Monday, 16 May 2011

Tisdale Tragedy: Anatomy of a Hotel Fire

The Imperial Hotel, c. 1912 Source

The following graphic account of a horrible hotel fire in Tisdale was published over several days in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (republished in the Regina Leader-Post) by one very thorough, unnamed reporter. All of the photos shown below are from the newspaper. Click here to read the full account from February 8, 1933.

Dolly Couture, daughter of owner
In the early hours of a frigid February morning in 1933, a devastating fire at the Imperial Hotel in Tisdale took the lives of eight people. Mrs. C. Couture, owner of the hotel, and her three daughters were among the victims. The others who died in the fire were Emma Roy, the hotel chambermaid; Jack F. Marsh, commercial traveller for Adams Brothers Harness Company of Saskatoon; Fraser Paige, commercial traveller for Spillers Milling Company of Calgary; and – a few days after the fire – William John “Sandy” McPherson, the 65-year-old manager of the hotel. The coroner’s inquest determined that the terrible fire was caused by a match or cigarette butt that had been tossed into the woodbox beside the stove in the hotel lobby.

The Cause of the Fire

Mah Choon, manager of the restaurant at the Imperial Hotel, rose at 5:00 a.m. to prepare breakfast for six commercial travellers who were leaving Tisdale on the 6:10 a.m. train. The temperature outside was 45 degrees below zero and there was a strong northwest wind. Choon served the meals at about 5:30, and after the travellers were finished, he cleared the dishes and took them to the kitchen. As he came back into the restaurant, he noticed fire in the rotunda through the glass doors. The cook went into the rotunda where he saw flames coming out of the woodbox, licking the wall. He ran back into the kitchen for a bucket of water, but by the time he returned to the rotunda, it was too late. The fire had spread to blankets that were hung to dry on the stair banister, and was raging up to the second floor. Choon ran to the foot of the stairs and called, “Fire! Fire!” He was immediately answered by Mrs. Couture. Choon then went to wake up his two restaurant partners, Roy Mah and E. Kin. The three Chinese men then escaped the building.

Chambermaid Emma Roy
The hotel night porter, Jack McLory,was also working that fateful Wednesday morning. Because it was extremely cold outside, he stoked both the furnace in the basement and the stove in the rotunda. A few minutes before six, he escorted the departing travellers across the street to the Tisdale train station, carrying their bags. For some reason, McLory turned around about a minute or two after leaving to look back at the hotel and saw a sudden burst of light through its front doors. Within five minutes, the entire two-storey building was engulfed in flames. So severe was the fire that the plate glass windows of the store buildings across the street cracked under the intense heat – in spite of the 45 below zero temperature. Telephone communication between Tisdale and the outside world was cut off for hours by the conflagration.

George Booth, Tisdale’s night policeman had accompanied McLory and the six salesmen from the hotel to the train station. At the coroner’s inquest, Booth stated that some of the men had been smoking in the hotel. One of them – it was never determined whom – must have carelessly thrown a cigarette butt or match into the woodbox. McClory admitted to the jury that there had been paper and other rubbish in the box. “I had not cleaned it out for three or four days,” he said. “The box was open and had no cover.” (Leader-Post, February 10, 1933)

The Survivors

C.B. Conley of Winnipeg broke his hip when he leapt to safety through a second-storey window. After landing, his hands and feet became badly frostbitten. Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Otterbein escaped through the window of their hotel room, jumping into the snow behind the general store next door. They were rescued there, half frozen in the snow by the storekeeper. The couple was immediately taken to the hospital, along with C. W. Martin of Prince Albert, who also escaped through a window. His feet were badly frozen.

Charles Otterbein was a district forest ranger from Nipawin, formerly of Hudson Bay Junction. He was in Tisdale on business, accompanied by his wife. His hands and face were badly burned by the blaze, and his feet were badly frozen. In an interview for the Leader-Post, Mrs. Otterbein, feet heavily bandaged, remembered: “I heard someone [Sandy McPherson] running around in the hall in excitement and we got up to see what it was. I opened the door. The flames were right in the hallway. We could not get out. My husband broke the window and I got on the roof of the next building, then my husband went back in again. I was ready to go in after him, he seemed to be so long. I began to call him, when he came out the window again. His face was burned and the flames were already coming through the window.” Click here for full story

John L. Tennent
Of the thirteen people inside the Imperial Hotel at the time of the fire, only one man escaped unharmed. He was John L. Tennent from Saskatoon, a representative of General Motors Products of Canada, Ltd. Thankful to be alive, Tennent told the Star-Phoenix, “Two seconds more and I’d have been there yet.” The Saskatoon traveller said he owed his life to Sandy McPherson, who spread the alarm up and down the hotel hallways, endangering his own life. Tennent grabbed his clothes and sped out of his room into the hallway which was already on fire. “I didn’t know which way to go,” he continued. “I never was in the hotel before, but I headed for the back of the building.” When Tennent got to the back door, it was locked. He had to force it open. Clad only in his pajamas, he ran barefoot down the street to the safety of the Tisdale Hotel. Interestingly, when Tennent registered at the Imperial Hotel the night before, he was shown to a room on the second floor. Because of his inherent fear of fire in “country hotels,” however, he had his room changed to one on the first floor. That spur-of-the-moment decision likely saved his life.

The Dead

Newlyweds, Mr. and Mrs. Fraser M. Paige
Screams of the dying could be heard by the frenzied volunteer fire-fighters soon after the outbreak. The building was razed with such speed, however, that they were unable to force their way into the inferno. It was so cold that the ice formed inside the fire hoses, rendering them useless. The fire was not brought under control until the next day. The metal roof of the hotel had collapsed, completely covering the burning debris. The remains of the victims, "simply skeletons," were not located until two days later when the roof was lifted.
Jack F. Marsh
Jack F. Marsh, the Saskatoon commercial traveller who perished in the fire, was survived only by his wife. Marsh, who had resided in Saskatoon for a number of years, was well known on the commercial travellers’ circuit. Fraser Paige, formerly of Calgary, had recently married. He and his wife had lived in Prince Albert for about one year. Both Marsh and Paige were likely disoriented in their strange surroundings during the early morning, and could not find their way out of the hotel.

The young chambermaid, Emma Roy was from McKague, Saskatchewan. It was determined that she became trapped in her room at the time of the fire.

Margaret Couture, age 19
The Couture family, formerly of Saskatoon, was all but wiped out by the fire except for a son, Edward, who operated the Kinistino Hotel, also owned by his mother. Mrs. Couture, the owner of the Imperial Hotel, had been ill for some time. She had been released from Holy Family Hospital in Prince Albert on January 20th, returning to Tisdale. She still was confined to her bed at the time of the fire. Her eldest daughter, Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Couture, age 22, had graduated from the nursing program at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon in 1932. Dolly had arrived in Tisdale a few days before the disaster to nurse her mother. Dolly and her sister Margaret, 19, both “strikingly beautiful,” were graduates of Tisdale high school. Their younger sister, Simone, 13, attended public school in Tisdale. It is thought that the Couture daughters rushed to their mother’s bedside in an attempt to save her. All four perished in the same room. They apparently did not even attempt to escape through a window. At the funeral, the remains of the three Couture girls were placed in one coffin. The Tisdale schools were closed that day out of sympathy and respect for the Couture family.

The Imperial Hotel on left, 1928 Source

Sandy McPherson, the hero of the Imperial Hotel fire, died of his injuries in the Tisdale hospital four days later. McPherson, partially clad, had rushed along the hotel halls, going from room to room, warning the guests to save themselves. When the fire became too intense, he made a dash for the front door, running through a solid wall of fire. He emerged barefooted onto the street. “So cold were the sidewalks,” the Leader-Post reported, “that the flesh was torn from the soles of his feet, and as he rushed to the Tisdale Hotel, tracks of blood showed at every step. His hair was burned from his head; his face was badly cut and burned on one side almost to the bone.”  While in hospital, McPherson continually asked how everybody was from the hotel. Due to his critical condition, however, he was never informed of the deaths of the people he had so desperately tried to save. 

© Joan Champ 2011

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  1. What a tragic story.


  2. I was born in Tisdale in Feb. 1938 and moved east in 1941. My mother worked as a cook, baker and waitress at the tisdale hotel, around the time of the fire. I cannot recall my parents ever mentioning this event what a sad story. Too late to shake their memories as they have passed 20 years ago.

  3. I grew up in Tisdale; born in 1967. I too was unaware of this tragic story.

  4. I was born in Tisdale 1961 ... never heard this story either, Thanks for sharing