Vernon reporter’s roots linked to Montreal school fire that killed 17

Vernon and District Family History Society runs open house during Heritage Week

Sarah Maxwell, 31, ignored the calls from firefighter Christopher Carson to save herself and was killed in a school fire in 1907 while trying to save her students. (Contributed)

A young Christopher Carson was in the thick of it as he battled the blaze that consumed Hochelaga School near St. Catherine Street in Montreal.

The fire, which broke out in the basement of the two-storey school house built in 1890, killed 16 children and 31-year-old Sarah Maxwell, the school’s principal, who “gave her life trying to save theirs,” the Montreal Gazette reported Feb. 27, 1907.

The Montreal Fire Department captain alongside several firefighters set up ladders and “rescued one teacher in the nick of time: her clothing was just catching fire,” the article reads.

Maxwell handed Carson children through the second-floor window.

Carson and fellow firefighter Hormisdas Benoit were atop a ladder as Benoit reached for Maxwell’s arm, the century-old article reads.

When Carson scrambled up to the windowsill to grab the school principal, he pleaded with her to exit the burning building, but she refused.

She said there were more children inside that needed help.

She escaped from his grip and disappeared back into the smoke when suddenly there was an explosion.

Carson and Benoit were forced back down the ladder and flames were burning it from the top rendering it useless.

The newspaper reports smoke inhalation was the killer, not the flames. The oldest child who perished was only eight; the youngest was three. The school served around 150 students.

It was later reported the fire was sparked by young boys playing carelessly with matches in the basement.

A year later, a new school was built in Hochelaga’s place and named the Sarah Maxwell Memorial School.

That building no longer exists, but Maxwell’s legacy lives on in Montreal.

That fire captain was promoted on to district chief, deputy chief and finally director of the in Montreal Fire Department June 12, 1933. Carson served until Dec. 22, 1937. He is my great-great grandfather.

Immigrating from Ireland to Montreal in 1891, according to census information, Carson and his wife, Annie, had five children — my great grandfather James Rae Carson was their first born.

With the help from the Vernon and District Family History Society (VDFHS), I was able to trace my family line back and uncover compelling stories from my family’s past, while learning more about myself and where I come from.

The process of tracing any family line back centuries is a long journey.

Several VDFHS members who work out of the Resource Centre’s computer lab and archives have been researching their lineage for nearly two decades.

But learning more about those family lines sheds a light on our own identities.

VDFHS uses an online tool called familysearch.org. Through that program I was able to input my family history and collaborate with possible relatives or descendants who are tracing their own lineage back to mine.

In attempt to connect others, the program recognizes potential duplicate entries and allows you to add information inputted by other users.

This collaboration helped me uncover the maternal line of my father’s family back to 1782 Scotland.

VDFHS will host an open house Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., in the lower level of the Peace Lutheran Church to showcase and demonstrate its hundreds of resources available to help people trace their family’s story.

Although my family tree is far from finished, through VDFHS’ Resource Centre, my family tree has grown exponentially and it’s all kept in one organized place online.

READ MORE: Explore your history with Vernon society

READ MORE: Vernon library to launch tech lab

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Christopher Carson served as director of Montréal’s fire department from June 12, 1933, to Dec. 22, 1937. (Ville Montreal photo)

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