In the 19th century, Saint-Roch was hit by three dramatic fires that destroyed thousands of homes. The disasters shaped how the neighbourhood was laid out through new City by-laws overseeing residential rebuilding work and the area’s redevelopment. The City also improved its alarm and water supply systems and began providing professional training to firefighters. But the flames would never quite die out.
Disaster strikes Saint-Roch
On the morning of May 28, 1845, the bells of the Saint-Roch Church rang out with clamouring urgency. A fire had broken out at the Richardson tannery, west of Saint-Roch, and strong winds were blowing east. Volunteer firefighters worked hard to limit the damage with their manual pumps, but the fire spread at lightning speed.
By day’s end all who lived there would see the extent of the damage: a third of the town up in smoke and almost all of Saint-Roch reduced to cinders. The wooden homes were consumed in a flash; only the brick chimneys still stood. Some 1,630 buildings were destroyed, throwing 12,000 people onto the street. They sought refuge with their families and religious and public institutions, or in tents provided by the army.
The municipality passed a number of measures to avoid further disaster. Streets like rue Saint-Joseph were widened to act as a fire break. New rules dictated that buildings should be reconstructed in brick and stone and have slate, tin, or sheet metal roofs. Wood was outlawed, and adjoining buildings were required to have firewalls. This home at 722 rue de la Reine is a fine example.
The insurance companies promoted a standard house plan to speed up the rebuilding process: a two-storey model built from brick and designed by Thomas Baillairgé. This gave the neighbourhood its present-day look. In 1854 the City introduced watermains and fire hydrants. The new system supplied water to each part of the city in turn, a few hours at a time. This meant that were fire to break out it could take several minutes to pump water to the right neighbourhood, a situation that would persist until 1885.
Fire strikes again
The rules were not followed to the letter, however. Many people were too poor to pay for the prescribed cladding and rebuilt with wood.
On October 14, 1866, the churchbells pealed anew. The new brigade of firefighters and police officers was quickly on the scene on rue Saint-Joseph, but water wasn’t as quick in coming. Flames spread west, blown by the wind into a new area of Saint-Roch, then reached the next neighbourhood over, Saint-Sauveur, which was razed to the ground. The toll was even heavier than the first time around: over 1,800 homes destroyed and 20,000 people left homeless. Notre-Dame-de-Jacques-Cartier Church was spared, miraculously.
Other roads, like de la Couronne and Saint-Ours (later boulevard Langelier), were broadened to act as firewalls. A professional fire brigade was set up, divided between six fire stations. Some 246 fire alarm boxes were added, and the need to improve the watermain system became a hot-button issue of the day.
These measures dampened the effect of the third great fire, which struck the northernmost part of Saint-Roch in 1870. This time damage was limited to 500 homes.
It has only been in the 20th century that fire protection is something we can take for granted.