A fatal blaze in March 1914 increased calls for stronger building inspections and fire prevention methods.
For New Yorkers Max Cohen, Arthur Lee, and Frederick Levinson, the evening of March 17, 1914 looked to be a relaxing one. The trio of film industry representatives had gathered in Cohen’s room in the Woodbine Hotel at 102 King Street West to prepare for a night out. Cohen had sent a bell boy to the kitchen to get a meal for his beloved bull terrier Dainty. Around 7:30 p.m., as Cohen washed his hands in the bathroom and Levinson read a newspaper, Lee noticed smoke in the corridor outside their quarters in room 301.
“I shouted to Max and Freddie that the hotel was in flames, and told them to follow me,” Lee told the Star. “We raced along the corridor to the rear of the hotel, but the whole floor was in flames. The smoke billowed back and swept upon us like gigantic waves. I realized instantly that there was no chance of getting away by the rear stairs, and remembering that a fire escape led from the room 304, which I had occupied once before. I told them to follow me, and we would get down the fire escape.”
Unfortunately, the trio discovered the door was locked. The Woodbine Hotel was designed so that the fire escapes only led from certain private rooms. Many of the hotel’s guests were involved in touring theatrical productions that evening, including performances of Peg o’ My Heart at the Royal Alex and Stop Thief at the Princess. Based on their previous experiences with similar hotels, these troupes tended to book the fire escape rooms. Since they were at theatres preparing for the night’s show, they had left their rooms locked.
Lee knocked down the door. As room 304 quickly filled with smoke, the trio noticed mirroring of the flames against the side wall of the building. “When Freddie saw the reflection,” Lee observed, “he cried out, thinking we were going into the heart of the flames.” Assuming Cohen and Levinson were behind him, Lee climbed onto the fire escape. “It was not until I reached the ground that I realized that they had turned back perish in the burning building.” While press reports suggested Cohen went back into room 301 to retrieve Dainty, Lee believed that his colleagues thought that heading onto the escape would take them into the heart of the fire. Their miscalculation led to their deaths.
Nobody was certain how or where the fire began. Some guests reported hearing the crackling of wires around rooms 214 and 215, while some staff thought it was sparked in the basement. Later, there was a rumour of feuding guests, one of whom set the fire out of vengeance. It appears to have been called into the fire department at least 20 minutes after igniting. The blaze was confined to the back of the hotel, a former warehouse annexed the previous year. As flames expanded, diners and members of a live orchestra were evacuated from the front restaurant. Despite warnings from hotel manager George Spears, several bar patrons continued to drink away. One drunk who obstructed firefighters was, according to the Globe, “knocked downstairs by Chief [John] Thompson in righteous wrath.”
People ran around the hotel at their peril to alert any guests. Assistant manager William Gray accidentally slashed his wrist on broken glass, severing an artery. The injury barely fazed him; on his way to the hospital to be stitched up, Gray was “talking pluckily all the while.” Joseph Myers, who owned a nearby garage, was credited with rescuing Spear’s wife and a housekeeper. He ran in and out of the building five times, though accounts differed as to whether one of those trips involved rescuing a child action-hero-style, complete with a leap out a window to dodge the flames. On his last trip, he saved the cash registers from the hotel’s “Pompeiian Room.” Though he suffered a sprained ankle, Myers was praised by one policeman for demonstrating “the coolest exhibition of nerve he had ever witnessed.”
Also making multiple trips through the blaze was actor Sam Hardy, who was sleeping before joining his wife at the Princess Theatre to perform in Stop Thief. When she heard about the fire, Mrs. Hardy rushed back to wake him. The couple saved most of their personal belongings, including two heavy trunks. “After that,” he told the World, “I had to go on the stage and try to be funny.” Peg o’ My Heart star Elsa Ryan lost all of her clothing, but managed to recover $5,000 worth of jewellery, which fell through the ruins.
Other guests weren’t fortunate in either their efforts to rescue their belongings or escape the blaze. C.E. Edwards, a guest from New York who suffered burns to his hands and head, reflected on the chaos.
It all happened so quickly that no one had a chance to think. I went back for my hat and coat. When I saw the flames I thought that I was a dead man. Someone pulled me by the shoulder. It was some showman and his wife from New York. They bundled all their valuables together, and I helped them. I hardly know how I got my burns. I can only remember dashing through roaring, scorching flames. It was terrible.
Advertising salesman Edmund Giles leapt out a third-floor window in his underclothes and landed on Pearl Street, breaking his back and both ankles. Giles would spend 12 weeks in Toronto General Hospital before doctors determined he could continue his recovery at home. He died two weeks later.
It took two hours for firefighters to bring the fire under control. As they battled the blaze, around 5,000 gawkers gathered along York Street, forcing police to hold them back. The flames were seen as far away as Parliament Street. Fire Chief Thompson speculated that wooden partitions allowed the fire to spread, but refused to comment on the poor placement of fire escapes, noting that was a matter for provincial and municipal licensing agencies responsible for hotel regulations.
The search for bodies began immediately. Five were recovered, including those of Cohen and Levinson. A mix-up occurred when a body believed to be Cohen’s was sent to New York for burial, but turned out to be Brampton resident Charles Thurston. Also found were London-based salesman John Graham and businessman/horseman Charles Wilmot. One person briefly thought to be dead was Guelph resident Samuel Beattie, who had come to Toronto for a nose operation. When the fire broke, Beattie, whose hair was singed in the chaos, spent the night at a private. When he returned to Guelph via train the day after the fire, the station’s telegraph operator was stunned to see him alive: “The papers have you dead, Sam.”
While workers cleared debris, two inquiries were immediately launched. One was a coroner’s inquest into Wilmot’s death. The other compounded the recent misfortunes of the City Architect’s Department. Questions about the fire were added to an ongoing inquiry headed by Judge Herbert Denton into questionable building bylaws and inspection practices. Accusations by city councillors of mismanagement had prompted the resignation of City Architect Robert McCallum in late 1913, and his temporary replacement G.F.W. Price appeared to be on shaky ground.
Over the next few weeks, Price, Spear, and Thompson were among the witnesses called to testify at both inquiries. It quickly became clear that the Woodbine Hotel was not been properly fireproofed as per existing bylaws; it lacked emergency escape ropes, contained partitions made from “glorified pasteboard,” and placed fire escapes in poorly accessible locations. It was also revealed that a telephone operator may have delayed reporting of the blaze by refusing to connect a caller to the fire department. Reading the newspaper accounts of the testimony leaves the impression of general incompetence by all involved parties.
Meanwhile, editorials and civic advocacy organizations like the Bureau of Municipal Research called for stronger, more frequent inspections, and the creation of government bodies dedicated to fire prevention. The fire also increased support for a bill at Queen’s Park to create a provincial fire marshal office.
Both inquiries issued reports in April 1914. Denton recommended that the City Architect’s Department be completely reorganized under a new name to wield increased inspection powers. He suggested “Department of Buildings,” which was adapted two decades later. The Wilmot inquiry recommended that fire escapes be placed in locations free of obstructions, and should be accessible from corridors. The cause of the fire was left as “unknown.”
While the back part of the Woodbine Hotel was a ruin, enough of the front was left to allow it to reopen on May 23, 1914. Property owner T.W. Horn announced plans to replace the building with a new 10-floor hotel called the Colonial, but this was never built. The Woodbine Hotel Company declared insolvency in July 1914, leading to two years of legal battles over the complexities of its ownership. The site became the American Hotel, which endured a couple of minor blazes and fines for selling beer that was too strong. Among its visitors was Arthur Lee, who dropped by on at least one anniversary to remember his lost colleagues.
The site is currently occupied by the west end of First Canadian Place.
Additional material from the March 18, 1914, March 20, 1914, April 3, 1914, and July 27, 1914 editions of the Globe; the March 18, 1914 edition of the News; the March 18, 1914, March 20, 1914, March 28, 1914, April 13, 1914, April 23, 1914, and November 3, 1914 editions of the Toronto Star; the March 18, 1914 edition of the Telegram; and the March 18, 1914 and March 22, 1914 editions of the Toronto World.