Letter to My Dead Great-Aunt Part Three

My mother told me Uncle John didn’t like to spend money but as your next of kin, he would have been the one responsible for your burial. I wondered if he had done nothing to commemorate your life. Maybe your body was never recovered. Maybe he was too overcome with grief. I wished I had asked Auntie Huckan, his wife but I hadn’t known about you then. I wished my mother had asked her but she didn’t think to ask. I found the details of your burial by chance and more details on your Death Certificate.

Armed with the name of the hotel where you died and the exact date of the fire, I pressed on and tried to find a photograph of the building. The Riverview Hotel had been built in 1906 or earlier (Henderson Directory 1906) and a large 1-storey addition of wood construction had been added in 1914. The Winnipeg architect, Charles S. Bridgeman designed it for the owner, J.J. O'Connell in 1913. No photograph was found but an interesting discovery showed up in the city records.


I discovered on the Building Permit for the addition, the owner J.J. O'Connell had on June 11, 1914 been “convicted and reprimanded for not complying with Notice issued January 7, 1914 re Exit doors”. A Building Inspector had deemed the building dangerous four years before the fire! Maybe even before you were hired.

The Historical Buildings Officer for Winnipeg sent me several newspaper clippings about the fire on the night of February 5, 1918 when the Riverview Hotel burned to the ground. Three perished in the fire: a nurse employed by the owner, a veteran of WWI and you, my dear Great-Aunt Michalena, described as “Lena Wuchan, kitchen girl” and “Lena Guchan, kitchen maid”. They couldn’t even spell your name right.

Riverview Hotel
322 Nairn Avenue
Elmwood, Manitoba
Here’s what happened as I can piece it together from the clippings. Early in the morning on the 5th of February about 3:30 a.m. a fire broke out, possibly in the kitchen of the Riverview Hotel. Fanned by 30 mile an hour gale force winds, the fire quickly spread to nearby buildings. Five fire brigades responded promptly though there were 6-8 other fires in Winnipeg at that night. The Riverview Hotel was leveled within an hour. Total damage was estimated to be $180,000.

A neighbor called the fire department. Everyone was asleep when the alarm bells in each room went off. You were last seen in your room on the second floor. Smoke poured into the rooms and the stairs were blocked by dense smoke. The hotel owner, his wife and six children were sleeping on the first floor and all escaped unharmed except for smoke inhalation. Mr. O’Connell later told the press of the frantic attempts to escape by those who died. I can only try to imagine the terror you felt when you realized there was no way out.

Your body was found in the ashes two days later near the centre of the basement buried several feet beneath the debris. They believed these were your remains because they were found in the location of your room in the building. But you were found in the basement, because all three stories collapsed. Identification of the three victims was based on location of the bodies when found. A fourth victim died later in hospital.

The inquest a week later found no fault lay on the shoulders of the hotel owner or the fire department for the deaths, despite the fact that the building hadn’t been inspected for a year.

Newspaper Clippings from
Winnipeg Firefighters Museum

And so dear Auntie, this is your story, the evidence that you lived and died in Winnipeg in a tragic hotel fire that cold February night in 1918. There are still some gaps and incomplete knowledge of your short life. I promise you I will continue to search for more details, such as your immigration records and whatever vital records exist in Winnipeg or your ancestral village of Repuzhintsy. My cousins and I will be replacing the numbered stone on your grave with a personal memorial stone. I will honour your life by telling your story to all who will listen. I will never forget you and other immigrants who lost their lives in accidents and unsafe working conditions, trying to build a better life and a brighter future in Canada.

May your soul rest in peace. Vichnaya Pamiat.

love from your Grandniece,

Copyright © 2010, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

Letter to My Dead Great-Aunt Part Two

The family story I heard from Mother and her sister Anne is that you were working at a hotel in Winnipeg saving your money to be married to your unnamed fiancé in the photograph. When fire broke out, you escaped somehow but ran back in to retrieve your $800 hidden under your mattress. You never came out. Were you overcome by smoke in that firetrap? Did the fire spread much faster than you anticipated? Or were you just a naïve girl who didn’t understand the danger and could only think of your hard-earned savings and your future going up in smoke? Eight hundred dollars in today’s dollars would be a lot of money. Brave or foolish, you lost your life in that fire.

I searched for a long time for your death and burial records. I searched newspapers for reports of a hotel fire but there were many hotel fires in Winnipeg in those days especially in the long cold winters. Photos are legend.

Scott Bathgate - February 15, 1917
K. Elder Collection
The Firefighters Museum of Winnipeg
My cousin Ellen and I searched through countless cemetery lists until one day I found an on-line listing of Winnipeg City cemeteries and was able to find a listing for a “Lena Huekow” who died 2/5/1918. Confident this must be you, I contacted the City of Winnipeg who told me that they had no record of a “Michalena Huckan” but did have a “Lena Huckow” buried in Brookside Cemetery. My cousin Edith later confirmed that at last we had found your final resting place right next to the casualties of WW I. Further research revealed the name of the hotel, Riverview, (on the Red River) and the address, 322 Nairn Avenue in Elmwood. Finally I was able to obtain your Death Certificate. I requested the Coroner’s report but the records had been destroyed.

What would it have meant to me if you had lived, Michalena? You might have been like a Baba to me. I never knew my Baba, your sister. She died when I was 2 ½ . I saw her only once when I was 1 ½ and have no memory of the visit or her. You were 13 years younger so I might have known you. Maybe you would have moved to Oshawa where your older brother John lived for many years. He also died before I was born but his wife lived for many years. I knew her well and in fact was named, Frances, after her.

John Huckan and Frances Ross Huckan
Winnipeg, Manitoba
c. 1914

The only photos I have of Baba are taken when she was older, aged and toothless before her time. When I look at photos of my grandmother, your older sister Marya and you, Michalena, I see what she must have looked like as a young girl. I think she must have been as pretty as you when she was a young woman. I feel closer to her somehow. Closer to her youth.

Marya Huckan Zarecka
Sclater, Manitoba
To be continued...

Copyright © 2010, Ruth Zaryski Jackson