"Fighting Bill Code"
Winnipeg's Famous Fire Chief
By George Siamandas
THE MOST SPECTACULAR WINTER FIRE IN WINNIPEG'S HISTORY
Some of Winnipeg's most tragic fires have occurred during the coldest part of the year. Some of these winter fires challenged Winnipeg's fire department, and the brave men that were involved in fighting the big ones in Winnipeg's past. The most spectacular fire was the Manitoba Hotel fire which occurred on Feb 9, 1899. The Manitoba hotel was Winnipeg's finest building at the time, and located where the Federal Bldg is now at the corner of Main St. and Water Ave. Because it happened so long ago few people know about it.
It was a Thursday night and the hotel was full of people who had come for the 14th annual Manitoba bonspiel. And it was also one of those bone chilling Winnipeg winter nights. Stories vary about just how cold it was. Some reports say it was -46 while others say it was -53. The cold caused the hoses and the pumpers to freeze and without enough water pressure, they lost the building. Spectators recalled the hearing the bottles in the well stocked bar exploding. Twelve pianos were destroyed, but no lives were lost.
It was a total loss of $800,000 which was a pile of money in those days. There was an investigation and fire chief Rodgers was asked to resign, but was offered a job as a building inspector instead.
While there were ambitious plans to rebuild it but it never came about. One of the firemen was almost killed from the hotel's falling walls. His name was Bill Code and he became Winnipeg's most famous fire fighter.
Fighting Bill Code was a little Irishman from Dublin. He came to Winnipeg in 1874 and worked as a printer for the Manitoba Free Press. His career in fire-fighting started when he became one of the six original volunteer firemen in 1874. He joined full time when the brigade was formally set up in 1882.
Bill Code worked for 40 years and is reputed to have fought more fires than any other fireman in Canada. He was a man of legend and sees to have had more lives than a cat.
He was crushed by falling timbers in the Ashdown store explosion and fire of 1882, overcome by smoke 6 times, trampled by frantic horses at a the Mandeville Bros livery stable fire on Fort St, and hurled a distance by an explosion in the Winnipeg Paint and Glass fire of 1907.
And during the Sterling building fire of Dec 1909, he was found completely frozen to the pavement. His men broke him off the pavement and thawed him out in a neighbouring hotel. In the next day's paper he was called "the Living Icicle."
Code was a collector of articles on the Fire department and accumulated 3 massive volumes of clippings from which much of the history of the Winnipeg fire department is drawn. Despite being caught in many life and death predicaments, he survived every one living to the ripe age of 92.
Code lived at a home right next to the Central Fire Hall which was built at the corner of Albert and McDermot in 1899. This is now the site of Old Market Square.
Many important buildings have been lost to fires, especially churches. Fortunately some of these have been rebuilt. The most recent one was Broadway United. It burned in December 1989 and fortunately Heritage Winnipeg persuaded the congregation to retain the bell tower.
There was also Elim Chapel, St Steven on Broadway Ave. St Andrews at Ellen St was lost but they built a new community building in its place.
St Boniface has had its share of spectacular fires. ST Boniface College was rebuilt after its fire in 1922.
The fires have taken many buildings from us. Yet it is amazing how many buildings have survived early fires:
Manitoba Hotel Feb 9, 1899
Ashdown Fire Oct 1904
Sterling Building Dec 9 1909 $175,000
Enderton Bldg Portage and Hargrave Jan 11, 1918
Fashion Craft and Woolworth Jan 23 1922
Tribune Bldg 211 McDermot May 16 1930
Capitol Theatre 1936
Hotel Fort Garry Dec 7 1971
St Boniface College Nov 1922
Time Bldg June 7 1954