David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

“A Gloom Over the City”

Brandon Sun, July 13, 2015 - David McConkey

The January 1916 Syndicate Block fire is one of Brandon’s most dramatic stories. A regular day at work suddenly became the city’s deadliest fire. Four employees with the department store Doig, Rankin & Robertson were killed in the landmark building at Seventh and Rosser.

The story of the fire is even more striking because it was framed by a turbulent time. Just a few days earlier, a train crash in Brandon killed 19 workers. And history was happening: the fight for women’s rights, the Great War.

The four employees who died in the fire were Sadie Eggertson, Jane Marsh, Caroline McCort, and Clarence Walker. They were young: ordinary folks who happened to get caught up in a tragedy. From information in the Brandon Daily Sun and other sources, we can piece together something of who they were and how they lived.

The three women worked as dressmakers. Doig, Rankin & Robertson and other stores sold both ready-to-wear clothes as well as fabric and patterns for customers to sew their own. As well, shoppers often selected materials and patterns and then had the store make the clothes. Many women were needed to do sewing work at the downtown stores. A classified ad in the Sun: “Wanted immediately – 15 dressmakers.”  
Jane Marsh, 23, was a dressmaker. Born in Elkhorn, Marsh lived with her family at 260 - 21st St. Her father, Robert, who had been a timekeeper at city hall, had died in 1913.

Clarence Walker lived right across the street from the Marsh’s, at 253 - 21st St. Walker, 27, was the head of the home furnishings department at Doig, Rankin & Robertson.

Walker had moved from Halifax to Brandon around 1912. He returned to Nova Scotia to marry Laura Irene Nicolle of Halifax on Aug. 18, 1913. The young couple travelled back to Brandon by train, en route visiting Niagara Falls. On Nov. 25, 1914, the Walkers had a baby girl, Margaret Jean.

At that time, 21st St. was almost the edge of the city. The street cars, which ran along Rosser and Princess, turned around at 24th St.

The other two dressmakers were Caroline McCort and Sadie Eggertson. They both boarded with Mrs. D.A. Sutherland at 231 Fourth St.

McCort, 22, was born in Chater, where her family farmed. She usually lived with her family at 1021 Seventh St., but stayed at the house on Fourth St. during the winter months. She was active with the Girl Guides and the choir at St. Mary’s Anglican Church.

McCort’s younger brother William was serving with the 45th Battalion. (The year before, he had lied about his age and enlisted when he was just 15. Soon he would be in the trenches in Europe, and would fight at Ypres and the Somme. He would be wounded at Vimy Ridge and would return home in December 1917.)
Eggertson, 25, was born in Brandon. Her parents had moved to Saskatchewan a few years earlier. “A most pathetic feature of her death,” the Sun would later report, “is that she was to have been married shortly to a well-known Brandon man.”
We can think back to those four young Doig, Rankin & Robertson employees. We can imagine them: living in their neighbourhoods, going to work downtown, having dreams for the future.

Today, the Syndicate Block is gone; the library and art gallery are there now. But hints today suggest Brandon as it was a century ago. These include some of the commercial buildings downtown and many of the houses on residential streets like Fourth and 21st.
This weekend, July 18 - 19, will be a chance to walk some of those streets and recall the people, the city, and the fire of 100 years ago. As part of “Doors Open,” I will host a one-hour, one-km walking tour, “A Fiery Morning: Brandon and the Syndicate Block Fire.” And, by special arrangement, the art gallery will also be open. There will be curator’s tours of the exhibition that is infused with the memory of the fire, This Fragile Dwelling Place.

We remember a moment in time a century ago. An everyday community in the midst of great global events. A day when a local tragedy gave pause with a reminder of the fragility of life.

As the Sun expressed it, the fatalities from the Syndicate Block fire had “cast a gloom over the city.”

* * * *
See also: 

99 Years Ago: “Icy Ruins” in City

This Fragile Dwelling Place

Reflections on the Great War 

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Remembering Nellie McClung

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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