In 1901, Sydney was a town in the midst of a remarkable transformation. Just a decade earlier, it had been what one historian has generously called a "sleepy colonial town." At the end of the 18th century, though, the coming of the steel plant would usher in a series of extraordinary changes. Workers arrived from all over the world, new neighbourhoods sprung up, and commerce and businesses multiplied.
One of these small businesses was Gordon & Keith's Furniture, on the west side of Charlotte Street. On the afternoon of Saturday, October 19th, 1901, in a back storeroom (according to one report) glue was being melted on an oil stove. A fire started and there was no water immediately available because of pipes under repair; within just a few minutes strong winds meant that the fire spread to several buildings.
Fire brigades from Sydney, North Sydney, Glace Bay, and the force from the steel plant responded to the fire, but it quickly became out of control. In just over an hour, as historian David Newton says, the "heart of Sydney was gutted." With the exception of one home, businesses and houses in the two squares blocks bounded by Wentworth, Charlotte, Pitt, and Bentinck were destroyed. The total damage amounted to over $500,000, with 67 buildings destroyed. About $250,000 in insurance was paid out, and 31 families were left homeless.
The Great Fire was a turning point in Sydney's history. It left such a mark on the town, in fact, that The Bell Printing and Publishing Company published a "Souvenir Booklet" to document the historic day. Destructive as it was, though, the fire also propelled the rebuilding of the town with brick buildings, and the rapid growth of industrial Cape Breton in the early 20th century.