Carleton Place’s Great Fire Occurred in 1910
By Howard M. Brown
Carleton Place Canadian, 27 June, 1963
Stories of former days in the long and distinguished record of the Ocean Wave Fire Company of Carleton Place, founded in 1875, are continued in this instalment.
It recalls the years of the eighteen eighties, and this town’s perilous fire of 1910, in the times when steam fire engines and equipment were raced to the scene of action by galloping fire horses.
Officers of the Ocean Wave Fire Company in the early eighteen eighties were William Patterson, captain; George Warren, first lieutenant; George Crawford, second lieutenant; John R. Galvin, secretary; William Rogers, treasurer; and John Flett, company engineer. The grants of the Carleton Place Council to the fire company at that time were $200 a year. The company usually had about 25 or 30 members; 35 was the membership attending its annual meeting in 1882. Leaders of the ld days subsequently included Tom Nagle, Dave Moffatt, Tom Lever, Jim Warren, Alex McLaren and the great Billy McIlquham.
After the years of the hand pumpers, the purchase of a steam fire engine finally was authorized by an 1884 bylaw to raise $6,000 for this purpose. A brick fire hall, still standing, had been built on Bridge Street at the end of William Street. Several large tanks were situated at points distant from the river to serve as fire engine water reservoirs.
The new fire engine was unable to save the inflammable new tannery and wool pulling plant of John F. Cram and Donald Munro, burned in 1886 with a fire loss of $10,000. Spectacular fire in the town of the nineties included the destruction of the Moffatt & Cavers shingle mill and most of the firm’s planning mill, and two losses of groups of Bridge Street retail shops. The plant and office of this newspaper, then named the Central Canadian and located at the corner of Bridge and Elgin Streets, were consumed by fire forty years ago.
Keen public interest and pride was taken not only in the speed and skill of the Ocean Wave firemen but also in the horses which drew the fire fighting equipment of a generation ago. A glimpse of one of many similar races to smaller fires is given in a Carleton Place Herald report of a 1910 fire which threatened to destroy St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Appleton several weeks before the great Carleton Place fire disaster of that year:
“The town team, driven by James Walters, took the big fire engine to Appleton – four miles – on Saturday night in the dark in thirty-five minutes, and there were four men on the engine. Mr. J. M. Brown, with one horse, took a load of firemen and a hose cart down in half an hour, and signaled for water thirty-seven minutes after leaving the hall here.”
As in the country’s other larger towns and cities of fifty years ago, the pounding gallop to a Carleton Place fire by great teams of horses, drawing heavy brass-stacked fire engines belching their smoke and fire, and clanging and rattling hook and ladder wagons manned with firemen, brought a never to be forgotten wave of excitement to young and old alike. To youthful onlookers it was a latter-day Roman chariot race, in a vital and perhaps desperate cause.
Battle Against Disaster
This town’s greatest fire came in mid May of 1910, and rode to its crescendo on the peak of a heavy gale. It came about the time predicted for the reappearance of Halley’s Comet. Some when half-awakening to its glare, thought they were viewing the light of the comet. Within four hours after midnight about thirty buildings were destroyed, most of them residences. Property losses in 1910 values were estimated at over $150,000. Through heroic work by the town fire department, the Canadian Pacific Railway fire force and Almonte firemen with their fire engine, aided by the courageous and frantic efforts of householders and others, a greater part of the south and east sides of the town was saved from equal devastation.
The fire started on Bridge Street in a pair of retail stores at Albert Street, from a cause not known. Fanned by a high southwest wind it swept an area equaling about two blocks, centred in the Albert, Beckwith, Judson and Franklin Streets section. The block bounded by these four streets was reduced completely to ashes and ruin.
Zion Presbyterian Church, valued at over $35,000 with its additions and renovations of the previous two years was wholly destroyed. Other public and church buildings bunred down, in addition to retail stores, were the curling rink, the militia drill shed, the Masonic Temple and St. Andrew’s and Zion church manses.
A total loss at the residence of Mrs. James Gillies, on the site at Franklin and Judson Streets where fire had struck over thirty years earlier, was set at $18.000. For some time the fire illuminated the windswept night sky to an extent at which in Almonte and more distant points a newspaper could be read in its light.
These were some of the tactical incidents and sidelights of this fire of over fifty years ago, as told by William H. Allen in the Carleton Place Herald:
“The first water supply came from the new engine, which played two good streams from the bridge. The old fire engine also played two streams from the bridge but gave out early in the fight, the lift being too much for her. Two streams were laid from Brown’s, one from the pump at the light station and one from the grist mill. Another stream came from Mr. Nichols planning mill and still another from the Bates & Innes mill, to which the C.P.R. brigade attached their hose and held the fire from spreading across the tracks.
Early in the night Mayor Albert Cram telephoned Almonte for aid. Our neighbour at great risk sent over their fire engine and a squad of men, the run being made over at a mile a minute rate by a locomotive and a flat car with Howard Moffatt at the throttle. The Almonte engine, was placed on Judson Street. As all the own hose were in service one of Brown’s pumps had to be cut off to give sufficient hose to the Almonte engine, which was placed below Brown’s mill. It did excellent service for some hours.
Away over the track the tower of Bates & Innes mill took fire and was saved after a hard fight. Many houses on William Street were covered with embers, but the careful work of the owners prevented any outbreak. Half a mile further the granary and driveshed of Mr. Herbert Morphy took fire and was swept, the barns nearby being saved with difficulty.
The firemen had a desperate fight with Zion Church manse. Here there would have been no hope for the wooden houses adjoining, and the Methodist parsonage and church and the Brown mills with dwellings would all have been in line.
The uniforms and arms of the volunteers were removed from the drill shed, but some blank ammunition kept up a mournful fusillade when the fire reached it. The only thing standing in the block bounded by Beckwith, Albert, Judson and Franklin streets is a lattice-work in the rear of Mrs. Gillies home.
Norman McNabb got caught in the bellrope when sounding the alarm from Zion Church. He had a narrow escape from strangling and has a sore neck. We regret to observe that there were thieves among the crowd, and many articles were afterwards lost that had been saved from the flames.”
Reminiscences of former generations of the men of the Ocean Wave Fire Company at work and in their lighter moments at play, as written about 50 years ago by the great, old sportsman W. J. ‘Baldy’ Welsh, will conclude the present group of stories of that memorable era of the town’s fire fighters.