The Turnbull Building and Store Collapse of 1913 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Turnbull Building and Store Collapse of 1913

Image: The Aftermath of the Turnbull Building Collapse in 1913.

On August 28, 1913, in Ontario, Canada, the front half of Peterborough's largest department store collapsed while undergoing renovations, killing at least 5 people. The "Turnbull Disaster" is one of the most noteworthy tragedies of Peterborough’s history.

The tragedy occurred during business hours, so a hundred workmen, clerks, and shoppers went down in the crash.

Image: Spectators and people helping to clear the debris from the Turnbull Building Collapse of 1913.

A faulty central wall built fifty years prior to the collapse was identified as the cause. Investigators found that when the central wall gave way, it caused the outer wall to bulge and subsequently the floors fell forward.

Newspapers reported that of the 60 clerks employed in the store, the majority escaped uninjured (see articles below).

The Washington Post: Friday, August 29, 1913, Page 3.


Walls, Weakened by Alterations, Fall Upon Clerks and Shoppers.

Two Women Customers, Two Salesgirls, and a Bricklayer Killed in Peterboro, Ontario.

Peterboro, Ontario, Aug. 28--A section of the city's largest department store, run by J. C. Turnbull & Co. collapsed without warning today, killing five persons and injuring nearly a dozen others.

Due to interior alterations, the walls had weakened. A hundred workmen, clerks, and shoppers went down in the crash. The dead:

DOROTHY V. SISSON, saleswoman.
LILLY A. BODISON, saleswoman.
Mrs. ELIZABETH BROWN, shopper.
Mrs. JOHN KELLY, shopper.
ALFRED CUFF, bricklayer.

Of the 60 clerks employed in the store, the majority escaped uninjured. Only employes and customers on the second floor of the building were in the danger zone.

A Sad Incident of the Tragedy at Peterboro. "Men removing the body of a girl clerk from the ruins of the Turnbull store at Peterboro." Source: The Lethbridge Daily Herald, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Wednesday, September 3, 1913, Page 9.

Scene of Collapse at Peterboro. "A diagram showing the Turnbull store that collapsed at Peterboro, and the Barrie Store which was being renovated before being incorporated in the Turnbull organization. Source: The Lethbridge Daily Herald, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Wednesday, September 3, 1913, Page 9.

Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg, Saturday, September 6, 1913, Page 14.


Bad Work of Half Century Ago Blamed for Recent Disaster at Peterboro, Ont.

Peterboro, Ont., Sept. 5.--A faulty central wall built fifty years ago was the cause of the collapse of the Turnbull store, which resulted in the loss of five lives, according to evidence given at the inquest last night by William Langford, who inspected the building while alterations were in operation on behalf of the Trusts and Loan company.

"The wall was about fifty years old," said Mr. Langford. "The centre of the wall did not appear to be carefully built in the first place. There was no doubt that the wall gave way and caused the collapse. When the centre wall gave way it caused the outer wall to bulge and the floors fell forward."

Manager's Evidence.

J. C. Might, manager of the Turnbull store, testified that he left the whole matter of the alterations in the hands of the contractor and architects.

"Plans were to take the wall out between the Barrie store and Turnbull store and also put two arches between the stores on the second story. The front was also to be renovated. Mr. Belcher was architect, and W. J. Johnston was contractor."

Mr. Johnston said that he had been supplied by Mr. Belcher, the architect, with a blueprint showing the changes required. The beams used where the wall between the two stores had been removed, rested upon 6 inches of solid brick wall.

The inquest was adjourned until September 16.

A Personal Recollection of the Turnbull Store Collapse:
Source: Trent University, Peterborough, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

Miss. Pringle, a former employee of Turnbull's store shared her memories of the tragic collapse during an interview:
The Turnbull Building. Source: The City of Peterborough

"I worked first in Turnbull’s store. When Turnbulls took over the corner store they took out the main support. They came in and started renovating. They put in girders. The foundation was not strong enough.

Five were killed. There was three employees, and two were customers. I was in the store, about the center. Although if I’d stayed in my own department where I was, I’d have gone down into the cellar and been hurt. I had moved down with the manager to mark some stock. All I heard was three cracks. I said to the girl beside [me] “we had better run”, and we got out of there [...] last. Then we came in where the ground was. I answered the telephone. All I said was “the store is fallen in”. That was in August and then the next July the new store was erected where Zellars is now, at the corner.

[Salary] Two fifty a week. That was in 1909.

I failed the French exam and I quit school."

On September 29, 2008, Members of the Peterborough Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee met to recommend 361-365 George Street North in Peterborough, Ontario be designated as being a property of cultural heritage value or interest to the City of Peterborough.

The City of Peterborough cites the long history of the Turnbull building as one reason for this designation:
The Turnbull Building. Source: The City of Peterborough

"The building has always been used as a department store, although when the original Victorian building was constructed in 1888, it was divided into two separate storefronts. The J. & C. Turnbull Company occupied 363-365 George, and Mr. J. Fairweather, a milliner, occupied 361 George until 1900 when Barrie Thomas Furrier moved in.

On August 28, 1913 the front half of the building collapsed while undergoing renovations, killing 6 people. Documented by the photographers of the Roy Studio, the ‘Turnbull Disaster’ is one of the most noteworthy tragedies of Peterborough’s history. Nothing was salvageable from the original building.

The Turnbull Company rebuilt on the site, and took over both storefronts. The building suffered damage again in 1923 when a fire broke out inside the building. Turnbull’s sold the building to Eaton’s soon afterward, and a Teco store (a division of T. Eaton’s Co.) operated for several years in the late 1920’s, at which time a fourth floor was added to the building.

In 1934, after sitting vacant for 2 years, a Zellers store opened in the building, and operating under various Zellers brand names until 2005. During the 70 years that Zellers occupied the building, the fourth storey was removed and the storefront updated in the 1950’s."

FAQS about the Zellers-Turnbull Building from The City of Peterborough

The Zellers-Turnbull Building. Source: The City of Peterborough

ORIGINAL OWNER: Turnbull’s Department Store


DATE OF CONSTRUCTION: Rebuilt in 1914, damaged by fire in 1923. Renovations 1935-1958.

BUILDER: McGregor and McIntyre, Steel workers

CONTEXT- SITE AND SETTING: Anchoring the northwest corner at one of the main intersections in the heart of downtown Peterborough, 361-365 George Street North is a landmark in the downtown, known locally as the ‘Zellers Store’ for 70 years. The building’s 20th century design is of similar scale and proportion to earlier buildings on the block, and provides an interesting contrast with its Art Deco features.

A New Purpose

After Zellers closed in 2005, the historic Turnbull building got a facelift to create important space for community medical teams and infant care.

The building was renamed the Turnbull Medical Building and hosts the Peterborough Community Family Health Team and the Maternity and Infant Care Centre (Source: The Peterborough Examiner).