Sunday October 31, 1886 was just an ordinary day at the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane. Behind the large building close to the edge of the escarpment were other smaller buildings, containing the kitchen facilities, the laundry room and the dead house.
Shortly after 1 p.m., two of the Asylum attendants were taking the body of a patient who had passed away during the morning to the dead house. As they passed the drying room portion of the laundry, they discovered that a fire had broken out there.
An alarm was sent to the Hamilton Fire department. From the station on John street, the reels raced up a mountain access and were on the scene of the fire in very short order. The wagon which carried the steam engine, a significantly heavier load, did not arrive at the asylum grounds as quickly:
“The steam engine got up as far as the turn on John street, where it stuck, and the horses couldn’t budge it. Several men got at the back, pushed it and managed to get around the turn, but the ascent was so steep that it was impossible to proceed. More horses were sent for, and when three teams had been hitched to the engine, it was hauled up, reaching the asylum grounds about a half hour after the reels.”1
1 “Fighting Fierce Fire : Big Blaze at Insane Asylum.”
Hamilton Spectator. November 01, 1886.
The fire which was spreading quickly could readily be seen by residents in the lower city. As it was a Sunday afternoon, there were many more people home than would be the case during a normal workday. The attraction of a big blaze was irresistible to many people and soon the roads up the escarpment were jammed:
“Thousands of people flocked up the roads, and it is doubtful if a larger crowd has ever gathered on the mountain top. Half the people in the city seemed to be there, and a good many of them were willing workers and did all they could, which wasn’t much. Fences, outbuildings, trees, wherever a vantage point offered a better view of the flames, there the crowd was the thickest. There must have been 15,000 or 20,000 people present.”
The Spectator reporter was part of the rush and he was soon able to find out how and where the fire started :
“South of the laundry was a coal shed and dead house. The fire was discovered by a couple of attendants, who were carrying the body of a dead patient, who had died in the morning into the dead house. They gave the alarm at once, and an effort was made to put the fire out with hand grenades
“The room was finished with pine, and the flames spread like lightning.
“The attendants got to work at once, and broke hand grenades by the score where they thought they would do good, but they might as well have piled shavings on. The fire seemed to think grenades were pretty nice things and kept right at work. The grenades were both of Canadian and American manufacture, and, as one of the attendants said to a Spectator reporter, didn’t do the slightest good.
“ ‘I broke about a hundred of them myself,’ he said,
‘and they were of no earthly use.’1
Although on the mountain, asylum was technically part of the Hamilton of 1886, mainly because of its proximity to the edge of the brow. City service such fire and police protection, as well as the provision of water were legally due to the Asylum:
“The asylum is supplied with city water, which is forced up by a pump on the grounds. The pressure was very poor, and for some time, only two streams were playing.
“Seeing how slight a check the water was, Chief Aitchison became convinced that the only way to save the main building was by chopping down the connecting passageways between it and the ballroom addition. Men were accordingly set to work at once, and the main roof, the halls, floors, ceilings and all the wood that might lead the flames through was torn away.”1
In the early part of the fire fighting effort, the firemen were not only hampered by low water pressure, but by the presence of the huge crowd of onlookers were surrounding the scene of the blaze
“The crowd was ordered out of the yards and the patients brought out and guarded there. Men and boys clambered upon the high fences around the yards, but watchful policemen and others drove them back.
By 3:30 p.m., almost two and a half hours after the alarm was sent in, it was declared that the fire was, if not completely extinguished, it was at least under control:
“When it was seen that the firemen had the upper hand of the flames, the male patients were put back in their apartments.”
The building which contained the laundry facilities, also had bedrooms for the farm hands, butchers and the engine men, eight workers, was completely burnt to the ground. For men who used those bedrooms, they lost everything they owned:
“ ‘None of us have anything but what we have on our backs,’ one of them said. Poor fellow, he didn’t have much on. He was minus boots, hat, collar and coat.”1
The laundry girls and kitchen help. 10 female workers slept in bedrooms next to the kitchen, and they also lost all their possessions.
Another building affected was the ball room where entertainments were frequently provided for the patients. The piano, organ, stage scenery and a large number of chairs in the ball room were lost to the flames.
The Spectator reporter was quick to learn the cause of fire; steam heating pipes had been located too close to pine wainscoting. The excess heat caused the wood to ignite. There was no hint of incendiarism, and the estimated loss was pegged at $40,000 to $60,000 (1886 dollars).
In his article published the following day, the Spectator reporter praised many people for their actions during the fire:
“The firemen worked like heroes, crippled as they were by lack of water and a supply of hose that was inadequate for the occasion. Foreman Ten Eyck balanced himself on the top of the narrow brick wall, where the hall from the main building joined the ballroom. He stood on the perilous and insecure foothold and chopped down the burning rafters. Stiff streams of water squirted all around him, and, if any one of them had struck him on any side, he was sure of a trip to the ground. His bravery was commented upon by all who witnessed it.
“Major Moore was on the ground, in uniform, shortly after the fire started. His services in controlling the crowd and getting people away from where they had no business to be were very valuable. The battalion was ordered out, and about 80 members placed on the gates to keep the people out, and, subsequently, a squad swept around the building, and finally the grounds were cleared. There were only a few policemen present, and the services of the military were the more valuable on that account.”1
The asylum staff worked tirelessly to help all the patients, most of whom were quite afraid of the situation:
“When the fire was observed sweeping towards the main building, the women whose quarters are in the west half of it, grew terribly excited, and the cries and appeals of the more sensible of them were piteous to hear.
“ ‘Let us out, Let us out!’ they cried, ‘don’t let us burn.’ Many of the women, however, stared out of the windows at the confusion with stupid indifference.
“At length, it was thought wise to allow all the patients into the private yards, and this was done. As soon as they got into the open air, their fears seemed to vanish, and they paid little attention to the excitement all around them:
“The men were kept in the yards, but the majority of the women – probably a couple hundred of them – were transferred to the new building for acute patients, called the east building. In order to reach there, it was necessary to pass through the crowd. The police patrol wagon was pressed into service. Ex-Chief Stewart, who had been working hard inside the building, came out and took charge of the transportation service. He drove the wagon, and constable Bainbridge assisted the female keepers to put the patients into it. Some of the poor creatures went along quietly, but many of them fought like wild beasts, and had to be subdued by main force. The keepers – fine-looking, robust young women – worked nobly, exercising a vast amount of patience and skill, as well as strength. Load after load of the unfortunate inmates were rapidly driven out of the yard to the east house.
“Two or three of the keepers went with each load to hold the lunatics in, and several times Mr. Stewart drove with one hand and grasped a refractory patient with the other. At last the horse was so worn out that it could with difficulty bear its own weight, and another horse was seized, unharnessed from a wagon and pressed into service.
While the man from the Spectator reporter had complimentary remarks for the firemen, the military men and the policemen who assisted with crowd control, he had comments of an opposite nature for others he observed at the fire, while the asylum staff were trying to help the female patients:
“It must be said that the conduct of the crowd during the passage of the patients was brutal and cowardly. The poor creatures had to run the gauntlet of a running fire of laughs and jeers, and by the time they arrived at the east house, many of them were trembling with fear and excitement, and others were enraged. One woman was so maddened by the jeers of the crowd, that when the east house was reached, it was impossible to control her, and she smashed a dozen panes of glass and a door panel. While the patients were confined in the yard, they were also subjected to cruel and insulting remarks from men and boys, who climbed the fences to stare at them. It was painful and disgusting to see men so lost to all sense of humanity as to make coarse fun out of the misfortune of their fellow creatures.”
Hamilton Asylum for the Insane
Photo Courtesy PreVIEW, Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library.