Arthurs Commercial Hotel burned down in 1970

Last week’s column described the fire that destroyed one of Arthur’s landmarks– the Arlington Hotel – in 1932.

Thirty-eight years later another 19th century hotel fell victim to flames: the Commercial Hotel, which had served the community and travellers to it for almost a century.

The building was an old one, but the business went back even further.

The original hotel building, dating to the late 1840s, was moved from the main street to Edward Street and converted to a residence when the new Commercial was built. The new hotel was a large one, with 50 bedrooms.

The proprietor added electric lighting in the late 1890s, powered by a gas-powered generator.

Unlike its rival, the Arlington, the Commercial managed to survive the dry era of prohibition, and it secured a licence to sell beer when alcohol sales again became legal, along with the Queens Hotel and the Royal Hotel. Perhaps more than any hotel in the county, the Commercial gained a reputation for rowdy imbibers in its beverage room from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Regular patrons invariably took a seat with their backs to a wall so that they could dodge flying beer glasses and duck to avoid the occasional airborne chair.

The violence tapered off somewhat during the 1960s, especially after the hotel began offering live music. That seemed to have a calming effect on patrons.

On the evening of Dec. 22, 1970, Wilf Mulhall, the Commercial’s popular bartender, discovered a smoldering fire in the hotel’s dining room and kitchen. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and emptied it, but soon realized the problem was bigger than he had thought. He could hear the fire burning inside a wall, and a few moments later, smoke filled the room. He raised the alarm at once.

Two firefighters, Robert Shaw (who lived across the street) and Bruce Smith (at work at the Imperial Garage) had spotted the smoke and were on the scene before the rest of the brigade arrived. Chief Howard White made a quick assessment, and immediately concluded that this was a serious blaze. At once he called for reinforcements from Fergus and Mount Forest via the mutual aid network.

Ambulances from Fergus and Drayton were at the scene as well, prepared to deal with any casualties or injuries, and medical staff at the Fergus hospital were on standby through the evening.

The Drayton and Palmerston brigades were advised of the fire, and remained on standby should their men and equipment be needed.

Several volunteers from the Grand Valley and Drayton forces did show up to help, as did the aerial truck of the Arthur Public Utilities. It elevated a fireman and hose to pour water into the upper storeys.

The OPP detoured traffic around the fire, which quickly attracted a large crowd of spectators.

Firefighters made sure that all the staff were out of the building, as well as three men who lived there permanently. Those men lost most of their personal possessions.

The proprietor of the property, Roy McMurray, helped by his wife, attempted to remove some small items, but they were soon driven out by the smoke that quickly filled the building.

At first the firefighters seemed to have the blaze in hand. They succeeded in extinguishing the visible flames, though smoke continued to billow out of the building. Chief White was preparing to send two men inside to make sure that there were no flames in the interior.

Then the flames suddenly burst out anew.

By that time the Fergus and Mount Forest men were on the scene, all pouring water into the building, which had become an inferno.

Chief White’s initial fears were well founded. The firefighters concentrated their efforts in stopping the flames from spreading to the Wellington County Creamery across an alley. Sparks and cinders showered across the street, threatening the Enterprise News office, Shaw Implements, Smellie’s Grocery, and Goulding’s Furniture. OPP officers watched the roofs of neighbouring buildings to make certain that the fire did not spread. Fortunately, those efforts succeeded in keeping the flames confined to the hotel.

Though his store was under threat, Bill Smellie began brewing coffee for the firefighters. Restaurant proprietor Fred Raftis, assisted by members of the Legion Auxiliary, prepared plate after plate of sandwiches, serving them to the firemen until the early hours of the morning.

In the end, all efforts at extinguishing the fire were futile. By 1am the building was totally destroyed and reduced to smouldering ashes. The visiting fire departments packed up their gear and went home. Some had difficulty moving: their clothing had become soaked with water and then frozen.

Members of the Arthur force remained on the scene, prepared to deal with any flare-up. The roof had fallen in before midnight, and some of the walls soon after. The remaining walls crumbled about 6am, without danger to anyone.

Smoke continued to issue from the ashes the next day, at times stopping traffic on the main street due to poor visibility. The smell of smoke permeated most of the houses in the village. During the afternoon, Chief White and a couple of his men returned to the site, pouring more water onto the ashes to put out the last of the smouldering embers. Later that afternoon, officials closed the street briefly to dump quantities of salt onto the ice that made the roadway treacherous.

The fire tested the Arthur water system, which had recently been augmented with a new 250,000-gallon tower.

The chief estimated that his men and the visiting forces had poured a half million gallons of water onto and into the Commercial Hotel, pumped by the three pumper trucks on the scene.

All four of the Arthur wells pumped water into the system at full volume that night, but the new tower remained at least half full.

The fire marshall had a man investigating the blaze two days later. He was unable to pin down the cause with certainty, but suspected it resulted from an attempt the afternoon of the fire to use a blow torch to thaw out water pipes that had frozen during a recent severe cold spell.   

Proprietor Roy McMurray, who had been recovering from injuries in a car accident a few days before the fire, began talking about rebuilding plans at once, while occasional wisps of smoke issued from the rubble. Plans took definite form by early spring. The new Commercial would be an up to date facility, with a few bedrooms and a beverage facility, but the emphasis would be on the dining room.

Equipment was on the site in May, clearing away the rubble and excavating for the foundation of the new structure. The main contract went to P. & J. Taylor of Waterloo. The concrete foundation was poured on July 8, 1971, and the interior walls and floor of the basement in the following days.

From that point work proceeded quickly. Roy McMurray was delighted to schedule the opening day for the new facility for Dec. 22, 1971, one year to the day after the fire. And behind the bar in the beverage room was the familiar face of Wilf Mulhall, who had worked for a time at the other remaining Arthur hotel, the Queens, but gladly accepted the invitation to return to his old employer.

But the story of Arthur’s new Commercial Motor Hotel is another story, for another time.


Stephen Thorning