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125 years of professional fire protection — until 1882, volunteers manned the pumps
May 25, 2007

by Bruce Cherney

A day-long festival at The Forks last Saturday marked the 125th anniversary of professional fire and rescue service in Winnipeg. The special event celebrated the city’s first full-time paid fire department which was established on May 11, 1882. 

One of the first items purchased in 1882 for the new fire department was a Ronald steamer, built in Brussels, Ontario, by John B. Ronald. The new fire engine arrived in the city on June 16 to great fanfare.

The engine was named the “Alex

Logan” in honour of former Winnipeg Mayor Alexander B. Logan (1879-80), who had pushed for the creation of a professional fire service.

When it was proposed that the steamer would receive the name “Alexander Logan,” the former mayor persuaded the department to go with a less formal designation as “that is the name by which I am known.”

Besides using steam, what differentiates today’s fire engines from those of the 19th century was the use of horses to pull a steamer en route to a fire. 

Once in place, the Alex Logan could deliver 120 pounds per square inch of pressure (psi), which was considered reasonable for the era. 

Surprisingly, the Ronald steamer

remained in service until  1921 when it was placed in reserve by the fire department. The Alex Logan was turned over to the Firefighters Historical Society of Winnipeg in the 1980s. The society now has a place of honour for its first piece of major equipment in its museum at 56 Maple St.

While Winnipeg could boast a professional fire and rescue service by 1882, the history of an organized fire service in the city actually goes back at least to the 1860s when the Hudson’s Bay Company operated its own chemical fire engine from Upper Fort Garry.  This engine was transferred to the citizens of Winnipeg on September 11, 1869, when it became evident the growing community required its own fire protection originating from a more central location.

The emphasis on greater fire protection came in the wake of a fire that nearly destroyed merchant Andrew McDermot’s home then under construction. Following the fire, a mass meeting was held by local residents which resulted in the establishment of a fire brigade with Henry McKenney elected as the fire chief. McKenney is known to history as the man who created the

famous corner of Portage and Main.

Despite the presence of a fire brigade, insurance agents were reluctant to grant fire coverage in a community dominated by flimsy wooden structures. A chemical engine accompanied by

water buckets gave scant comfort to the insurance agents who would be issuing policies.

After the city’s incorporation on November 8, 1873, residents began to push for changes to their fire protection. As a result of this clamour for action, city council in 1874 announced it had decided to purchase its first steamer. 

On September 2, the Manitoba Free Press reported a No. 3 Silsby engine was to be purchased by the city. 

Alderman Archibald Wright, the chairman of the fire and water committee, telegraphed the Silsby company of Seneca, New York, that the city would give them six months to deliver a fire engine.

“A second telegram from the Silsby Manufacturing Co. yesterday notified the authorities that a highly finished

engine, costing $500 over the plain one could be shipped within 10 days,” reported the Free Press. “At a special meeting of the fire and water committee last evening it was decided to say ‘Send her along!’ and the company was telegraphed at once to that effect.”

To prepare for the arrival of the new steam engine, city council began to place water storage tanks at strategic locations along Main Street. When

digging the holes for the tanks, labour wasn’t a problem as any drunk appearing in the police court — a frequent

occurrence —was sentenced to perform the task. Once in place, the tanks were fed by an artesian well near the corner of Logan and Main. 

For $1,000, council also purchased an old log building on Post Office Street (now Lombard) “at much below its real value and at terms that rendered repayment a very easy matter.”

The council then began to organize a volunteer fire brigade of two companies — a hose-and-engine outfit and a hook-and-ladder outfit. Hooks were used as an aid to pull down burning timber and other material during a fire. Council

decided the hooks would be manufactured by a local company, while published accounts give no mention of

ladders. Since the highest building then in town was the 33-foot-high Grand Central Hotel, it was likely that council felt there was little need for ladders.

The new fire engine arrived aboard the steamboat Dakota on October 21, but its public unveiling was delayed because of a dispute over the duty charged by the Canadian government for its importation from the United States. City council exchanged a series of telegrams with Ottawa protesting the duty — the city wanted the federal government to allow the steamer to be off-loaded at no charge. Ottawa didn’t relent and the duty eventually paid by the city amounted to twice the original sum. 

When the engine was finally unloaded on November 21, it was dubbed “Assiniboine No. 1.” 

At the foot of Post Office Street, the engine was taken through its paces.

“After a preliminary squirt or two the steam was out a little higher and two branches put on,” said the Free Press. “The little machine conducted itself in an exceedingly fire-engine-like manner which pleased everyone.”

A few days later, the Brown and Rutherford horse team was hired to tow the engine and after “a good deal of horse-prancing, a good deal of glitter, a good deal of whistle and steam and some smoke on Main Street this morning indicated that the fire-brigade was out on a tank-filling expedition.”

The Free Press reported that the steamer’s tanks were filled on December 5 and the fire brigade was eagerly anticipating the outbreak of a fire to test their new machine.

The volunteers didn’t have long to wait as the bell atop Grace Church sounded an alarm on January 11, 1875.

“At 10 minutes to one on Monday  afternoon the particularly terrible cry of Fire was heard, and simultaneously dense masses of smoke were observed proceeding from the St. James

Restaurant in McDermot’s Block, or what in old times was known as Red River Hall,” reported the Free Press.

The fire broke out close to the firehall, allowing the engine to be quickly in place to draw water from the tank in front of McMicken’s hardware store. Within 12 minutes, the first stream of water was projected onto the fire and 18 minutes later another hose was in use.

“It was subsequently thought advisable to put on a third branch, and the way the little steamer rushed the water through the three branches, was much admired by the hundreds of people who congregated to see what was to be seen.”

The three streams from the engine were unable to prevent the fire from 

destroying the building which had been quickly reduced to ashes. Subsequently, the volunteers concentrated their efforts on preventing the fire from spreading to other buildings “in which they were

eminently successful ... Monchamp’s Hotel du Canada, and a couple of small buildings on Main Street, had an extremely narrow escape, and Mr. (Onis) Monchamp undoubtedly appreciates the operations of the fire boys.”

For McDermot, it was the second structure he had lost to fire — the first was the house under construction in 1869. The fact he didn’t have insurance on the building compounded his loss. 

But also suffering as a result of the fire were the building’s occupants. Mr. Pagarie lost his entire St. James Restaurant. Others occupying the building had their effects damaged by the fire or when quickly removing contents from the burning building. Similar damage occurred when contents were removed from adjacent businesses.

“Crude as our fire organization is, there can be no doubt that thousands of dollars worth of property was saved by them to-day, and the thanks of the

citizens are due the boys.”

The fire apparently originated from a stove in a then unoccupied rear room where Pagarie had converted a kitchen into a bar. The stove fire would have been well stoked on that fateful day since the outside temperature was a bone-chilling -32°F.

A few days after the fire, discussions took place on the value of building less fire-prone brick structures on Main Street. The value of brick construction was fatefully brought home on Christmas morning 1876. Instead of being able to celebrate the festive season with

joyful exuberance, the firemen were in a state of shock — their cherished engine and equipment were consumed by flames. Matters were made worse by the loss of their almost-completed new

adjoining engine house.

The fire was said to have started in the ceiling of the old engine house which had been covered with building paper. The ignition was provided by a stove pipe abutting the extremely dry and

tinder-like paper. The fire spread so rapidly that within mere seconds it was impossible to remain inside.

“After a futile endeavour to extinguish the fire with the Babcock (chemical) extinguisher, and to remove the engine, the men were obliged to decamp through a rear window to save their lives, their hair and clothing being somewhat singed as it was,” reported the Free Press.

“The hose tower acted as a chimney, causing a fearful draft, and filling the room with a sheet of flame almost immediately. There was no general alarm given, and very few citizens were aware of the calamity which had befallen them until the usual rising hour.”

The fire was estimated to have caused between $14,000 and $15,000 in damages. 

More fearful for the citizens was that the city was rendered devoid of any sort of fire protection.

Recognizing the danger, city council held a special meeting to discuss the purchase of a new fire engine and equipment.

“Can you ship at once a No. 1 steam fire-engine complete with 2,000 feet carbonized rubber hose,” read the

urgent telegram sent to the Silsby Manufacturing Co. “— no reels — our

engine destroyed by fire — under

circumstances will you deduct agents’ commission, and give six months time from date of shipment ...”

The reply from Seneca, New York, read: “Yes will ship at once as you direct ...” 

Until the new engine was delivered, about 50 volunteers turned up at the fire brigade’s annual meeting to form a bucket brigade.  Lieut. George Young also offered the services of the Winnipeg Field Battery to help battle any new fires in the city.

At the meeting, council authorized the purchase of new chemical extinguishers to provide the volunteers and militiamen a way to fight fires.

Despite the absence of a fire engine, Provincial Insurance Company announced they would honour existing fire  insurance policies, deeming it “cowardly” to do otherwise.

The insurance company’s gesture was made all the more ironic because city council had failed to carry insurance on the destroyed engine and engine house.

On February 10, 1876, four horses pranced down Main Street drawing Winnipeg’s second fire engine, which like its predecessor was named the “Assiniboine.” 

City council was quite pleased with its new acquisition because it had twice the capacity of the engine it replaced.

Two weeks later, the city’s first firemen’s ball was organized — a masquerade ball to raise funds for the general hospital. It was deemed a success as tickets sales raised $155 and after

expenses were deducted, a total of $39.08 was donated to the hospital.

Winnipeg’s new firehall was opened behind city hall in January 1878. It was made of white brick and was two storeys high. Using brick construction as well as a brick furnace was an acknowledgement to the obvious flaws of the first firehall’s wood construction and metal stove. The $7,000 building had living quarters for the resident steam engineer and his family, a cubbyhole for his assistant, a lounge and recreation room for the firemen, a 69-foot high hose-and-bell tower and adjacent stables for the horses.

The volunteer fire brigade was reorganized under fire chief McMillan. Twice a month, the 45 volunteers turned out for practices. They received $1 for every fire they attended;

conversely, if they failed to turn up for a fire, they were fined 50-cents.

The reorganized fire brigade also

reconditioned the old fire-damaged Assiniboine for service.

A major January 1881 fire “which cleaned out George Wishart and scorched George Morris’s new block” helped to highlight the difficulty in relying solely upon a part-time and inadequately trained volunteer fire brigade. A further complication was that Winnipeg was in the midst of boom times resulting in the construction of hundreds of new buildings. Its population had jumped from just 12,000 a year earlier to over 30,000 in 1882. 

William McRobie, who had experience with Montreal’s fire department, was hired as the new fire

captain at an annual salary of $1,800. Under McRobie, the fire department was reorganized into a professional service, a process that took months. The $12,000 cost of reorganization (an expense spread over 20 years) was approved by Winnipeg voters in a plebiscite.

The new professional fire service was divided into three fire districts and two new stations were constructed at the corners of York and Smith and Maple and Fonseca. The firehalls were linked by an “electric” alarm

system.

The newly-expanded fire department had four steam engines — the “Alex Logan” was its pride and joy — 17 horses, three chemical engines, three horse-drawn reels, 8,700 feet of hose, as well as new ladders, tanks and other equipment.

From 150 applicants, McRobie chose 32 men plus an engineer and his assistant and an electrician to maintain the 30 alarm boxes connecting the three firehalls.

Whenever a fire broke out, McRobie presented an awe-inspiring image. He would charge down the city’s streets mounted bareback upon a white steed — it took too much time to saddle a horse — with his handlebar moustache flapping in the wind while blowing on a bugle to warn people that the brigade was en route to the scene. 

Equally impressive as it raced to a fire upon gold and red wheels was the gleaming nickel-plated Alex Logan. As it thundered down the street, smoke  belched out from its stack and a clanging gong warned people of its approach. A shrill whistle sounded whenever more coal was needed to fire its furnace and create more steam to pump water from its four hoses.

The colourful display and cacophony of sounds became the signal to Winnipeggers that their fire department had entered a new era of professionalism.