Bernie Gallant was hanging out with a group of friends at Burt’s Grill when someone threw open the door and yelled that Broadway was burning.
Gallant, now 82, was 17 years old when the great fire ravaged the business district in Corner Brook West on the evening of Nov. 30, 1952.
Of course, Gallant and all his buddies immediately ran outside the grill — also located in the Broadway area — to watch one of the more unfortunate chapters in Corner Brook’s history unfold before their eyes.
The fire had reportedly started at around 5 p.m. in a furnace located in the basement of a building owned by Rosie Tuma and which contained the Broadway Radio and Electric shop.
Gallant was an employee of the hardware shop across the street owned by Lew Andrews, who was president of the Corner Brook Chamber of Commerce at the time.
The raging fire leaped across the street and burned the hardware store down. It would be one of 15 businesses lost in the fire, which also left nine families homeless.
Gallant’s employment at the hardware went up in smoke, too.
“I lost my job that night and never saw the Andrews again,” Gallant, who now lives in British Columbia, said in emailed correspondence with The Western Star this week.
“They lost everything.”
Gallant said Andrews did open up another hardware store, but it was in the Humbermouth area. Gallant, meanwhile, found a new job somewhere else shortly after the fire.
“There were lots of jobs for people my age,” he said.
The devastation was exacerbated by the fact work being done on water mains in the area at the time meant there was lower than usual water pressure. The water pressure was eventually improved with the help of services provided by the nearby Bowaters pulp and paper mill, but the municipal infrastructure work still delayed this augmentation of water pressure by a couple of hours.
“That probably was the reason the fire was soon completely out of control,” said Gallant.
It would be 9 p.m. before the fire was brought under control, although it continued to smoulder long afterwards.
Gallant recalled having to evacuate the area because of the spreading flames. Burt’s Grill, where he had been when the fire was reported, had to close immediately, as did The Knob, another eatery in the area. Fortunately, those two businesses managed to survive the ravages of the fire.
Losses at the time were estimated to be valued at around $1 million.
But not all the losses were because of the flames.
Fred Fudge, a regular contributor to the Facebook page Historic Corner Brook, also remembers well the great Broadway fire of 1952. He was only six years old at the time and one thing that stands out in his memory is seeing people making off with merchandise from some of the hastily abandoned stores.
He admits he was among the kids who ran off with bars and candy from a small convenience store, but said there were adults who took more expensive fare, like watches and jewelry.
“I can’t say how widespread the looting was, but I recall adults coming up Caribou Road with goods in their arms, so us kids thought ‘this is cool,’” said Fudge.
The fire could have been even worse. The intensity of the heat cracked paint, broke windows and began melting tar on other nearby buildings.
According to reports from the time, property owners, including homeowners, in the area worked feverishly to douse the sides and roofs of their structures to keep them from catching fire, too.
The fire was huge news at the time. Not only did The Western Star print a special edition the day after the fire, the story also received national coverage on the CBC.