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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What was so heartbreaking about Valentine's Day, 1890?

Answer U of T's University College was gutted by fire, destroying the east wing, central tower, and 33,000 books.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

On Friday evening, February 14, 1890 - Valentine's Day - much of University College was destroyed by fire. The news was immediately telegraphed to Edward Blake, the University's chancellor, in Ottawa.

Blake received the report while addressing parliament. "The great institution," he interrupted his speech to tell the House, "the crown and glory, I may be permitted to say, of the educational institutions of our country is at the moment in flames; and ... is now, so far as its material fabric goes, a ruin tottering to the ground."

UC after the fire
UC after the fire

President Wilson wrote in his diary the next day: "A frightful calamity. Last evening I looked on while our beautiful university building was helplessly devoured by the flames. It is terrible. Thirty-three thousand carefully selected volumes have vanished. The work of a lifetime is swept away in a single night."

1890 Program
Program from the night of the fire

On that Friday evening, at 8 o'clock, around 3,000 people were to take part in the annual conversazione, organized by the University College Literary and Scientific Society. There were to be concerts and literary readings, scientific exhibits, and demonstrations - one display was to show the embryonic development of the chick - and "promenading" to two bands. Shortly before 7 o'clock, two college servants were carrying a tray of lit kerosene lamps from the basement to the upper floors to illuminate the rooms and the exhibits. Electricity was not then used for lighting in University College.

Toronto's entire fire brigade responded -- the city had only two engines at the time.

While they were climbing the staircase at the south-east end of the building, the tray fell. Burning kerosene soon ignited the wooden staircase and spread to the upper library in the east wing of the building. The city's entire fire brigade responded to the alarm - the city had only two engines at the time - but could do little. There was only one hydrant, and the water pressure was insufficient to send water to the upper storeys. The brisk wind from the north-west would have made it difficult to stop the fire even if there had been adequate pressure. But the wind also prevented the fire from damaging most of the west part of the college. By 10 o'clock the fire was under control, and by 11 o'clock it was largely out. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

The entire eastern section of the building was gutted. The interior of the central tower had collapsed, and the great bell had plunged to the ground and shattered. The massive oak doors to the college were destroyed. All the books in the library, with the exception of about a hundred that had been saved, were burned, including Audubon's Birds of America, a good copy of which is now worth about $10 million.

UC before UC after
UC before the fire... ...and today.

"Varsity in Ruins," headlined the Globe. The board of trustees, a university body responsible for financial matters, met on Saturday to assess the situation. "The walls are sound," they reported, "and admit of roofing in and restoring." A week after the fire, Wilson was feeling reasonably confident, and wrote in his diary that the college would be returned to "its old beauty and [would be] internally vastly more convenient and suitable than before." Almost no classes were cancelled.

dragonThe architect David Dick was commissioned to prepare plans for the rebuilding. New decorative features were added, including the amusing round gargoyles in what is now known as West Hall and the well-known dragon on the newel post on the east staircase. A plea for books was sent to potential donors around the world. Tennyson presented a set of his work in eleven volumes. Queen Victoria donated a book on royal residences. The University of Marburg alone gave more than 1,000 volumes. By the end of 1892, more than 40,000 volumes had been received. "We are on the whole gainers," Wilson noted in his diary on Feb. 14, 1892, exactly two years after the fire.

It would not be U of T's last February fire, however. Engineering's Sir Sandford Fleming Building was gutted 25 years ago this week, on Feb. 11, 1977.

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