter did not come, while the unfortunates remained screaming for help. In a few minutes more people had arrived, some of whom, seeing the perilous position of these girls, went over to Shaw's new buildings, near the ruins of St. Patrick's Hall, and returned with a ladder and saved the women. By this time the fire had got into the hotel. Having rescued these unfortunates, Mr. Perry and a member of the Fire Brigade turned their attention from the topmost story of the building. One of them, a woman, had got outside, and was holding on by her hands to the sash: he feet rested on the molding of the window below. The black smoke emauating[sic] from the windows beneath enveloped the helpless sufferer in its folds and paralyzed her energies. The woman could be seen moving her hands at intervals, but time flew, and still the ladders of the Fire Department were not available. Bedding and all sorts of material were flung from the lower windows onto the pavement, and piled up by the spectators, so if the ladders did not come in time the woman would not have her brains dashed out by the fall. Mr. Bertram had, in the mean time, secured the ladders, but it took at least ten minutes to place them against the walls, when, to the horror of all, they were found to be thirty-foot ladder, and, raising it aloft, Beckam, with his back to the wall, held it firmly in an upright position, Mr. Perry grasped the butt and steadied it on the other ladder in the manner of a splice, while Nolan managed to bring it so that it would reach the woman's feet; he immediately ascended and encouraged the woman to place her feet on the rounds and descended.

While this scene was being enacted there was a breathless silence among the spectators. The moment it was seen that the woman was on the ladder the feelings of the populace found vent in loud cheers. The moment she got to the bottom of the ladder she fainted, and was conveyed to the St. Lawrence Hall. From the time she first gout out of the window until she was rescued was at least thirty-five minutes.

The attention of the firemen was now turned to another person in danger, at the western end of the building, where McCulloch and some of his associates, in the most heroic manner, were rescuing the inmates by means of such ladders as they could procure. This person was on the roof, and, by desperate exertions on the part of the firemen, was also saved.

After the fire was well subdued, the firemen proceeded to look for possible victims in the attics, and groping their way through the steam and smoke, they came across a woman, lying perfectly nude, in the middle of a bed-room. She was not burned, the manager of the hotel, says she had come upon the roof with the two girls who were rescued, but, losing her presence of mind, returned to the stairs and sought to find her way down. She had evidently got lost, and wandered into a bed-room, and fell a victim to the smoke and flame. Her name was Mary Brennan. She bore a good character and was a hard--working laundress. At 6 A.M. the Salvage corps conveyed her body to the General Hospital, where it lies in the dead-house.

When the boarders who roomed in the upper flats were first aroused from their slumbers, the halls were filled with smoke, not a light being visible but the glare of the fire in the distance. They immediately turned to the windows for escape, and those whose presence of mind had not deserted them began tying their bed clothing together, and thus formed ropes of blankets, but as far as we can learn, only one, a Mr. Belcher, made his exit thereby, for, as the firemen forced their way up, they assisted the inmates to fine the way down.

Mr. Acton states that at the time of the alarm he was in bed on the fourth flat, and, springing up ran into the hall. The smoke was then very dense, and he saw immediately that affairs were serious. He proceeded to arouse the inmates, and was assisted by others. But the excitement was so great and the smoke so blinding that even the older boarders got so confused as to be unable to find their way down. People ran about helplessly, and his is only surprised there was not greater loss of life. One lady, who, with her child, occupied room No. 80, on the fifth flat, was awakened at the last moment and escaped in her night clothes to the fourth story, where she was saved at one of the windows.

J. E. Thomas of the Ontario Bank, Montreal, and a native of Niagara, was a boarder at the hotel. He was asleep in bed until the fire had made great progress. Upon awakening, he hastily donned the first clothes that came to hand, and ran to the stairway, but the smoke drove him back, and he entered another room, where he found a woman answering to the description of the dead Mary Brennan. Knowing now that his only chance of escape was by the window, he rushed to and smashed it, and by some means managed to get to the window below; this is his last recollection. He is suffering from broken ribs and other injuries caused by his fall from the four-story window. This is the second time he has been burned out in a hotel, St. James, Ottawa, being his last. He was lost everything. The next sufferer visited was Mr. Harry Belcher, commercial traveler for Messers. Nield & Co., Lemoine-street, a native of Southampton, Ontario. His appearance was pitable in the extreme, the eyes blackened and swollen and the skin scorched. From Mr. Nield and the sufferer's brother, who were at the bedside, were gleaned the facts that at the moment he woke to the discovery of the fire, he attempted to escape by the stairway; being baffled in this, he rushed for the roof, and again being baffled, he entered a chamber and made a last desperate attempt at escape by tying together six sheets and commenced his perilous descent from the forth story, but when suspended in mid air the sheets broke their connections and he fell to the earth. The unfortunate gentleman lies in a very precarious condition; he tells his brother that he thinks his back is broken, and that he does not for a moment think of living. He had the name of the "handsome traveler" in commercial circles.

Samuel George Hilditch was next seen, but, as he lay delirious, all that could be gleaned was that he was in the employ of Messrs. Evans, Mercer & Co., Montreal, and that his thigh was broken; he looked ghastly white as he lay bound down in bed to prevent his injuring himself further. He sunk gradually, and died at 11 o'clock.

The New York Times, New York, NY 20 Mar 1873