Camphene, an explosive mixture of alcohol and redistilled turpentine, was a popular but dangerous lamp fuel in mid-nineteenth century. Whale oil had been the universal lamp fuel for decades, but it had become expensive as whales were hunted almost to extinction. Camphene was not only cheaper but burned brighter and cleaner. It also tended to explode if burned in the wrong lamps, or violently burst into dangerous flames if a camphene lamp was accidentally tipped — as when a theatre fire at Quebec City killed 50 people in 1846.
Twenty years later, camphene was displaced by kerosene — aka coal oil — a cheaper, better, safer product that fuelled most of the world’s lamps for more than half a century and gave birth to the petroleum industry. Kerosene was produced first from coal and then from crude oil by refining process developed by Canadian physician-geologist-chemist Abraham Gesner.
But there was no kerosene when Quebec’s Theatre Royal, on the site of today’s Chateau Frontenac hotel, was burned to the ground, as reported in the Montreal Gazette, June 15, 1846:
“Quebec has again been visited with a recurrence of the awful calamities to which it was subjected last year; and although the destruction of property is, in this instance, comparatively trifling, yet the fearful loss of human life, with which this dreadful catastrophe has been attended, renders it by far the most grievous affliction that has yet fallen on that unfortunate city.
“The Theatre Royal, Saint Lewis [street], took fire from the overturning of a camphene lamp, at the close of the exhibition of Mr. Harlean’s Chemical Dioramas, and the whole interior of the building was almost instantly in a blaze.”
The fire occurred about 10 pm, Friday, June 12, the Gazette’s correspondent wrote:
“While I write, forty-six bodies have been withdrawn from the ruins. It is said that others are as yet to be accounted for. [Later reports claimed 50 deaths].
The staircase down which the throng attempted to escape was a narrow one, and the first to descend seem to have been hurled forward head first, and as they fell at the foot, there became jammed. These, in their tens, prevented the escape of those behind them, with whom they became intertwined, and thus, while all might have escaped from the building, all perished! Several gentlemen stood by them to the last, endeavoured to extricate them, and, at the risk of their own lives, asserted their utmost strength to save a few, but in vain.
“The city may be said to be in mourning, and deep gloom hangs over all. The brother of the proprietor of the exhibition is among those lost.”
Unfamiliar Canadian history stories 038