1925 Engineering Building fire

On Campus News, 18 October 1996

1924-1925 was a dark year in the University of Saskatchewan's history. It was marred by death, accident, disease and fire. Early in the session the Senior Professor of Physics, Alexander MacGougan, died suddenly, a series of accidents injured several employees, an epidemic of Swamp Fever killed eleven of the University's prize winning horses, federal funding for agriculture was dramatically cut and the University Farm experienced an almost complete crop failure. As bad as these were, the most devastating over the long term was the fire that destroyed the Engineering Building on the morning of the 13 March 1925.

Designed by David R. Brown of Montreal, the Engineering Building was constructed in three phases between 1910 and 1920. President Murray wrote shortly after the fire, "The building has given more service to the public than any other building, or I might add, any group of buildings. It has been the centre of our short course work; of our special work for the re-establishment of disabled soldiers and it has been from there that much of the equipment and of repairs have come." The building housed not only Engineering but also Agricultural Engineering and Field Husbandry, which lost much of its seed supply for the coming spring planting.

The fire stared in the Tractor Laboratory about 2:30 A.M. The night watchman had inspected the laboratory at 11 P.M. and again at 1:30 A.M. but had noticed nothing. When the fire was discovered the alarm was sent to the City Fire Station who responded swiftly. Owing to the altitude of the University site the pressure of the water was much less than in the city. To increase pressure a booster pump was used at the hydrant on the line from the city system. The capacity of the pump was greater than that of the pipe and in a short time the water supply was exhausted. Further problems arose when pipes running through a tunnel under the Engineering Building were destroyed by the fire. The combination of the failure of the water supply and a lack of fire walls and doors inside the building sealed its fate. Only the ceramics addition remained standing owing to the fire door that was intended to protect the rest of the building from its kilns.

Though the cause of the fire was never discovered, it was clear that a replacement building would need radical design changes. The original wooden floors and walls were replaced with tile and reinforced concrete. Field Husbandry was to receive its own building. Other buildings on campus were examined for fire risks and the problem of sufficient water for any future disaster was addressed.

In an effort to cut costs, drafting master G.J.K. Verbeke was appointed architect and bricks from the old building were salvaged. Work began almost immediately and by January of 1926 the new building was ready for occupancy.

The building and its contents had been woefully underinsured. Cost of original construction was $296,000. Contents were valued at $57,000. Insurance covered $114,000. Higher costs of new construction brought the total loss to the University was $267,000 which effectively brought future building plans to a halt. Funds had to be transferred from the capital to the operating budget, draining those set aside for a new Arts/Library building.

Patrick Hayes