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T he date is March 19, 2013. The temperature is minus 8 degrees Celsius and the sky is bright blue in Medicine Hat, Alberta. The sound of a Highland piper playing “Flowers of the Forest” in the clear, crisp air can be heard for at least a mile in all directions.
Coaxed gently by a father’s hand, a young boy steps forward. Cradled in his small hands is a homemade wreath. Young Thomas leans forward and lays the wreath at the base of the weathered headstone of his great-great-grandfather. The headstone reads: “William Stewart, Died March 19, 1913, Age 25 years 7 months.”
A century ago
In the early 1900s, the allure of cheap natural gas had brought industry to Medicine Hat. Natural gas was so plentiful that almost everyone who owned a house and property had drilled a gas well. While this led to fortunes for many, it did not come without some cost. Pockets of gas regularly escaped the crude wells and piping, caught fire and burned down homes and businesses. It was not uncommon for a business owner to go to work, light a gas lamp and blow up the building.
As the number of fires increased, the city of 10,000 people built and equipped two fire stations. Steam pumps and ladder wagons were pulled to the fires by teams of sturdy horses. Like many small towns of that era, the firefighters were mostly volunteers who would run to the station, hitch up the horses and bravely head out to tackle any fire that started.
The large, three-story brick building on Main Street had housed a patchwork of enterprises over the previous 11 years. None, however, had found success. The building was constructed as a wool mill, but that business failed twice before a promoter named Malcolm proposed to turn it into a huge beef cannery. Malcolm was doomed to failure through his dubious manipulations and the company was reorganized twice more before becoming the Western Canada Cold Storage and Meat Packing Plant. This new company was solidly financed and the new machinery at Malcolm Canneries Number Five stood ready to go. Soon, workers would be hired, the power switched back on and the whirr of belt-driven machines would bring life to the factory.
The company employed a caretaker named McQueen. On Wednesday, March 19, 1913, shortly before 4:30 P.M., McQueen noticed a flash of flame run along an exterior wall and then disappear below the floor. At exactly 4:40, McQueen saw smoke and telephoned an alarm to the fire station.
Explosion claims 3 lives
William Stewart was an interior decorator who had moved to Medicine Hat seven years earlier. He built a house and started a family with his wife Ima, 23, daughter Margaret, 2 years old, and a newborn son, Herbert William (Bill). William had recently joined the volunteer fire department, wearing regimental number 97.
The fire station bells sounded to summon the volunteer firefighters. William dropped what he was doing and ran out the door, just as he had done so many times before. He arrived at the station, donned his gear and headed off with the first team of horses as they dragged the heavy brass fire pump to the fire.
The three-story building stood ominously quiet and dark when the firefighters arrived. That meant they would have to enter the cannery and seek out the fire before it got hold of the building and spread to the rest of the town. A crowd gathered in the street as the firefighters headed inside with axes and hoses in hand. They pushed inward until a wisp of smoke could be seen seeping out from the floor boards. The smoke was just as McQueen had described and clearly a clue to the hidden fire beneath.