Tag Archives: Fire

Knights of Columbus Fire – 99 Dead

ARCHIVAL MOMENT

December 12, 1942 

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: VA 141-3; Identifying victims of the Knights of Columbus] fire a the temporary morgue , St. John’s.

On Saturday, December 12, 1942, many people in St. John’s were sitting at home behind their blackout curtains, listening to “Uncle Tim’s Barn Dance” on the radio station VOCM. This weekly program was broadcast live from the Knights of Columbus Leave Centre (Hostel) on Harvey Road in St. John’s.

Just after 11:00 pm, people listening to the broadcast heard the singer on stage break off in the middle of a song, and then someone shouted “Fire, Fire.”  Sounds of people panicking could be heard, then smashing glass, then the broadcast went silent.

About 500 people were in the building when it caught fire. Most were listening to the radio broadcast, but some were sleeping in the servicemen’s hostel.  The windows in the hall of the newly-built K of C Leave Centre had been boarded over to meet blackout regulations. Doors were either locked, or barred from the outside. The wooden building burned very quickly. Paper streamers that had decorated the ceiling of the hall ignited and fell onto the people below. A few windows and doors were smashed open, but many people could not escape.

As the building rapidly burned to the ground, 99 people died, and another 107 were hurt. St. John’s had seen many serious fires over the years, but never one with such loss of life.

At the time, there were rumours of sabotage by a German agent, but the cause of the fire was never determined.

Residents had reason for concern.  Bell Island (just 20 minutes from St. John’s) is one of the few locations in North America that German forces directly attacked during the Second World War. U-boats raided the island twice in 1942, sinking four ore carriers and killing more than 60 men. On September 5, 1942 the  Germans sunk the  Strathcona and Saganaga. Twenty nine men were killed in the attack. The next attack at Bell Island occurred almost exactly two months later, on November 2, 1942.

The Knights of Columbus Hostel was located on Harvey Road,  a Tim Horton’s franchise  is now standing on the site.  A granite memorial  was placed a little to the east  commemorating those who died in the fire.

Recommended Archival Collection:  GN 128 Royal Commission of Enquiry into the Destruction by Fire of the Knights of Columbus Hostel, December 12, 1942In this collection researchers will find  typed transcripts, questionnaires completed by military personnel, commissioner’s notes, statements by civilian witnesses, lists of civilian witnesses, and eight blueprints of the Knights of Columbus Hostel.

Recommended Book: The Last Dance by Darrin McGrath: Flanker Press, St. John’s, 2002.

12,000 residents of St. John’s homeless

ARCHIVAL MOMENT

June 9, 1846

St. John’s previous to the fire of June 9, 1846

The origin of the fire, which broke out on  June 9, 1846, in St. John’s, has generally been attributed to the carelessness of a cabinet maker who lived on George Street.

By 7:00 p.m., when the fire had finally run its course, over 2,000 buildings had been burned and about 12,000 people, or 57 per cent of the town’s total population, left homeless. The total amount of property loss was estimated at £888,356.   Altogether, there were three casualties: one soldier died as a result of the demolition ordered on Water Street; one citizen collapsed while attempting to carry his possessions to safety; and one prisoner died in his cell when the gaol burnt. A few days after, two labourers clearing away ruins were killed by a falling wall.

Homeless Seek Shelter

On June 10, 1846 many of the 12,000 refugees from the fire could be found in make shift tents in this neighborhood (Fort Townsend) now the site of The Rooms. Others found shelter on the grounds of the new R.C. Cathedral (now Basilica) that was under construction, others in the area now called Bannerman Park on Military Road.

Recommended Archival Collection: What do we have in the ‘Rooms Archives’ on this subject? Type  Fire   in the search bar here: http://gencat1.eloquent-systems.com/webcat/request/DoMenuRequest?SystemName=The+Rooms+Public&UserName=wa+public&Password=&TemplateProcessID=6000_3355&bCachable=1&MenuName=The+Rooms+Archives

Recommended Reading: The Great St. John’s Fire of 1846 by Melvin Baker (c)1983 Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXIX, no. 1 (Summer 1983) http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~melbaker/1846fire.htm

Recommended Archival Collection at the Provincial Archives in the Rooms:  MG 50.2:  Map of St. John’s, Newfoundland, showing all the buildings erected since the fire of the 9th of June 1846 from actual survey (MG 50.2)