Wiring in Parliament dated from 1883 which is the earliest days of electrification. In 1916, electricity remained a notorious fire hazard. Check out this article for more details on a new analysis being done on the 1916 fire! This shows the consequences of what can happen due to faulty wiring, consequences that still occur even 95 years later!
OTTAWA — Did a careless tradesmen mistakenly spark the 1916 fire that destroyed Parliament’s Centre Block?
A new analysis of the unsolved blaze reveals an inept federal investigation and wartime hysteria likely obscured the possible cause of the disaster that left seven dead.
This cold-case review of evidence by the Canadian Association of Fire Investigators has attempted to uncover the cause and circumstance of the fire that’s baffled historians for nearly a century.
Survivors of the blaze agreed Parliament was a fire trap. Its construction began in 1860, and it had exit doors that opened inward and extinguishers that were never tested. Mounds of waste paper were left in piles overnight for morning cleanup. Building managers never installed a sprinkler system or held an evacuation drill.
“There was slackness everywhere,” a survivor recalled.
Yet when the historic structure went up in flames on Feb. 3, 1916, it stunned the nation.
“Holocaust At Ottawa,” read one headline. MPs ordered an inquiry; police hunted for saboteurs; an excitable press warned of terrorist plots.
Prime Minister Robert Borden lamented the “appalling suddenness” of it all.
Why did the fire start? How did it spread? Answers were never found.
Now, 95 years later, an investigator assigned by the association has used 21st-century forensics to probe for answers. Brian Mulligan, 62, investigated thousands of fires over his 30-year career with the Ontario Fire Marshal and City of Windsor. A consultant based in Cottam, Ont., he’s been an expert witness in more than 100 fire-related trials and inquests.
“Fire examination has come a long way since 1916,” says Mulligan. “It needed to.”
He examined all known evidence of the blaze preserved in public and private collections. He studied eyewitness accounts, photographs and a single surviving film — a 15-second snippet of silent motion picture showing firemen amid the smoking ruins of Parliament, cranked out by a newsreel cameraman the morning after the blaze. The reel was discovered among thousands of films at a Library & Archives collection in Gatineau.
“The problem with this whole fire is I don’t see any police investigation,” says Mulligan. “Where was the investigation?”
What we do know is that at some point before 9 p.m. on Feb. 3, with Parliament summoned to a night sitting, Conservative MP Frank Glass ducked out of the House of Commons to scan the evening papers. Glass was 55, an insurance broker from London, Ont.
Then little known — he was a first-term backbencher — Glass was the first to spot the fire and raise the alarm. He would become the star witness at a subsequent Royal Commission.
Glass recalled he’d dropped by the Parliamentary Reading Room and was absorbed in headlines for 10 minutes when suddenly, “I felt a wave of heat passing up alongside me, as if from a hot-air register.” Flames appeared beneath a desk. “I turned around and almost immediately with my turning smelt the burning of paper, and I stooped down and saw the smoke coming out,” Glass recalled.
“Where are the fire extinguishers?” the MP shouted, and left to summon a policeman.
Glass would count himself lucky to get out alive.
The Reading Room was panelled in tinder-dry white pine gleaming with flammable varnish; scores of accumulated newspapers hung in racks; shelves were piled high with leather-bound volumes. “It was a good place to start a fire,” a firefighter remembered. Within 30 seconds the blaze was so hot an extinguisher proved useless. Within minutes, the room was “like a furnace,” a witness said; “the flames were running on the floor.”
Fire climbed up the walls as woodwork exploded. The whole room, 22 metres long, seemed to ignite with “a roaring noise,” a doorkeeper recalled.
Within three hours the building was lost. Among the dead were a policeman and the MP for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Bowman Law. “Poor fellow,” a friend wrote. “He was going back to get something and Fate asked him to give something — his life.”
The speed of the fire raised immediate suspicion of arson.
“That fire was set and well set,” John Graham, Ottawa’s fire chief, told reporters on the Hill. Graham had sped to Parliament with the first alarm. He was a legendary fireman, a burly chief who served 30 years with the department and was considered an expert in the field; only the year before Graham had been elected president of the Dominion Association of Fire Chiefs — “one of the most capable fire chiefs on the continent,” a journalist wrote.
Graham swore he heard heavy explosions that rang out with a “z-i-i-i-n-ng,” like artillery shells — a claim contradicted by other witnesses. To his death in 1921 Graham insisted the fire was arson, “the real thing.” He told the Royal Commission:
“I cannot conceive of the idea that fire started and gained such rapid headway … (and) had only started in one spot.” The commission agreed there was “strong suspicion of incendiarism,” but uncovered no evidence of arson.
Did the chief skew the investigation?
“Graham’s opinion had no merit,” says Mulligan, after studying his testimony. “He doesn’t come out looking good to me 95 years later.”
Mulligan today concludes the 1916 disaster was a textbook example of “flashover.” Once a mystery to investigators, flashover today is so well-documented it’s featured in dramatic test burn videos on YouTube and detailed in handbooks available to every fire department in the country. “Flashover was an unknown phenomenon to police and fire officials in 1916,” Mulligan explains. “It’s something we know about today. It can be achieved under laboratory conditions in as little as one or two minutes.”
In a dry compartment with good fuel and ventilation — say, a pine-panelled Reading Room filled with paper — even a small fire can quickly generate radiant heat that rises to ceiling height at lethal temperatures. At 600 degrees Celsius anything flammable will burst into flames. “Once this occurs,” notes the textbook Kirk’s Fire Investigation, “survival for more than a few seconds is impossible.”
Mulligan is convinced the 1916 flashover was misdiagnosed by Graham and others as arson. “Today fire examination is more science-oriented,” he says.
“Here you had high ceilings, all kinds of combustible materials, the desks, all the newspapers, the ventilation — all those things came into play. Today you would never conclude that fire was deliberately set just because of how quickly it spread.”
Yet, that is precisely what happened.
With Parliament smouldering, and Canadian troops in Europe, police and the press raised the spectre of sabotage by German agents — “Hun conspirators,” the Ottawa Evening Journal called them. Detectives questioned several suspects, including a foreign-looking man deemed suspicious after he was spotted racing from a nearby hotel the night of the fire; he turned out to be a Belgian pianist running to catch a train. Reporters spread sensational gossip.
The publication Saturday Night claimed a German working as a painter on Parliament Hill had warned, “The Union Jack will not fly over these buildings much longer.” Reporter Harry Gadsby later acknowledged he picked up the false story third-hand. Ottawa Free Press reported German agents filled the fire extinguishers with flammable chemicals. Reporter Arthur Hannay later confessed he’d merely repeated rumours and was not even at the scene of the fire. Toronto World said a “German named Schweiber” whose “eyes were shifty” left a steamer trunk at the Château Laurier Hotel filled with incriminating letters and blueprints. No Schweiber was ever arrested.
The trunk, like all remnants of the spy hunt, is forever lost. Dominion Police files on the fire vanished after the force was absorbed by the RCMP in 1920.
“It defies logic that some sort of saboteur would wander through the Parliament building, come into the occupied Reading Room and set a fire,” Mulligan says. “That’s a real stretch.”
With no plausible suspect or hard evidence of a crime, the destruction of Centre Block remained a mystery.
The inconclusive 1916 commission finished its work in three months. “It was not too impressive,” says Mulligan.
And over the years no new federal investigation was ever called to probe the most troubling question: How did the fire start in the first place?
There was the cigar theory, that a smouldering butt tossed in a wastebasket set the Reading Room ablaze. Parliamentary tour guides today cite it when leading visitors to the spot where the fire broke out, a must-see for tourists ever since Centre Block was rebuilt in 1920. “Many people … still suspect it was due to the carelessness of a cigarette or cigar smoker,” according to Library of Parliament notes provided for tour guides. Yet the library could cite no source for its information. And commissioners in 1916 specifically refuted careless smoking as a probable cause after no fewer than eight witnesses swore they saw no smoking in the Reading Room the night of the fire. Mulligan does not consider the cigar theory persuasive. “I think it’s out there,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s conclusive; 95 years later I’ll keep it in the mix, perhaps to a very small degree.”
More intriguingly, 1916 investigators appeared to dismiss the most probable cause: electricity. “They dispensed with it quickly,” says Mulligan, “and they shouldn’t have.”
Wiring in Parliament dated from 1883, the earliest days of electrification. In 1916, electricity remained a notorious fire hazard. According to a 1918 federal study, wiring was to blame for almost 10 per cent of fires nationwide — more fires than were attributed to arson, smoking, or faulty stovepipes. Only five years before Parliament burned, electrical wiring had ignited a fire at Rideau Hall.
The Centre Block fire broke out in a desk wired to a lamp. Only a month before the fire, electricians had refitted Reading Room wires into steel tubing, ironically as a safety precaution. It was a tricky manoeuvre in the days before seamless welding was perfected in 1930s. Jagged metal inside electrical tubing was known to tear insulation, which at the time was paper.
Yet at the inquiry that questioned 77 witnesses over five days, scarcely an hour was spent on the prospect faulty wiring was to blame. “Impossible, utterly impossible,” the Commons’ chief electrician testified.
Mulligan makes a persuasive case for electricity as the cause. “If the fire starts in the Reading Room, you ask: what are some of the accidental causes in that area? You don’t have much choice. You have an electrically-powered reading light with wires that run through the desk. You have to consider that as a potential cause of the fire.
“Remember,” he adds, “electricity is a new thing in 1916.” It was new, and deadly.
Today, Mulligan says, fire investigators would examine wiring in undamaged portions of Parliament to search for danger signs like torn insulation, arcing or minor burns. “You look for scars,” he says. “If you’ve got exotic wiring, I would go to another area that was wired in exactly the same way, to examine the design and maintenance.”
Investigators in 1916 did not bother. “It is the one thing that jumps off the page,” Mulligan says. In its book-length report on the fire, the 1916 Commission made a single passing reference to the issue. As one lawyer pondered, “It just struck me that wiring going up to the desks connected these lights on top — whether there was any possibility of any defects in that wiring, causing fire?”
The question was not answered, the lead never followed. In the desperate search for enemy saboteurs, the fire was left unsolved. The science of flashover, unknown in the day, fooled survivors into searching for a terrorist plot instead of a torn fragment of paper insulation.
Was Canada’s most famous mystery fire unwittingly sparked by a clumsy electrician? Says Mulligan: “People responsible for this fire would be naturally reluctant to own up if it was their fault through carelessness or stupidity. Who wants to be known as the guy who burned down the Parliament?”