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Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company — fire destroyed its Wall Street building on November 19, 1934
Apr 04, 2013

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
For decades, the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company satisfied its customers by precisely filling their orders for customized handcrafted vehicle bodies placed on various factory-built chassis. The company’s well-earned reputation attracted a wide range of clients, including the local police department, the fire department, major retailers and other business interests.
The Winnipeg Railway Museum has a fully-restored 1920 Ford Model T truck built by the company that was used by Canadian National Express. 
A major display in the Winnipeg Police Museum is of a 1925 REO patrol wagon, more commonly called a “paddy wagon,” which was owned by the police department from 1925 to 1930. According to the museum website, it was the third motorized patrol wagon used by the department. The REO chassis was built in Lansing, Michigan, and was shipped to Breen Motors in Winnipeg on July 3, 1925. It was then purchased by the police department and sent to the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company to be fitted with a customized body.The museum website said the paddy wagon box design followed the style of the 1917 truck it replaced.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly for the company until calamity struck in 1934, when a fire destroyed its West End shop at 583 Wall St. “Fanned by a southeast wind,” reported the Tuesday, November 20, 1934, Free Press, “a spectacular two-alarm fire of unknown origin, Monday night, destroyed the three-storey building of the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company, Limited, 583 Wall Street.
Initial newspaper accounts pegged the loss at $30,000, but days later Lawrie said he estimated the loss at $15,000, of which only $6,000 was covered by insurance. Despite the $9,000 loss, Lawrie vowed to quickly rebuild the facility.
The fire that began in an elevator shaft was fed by paint and oil stored in the building.
Several firefighters and Bruce Lawrie, the son of the founder, went into the smoke building before the blaze became an inferno, and were able to save a few cars, trucks and other vehicles from the flames, but other vehicles were destroyed by the flames.
“As the fire grew worse and the lurid flames lighted up the sky for miles around, hundreds of curious spectators rushed to the scene.” At this time, the newspaper referred to the flame-filled building as “doomed.”
When flames were seen erupting outside the structure, the roof collapsed. Fortunately, no one was injured, as the firefighters were earlier ordered out the building by the deputy fire chief for fear of an explosion occurring, as well as the danger that the floors could collapse from the weight of the many heavy vehicles stored above the ground floor.
Controversy arose in the aftermath of the fire, when Bruce Lawrie complained to city alderman (today’s councillor) Cecil Rice-Jones that fire chief D.A. Boulden was not present while the fire was raging and refused the next morning  to enter the building, because “he had his good clothes on” (Free Press, December 4, 1934). It was an accusation that Boulden vehemently denied, saying at a later inquest that he was “the best customer in Winnipeg for the dry cleaners,” and that he had indeed entered the building the following morning in the company of Lawrie. But that was a minor complaint, as Lawrie also told Rice-Jones that there was not enough water pressure to fight the blaze and that a pumper didn’t reach Wall Street until an hour after the alarm was given, although the  man who had called it in told the telephone operator it looked like a “bad” fire and suggested that the best equipment be sent.
Lawrie said that if the pumper had arrived at the scene shortly after the call and proper water pressure was secured, the fire could have been contained to the east end of the structure. When the alarm was given, he added, the fire was confined to  the elevator and only smoke was belching out of the east end windows without the presence of visible flames. 
Lawrie’s complaints resulted in city council appointing a probe to investigate the fire department’s “efficiency and promptitude” while handling the blaze. In particular, the probe was to investigate the accusation of “poor water pressure” at the scene. Named to the probe were Mayor Ralph Webb, Alderman J.A. Barry and V.D. Hurst of the Western Canada Insurance Underwriters Association.
During the December 5 session of the investigation: “Robert Lawrie said the stream from one of the hose lines was so weak that it could not reach the top of the building and hardly managed to get as far as the second floor” (Free Press, December 6).
“The lack of pressure was so noticeable,” Bruce Lawrie added, “that many spectators wondered whether the firemen were going to let the building burn down without an attempt to put up a real battle against the flames.” Lawrie further accused the fire department of not hooking up a line to the pumper until 10:30 p.m., an hour after the fire was reported by E.J. Raybone, a filling station employee. Raybone sighted the flames while standing at the corner of Portage Avenue and Gould Street. After calling 100 (then the emergency number), he telephoned Robert Lawrie to inform him that the wagon and carriage building was on fire.
Witnesses for the fire department said they arrived on the scene within five minutes of the alarm sounding at 9:35 p.m. with five pieces of firefighting equipment. The witnesses said it took about 20 minutes to hook up the hose to the 1,000-gallon pumper, and that the water pressure from this hose, as well as the street fire hydrant, was sufficient to fight the fire. When they began to douse the flames, the firefighters were of the opinion that nothing could have saved the building.
Whatever the allegations, the investigators exonerated the fire chief and his department from any charge of inefficiency. “It is our opinion, supported by the evidence we have heard,” ruled the probe on January 9, 1935, “the best approved methods of fire fighting was used. Everything possible was done to control the blaze, and the foremen apparently handled their work according to the best judgment and training.”
Newspapers reported that the Lawries were unmoved by the findings of the probe and stood by their allegations.
The Lawrie workers were relocated to temporary quarters in a paint shop on the north side of the burned-out factory, pending its rebuilding.  
Five years later, the fire department was credited with “prompt and efficient service” in preventing another fire from “demolishing” the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Building at Portage and Wall (Winnipeg Tribune, May 16, 1939). “Two trucks, a number of truck bodies under construction, and the building were damaged to an estimated amount of $5,000.”
Robert Lawrie, at age 78, died at his Ethelbert Street home on December 22, 1941. The founder of Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company was succeeded by his son, Bruce, as general manager and president. 
Bruce Lawrie died 14 years later on May 19, 1955, and management of the company was taken over by the Lawrie estate until 1968, when Fred Kooyman and James “Jim” Ferguson purchased the company.
Kooyman was a long-time employee of Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company, having joined the firm in 1928. His father, William, an immigrant from the Netherlands (died 1980) had joined the company in 1908, and rose to the ranks of superintendent and acquired an interest in the company.
“The past three years have been the best ones for the custom body builders,” reported John McManus in a January 23, 1971, Free Press article. “Annual gross is now about $350,000 and 14 to 16 people meet the needs of its customers. Today it custom builds trucks for the breweries, Eaton’s, The Bay, Manitoba Carriage, Jessiman’s and Modern Dairies. It custom built a truck for Bristol Aerospace to deliver the first duct made for the Lockheed L-1011.” The products they produced ranged in cost from $1,000 to $6,000 with the most expensive to manufacture being refrigerated ice cream trucks.
“The partners say one of the most promising products they are now making are ambulances. Most are converted to fit vans like the Econoline and the price is one-third of that put out by the big name producers in the U.S.”
The provincial government commissioned the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company (1968) Ltd., to build a new low-cost ambulance that was designed by the health department. “Built at less than half the cost of ordinary ambulances,” reported the July 19, 1968, Free Press, “it will be used to demonstrate the feasibility of economical ambulance services to municipal, voluntary or private organizations . . . The ambulance — an ordinary panel truck body crammed full of the latest medical equipment — costs $7,000 instead of the normal $20,000-plus cost of traditional Canadian ambulances.”
Manitoba’s ambulance officer, C.G. Chapman, praised the emergency vehicle for being within the budgets of most municipalities.
“The design incorporates special safety and medical equipment suggested by the Manitoba Medical Association and the St. John Ambulance Corps.” The ambulance had room for two attendants and four stretcher cases, which incouded, “one cot, one stretcher on wheels and two basket stretchers.”
But it became apparent that customers weren’t rushing to buy the Manitoba-built ambulances. In rural Manitoba, many operators outside Winnipeg used a limousine-type ambulance. In 1967, Bethesda Hospital in Steinbach purchased a Cadillac limousine ambulance for $10,000, which was used until 1975.
And just as the Lawrie company was attempting to gain a share of the market, the Manitoba government began introducing new standards for attendants and ambulances. As the provincial emergency services evolved, the Manitoba government signed subsidy agreements with health regions, municipalities and First Nations communities for the operation of ambulance services, such as the municipal system that now exists in Winnipeg (Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service).
In the late-1970s, modular units built to order on truck chassis using assembly line methods were becoming popular after the U.S. government introduced updated ambulance regulations. A new generation of Ford, Dodge and GM vans and trucks were being converted into ambulances.
Fred Kooyman retired as the president of Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company in 1977, and died on December 17, 1985, at age 72. The last surviving owner/operator of the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company, James Ferguson, passed away on
December 3, 2002, at age 81.
But even though the Lawrie Wagon and Carriage Company no longer exists, it proved to be a rather resilient company. Its ability to adapt to changing circumstances meant that the company survived the transition from horse-drawn conveyances to the Motor Age, and maintained a presence as a manufacturer of quality custom-built vehicle bodies for over 90 years.