Mount Allison’s Ordeal by Fires: Remembering March, 1933, and December 16, 1941

The 1930s and 40s were difficult years for Canadian universities. A depression that tightened traditional sources of funding was followed by the Second World War. Both had a deep impact upon Mount Allison. As if this were not enough, in the same period, the university suffered a series of catastrophic fires. It all began in 1933.

The month of March was ushered in by a fire that totally destroyed Mount Allison Academy. Beginning in the mid-afternoon of Mar. 1, the wooden structure, which stood on the site of present-day Palmer Hall, was quickly reduced to ashes. Classroom space and alternate accommodation for residents had to be found immediately.

A subsequent investigation was unable to pinpoint a reason for the fire; although the Sackville Tribune suggested that it might have been caused by an electrical fault in the attic. This point was rejected by Academy Principal Dr. J.M. Palmer who was convinced that the fire had been deliberately set. Later events were to add some credence to this conclusion.

Mar. 16th, 1933, was a typical late winter day on the Tantramar. A recent snowfall had blanketed the area; already well covered by previous storms. Nonetheless, as students made their way about campus there was a touch of spring in the air. But no one could imagine that 24 hours later, the old Science Building would be burned to the ground and that blackened stone walls would be the only reminder of Centennial Hall.

The fire in the Science Building was discovered at 3 oclock on the morning of Mar. 17th. The Sackville Fire Department responded in short order; however, by the time they arrived, both buildings were in flames and beyond saving. The loss of three important buildings in just over two weeks, stretched university resources to the limit.

The wooden Science Building dating from 1862, housed the Departments of Physics and Engineering, which meant that much valuable and expensive equipment was lost. Centennial Hall erected in 1884, marked the centenary of the entry into the Methodist ministry of Rev. William Black (1760–1834). He was the revered founder of the denomination in the Maritimes. Lost were many irreplaceable university records as well as the universitys chapel, also dedicated to the memory of Bishop Black.

Once again, investigators were unable to provide a reason for the fires. This uncertainty fueled the conclusion that all three were the work of an arsonist. Understandably, for several months, paranoia reigned in Sackville. University historian Dr. John Reid took a balanced view of the tragedies. It seems probable, he wrote, that the Academy fire and the other two fires were separate incidents, although, it may well be that [the first] provided the impulse for [those that followed.] Looking back, there was but one note of relief. No lives were lost.

Considering that these fires took place during a period of serious economic depression, a major miracle was to follow. A new and attractive Mount Allison Academy (built of stone this time) rose from the ashes of the old. By November 1933, Centennial Hall was also completely rebuilt. This was achieved by utilizing the stone walls and foundation of the original building. Both were officially opened at a special convocation held on Jan. 19, 1934.

Financing for the two ventures, hiring of architects, calling for tenders and selection of contractors, plus the actual construction and reconstruction, all took place in less than a year! Much credit for this achievement must go to an energetic building committee presided over by R. C. Tait, who was also chair of the Board of Regents.

Equally strong leadership was provided by President Dr. George J. Trueman. In addition to his regular duties, he had to respond on a daily basis, to the problems associated with the relocation of a large section of the university community. Unfortunately, before President Trueman was to leave office in 1945, he would again be tested by an even more horrific ordeal by fire.

This brings us to the events of nearly sixty years ago; to Dec. 16, 1941. University residences are seldom silent, especially when the end of term is near. However, on the night of Dec. 15, 1941, Mount Allisons University Mens Residence was relatively quiet.

At least two of the 225 students housed in the four storey residence were still awake at one oclock the next morning. After a long night of prep for an upcoming exam, the two Meyer Chernin and James Gould were hungry and decided that a raid on the kitchen pantry was in order. Little did they realize that this prank would propel them into heroism.

When the two reached the ground floor they were shocked to find fire blazing near the elevator shaft in the basement. All thought of food was forgotten as they quickly rang the fire bell. Acting by instinct, Gould spread the alarm on the first and second floors; while Chernin sprinted all the way to the third and fourth. Because of their quick thinking, many lives were spared. Meyer Chernin suffered surface burns before eventually making his escape from the now blazing inferno.

Meanwhile, residence dean C.A. Baxter assisted by several students used all available hoses and chemical fire extinguishers, but to no avail. By the time the Sackville Fire Department arrived, it was clear that the building was doomed. Efforts were concentrated on the rescue of occupants and in preventing spread of the fire to nearby buildings and homes.

At the height of the blaze, around 2 o’clock, sparks and flying debris were detected as far away as Squire Street. As one person remembered: The snow-covered roofs in the path of the flying embers was the only thing that saved half the town from burning down.

Fortunately the majority of students, once aroused, were able to escape by way of the two fire escapes, or by jumping from windows. Sadly, when a head count was made, it was found that three students were missing. By morning it was confirmed that Fred Farrer, Joseph Fraser and Melvin Green had perished. A fourth, James Creelman MacDonald died later, from injuries sustained when he jumped from a fourth floor window. Eight others had to be hospitalized because of severe injuries: Goodman Cohen, Nathan Cohen, Kenneth Coltas, John Davidge, Lestock Desbrisay, Lee Gallay, James Forbes MacDonald and Allison Stirling.

One question was uppermost: What caused this fire, with its terrible loss of human life? Once more, investigators were baffled. On the surface, the building, built of stone and brick in 1901, appeared safe. There were interior brick cross walls and a roof of slate. Chemical fire extinguishers and a standpipe with connecting hoses had been provided for added protection. There were fire escapes at either end of the building. There was a wide stairway in the centre with two additional narrower stairways, all reaching the fourth floor.

With the benefit of hindsight, it became apparent that the central stairwell was, at least partially to blame, for the rapid spread of the fire. It acted as a funnel for the flames, carrying them directly to the upper storeys. This flaw had been recognized in 1933, when a recommendation for the installation of a sprinkler system in the residence had to be shelved because of budgetary restraints.

Within the community, there was widespread belief that arson was the cause. The Sackville Tribune went so far as to suggest that it was the work of an enemy saboteur. Farfetched? Possibly, but lets place the fire in the context of December 1941.

By this time, Canada had been at war for over two years. The aerial Battle of Britain was in full swing. Dramatically, just a few days earlier, on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. Locally, on Dec. 13th, there had been a mysterious and unexplained fire at Enamel and Heating Products Ltd. This plant was producing munitions for the Allied war effort. Added to this, was the fact that several of the men in the residence were members of the RCAF, and being trained as radio technicians. No definitive explanation was ever found for this Ordeal by Fire.

One final postscript. Readers are reminded that criminology, especially as it applies to fires, has made significant advances in recent years. If modern technology had been available in 1933 and 1941 answers to questions relating to the origin of the four fires might have been found. Several individuals — including former students and towns people of the period — helped write this Flashback. Many Thanks!