Vintage: The origins of the Goderich Fire Brigade in Ontario, Canada
The ‘fire fiend’ was the dread of every town in 19th-century Ontario in Canada. With so many wood frame buildings, every town had to be vigilant to prevent its outbreak. A fire brigade was one of the first and most essential service that a town established to ensure the safety of its citizens and to prevent the destruction of property. In March 1853, the town council of Goderich considered “it absolutely necessary that one efficient engine, with all the appropriate belongings hereto should be possessed by the town.” As a result, the Goderich Fire Brigade was founded on 12 July 1853 when the council minutes recorded that the town purchased the steam engine and fire fighting equipment of the privately-owned fire company that had previously performed firefighting duties. In addition to acquiring the company’s property, five pounds sterling worth of Gutta Percha hose was purchased for the town’s new fire service. By 1864, it was called Union Fire Company No 1 and was composed of volunteers under a captain. In 1866, Elijah Moore was hired for $12 as an engineer to operate the horse-drawn steam engine. But the town’s fire service was a ramshackle affair; it was ill-equipped, under trained and poorly trained. Indeed, it took the exertions of the HMS Cherub’s crew to contain a disastrous fire on West Street in September 1868.
By January 1873, the town lacked a fire fighting service as the Huron Signal reported that “steps are being taken to organise a new fire company in this town.” A series of major fires in 1873, set by an arsonist, forced the council into decisive action. In December, council purchased a Silsby Steam engine (on display in the Huron County Museum) and paid fire fighters 25 cents for every hour that they were fighting fires.
In December 1873, Captain Thomas Dancey was engaged as fire warden (or fire chief). At age 42, Captain Dancey was known as one of the most “fearless captains on the Great Lakes.” During his nine-year tenure as fire warden, he is credited with bringing order, discipline and efficiency to the Goderich fire brigade. For his exemplary service, the Mayor and brigade presented Dancey with a silver fruit basket and butter cooler at a ceremony held in April 1881 at the firehall located in the town hall on East Street. The Signal said that the brigade had the full confidence of the town. When he retired in 1883, he was rightly considered to be the town’s first fire chief.
After Dancey’s retirement, the service went into a period of decline. An 1883 fire at Henning’s Mill found the fire fighters “at sixes and sevens” according to the Signal “the leading spirit was absent: as “no one appeared to be directing the efforts of the firemen.”
At another major fire on the Goderich Square in February 1886, the steam engine broke down and a lack of hose nearly destroyed the entire block before a bucket brigade contained the blaze. In response, council purchased more hose, ordered the alarm bell at the town hall on East Street where the fire department was housed rung for a longer period. Council’s most important decision was the appointment of William Byers as fire captain.
Byers restored order and efficiency to the brigade so that by 1889 the Goderich Illustrated Signal-Star claimed that the town possessed “a well-organised and efficient fire company of ten paid men and a fireman.” Byers was promoted fire warden that year, the town’s highest fire official. Also, in 1889, a newly installed waterworks system that included fire hydrants around town was a huge leap forward in fire fighting. No longer would the fire brigade have to carry its own water supply in horse drawn wagons to a fire.
In the 1890’s, the Goderich fire brigade’s effectiveness was demonstrated in two near disastrous conflagrations. A fire in 1895, which burnt the Albion Hotel (where the Bedford is now) was suppressed leaving only that building destroyed. In 1897, a devastating fire at the GTR Grain Elevators was contained only through the heroic actions of the town’s fire brigade and ships in the harbour that pumped water onto the burning structure. Had the flames spread beyond the grain elevators, the entire waterfront would have been lost.
EC Belcher was appointed Byers successor in 1896. Under Belcher’s command, the fire service deteriorated due to gross negligence. Belcher had performed well as a fire captain under Byers. He had been in nominal command at the grain elevator fire in 1897 but it was a Byers’ trained force that he led. Belcher proved a poor fire warden who was often in dereliction of duty.
In 1909, a damning fire underwriters inspector report found at least one fire hydrant was out of commission; hoses and equipment were in disrepair and, astoundingly, the ladders had been loaned out for to paint the British Exchange and King Edward Hotels. The inspector found 11 hydrant keys in one wagon, yet, at a recent fire, firemen could not find any to open the hydrants.
At a heated council meeting in August 1909, Belcher complained of “mean, nasty criticism.” He argued it was not his duty to check on hydrants (he may have had a point as the Water and Light Commission managed the hydrants). Belcher rarely, if ever, held fire practices because he thought fighting fires was practice enough. He also claimed he did not need to know the fire regulations “because council knows all about lots of these things.” The mayor and council could no longer accept Belcher’s negligence and near insubordination. They gratefully accepted his resignation.
William Thompson was appointed fire warden in April 1910 and quickly restored the service to efficiency. Thompson, a blacksmith by trade, looked the part of a fire chief. He was described as “a big stalwart man” who won first prize for being “the finest looking chief on parade” at a provincial fire competition in 1915. He diplomatically avoided a mass resignation of the brigade in 1911 over a pay dispute with council. Firemen wanted an increase in salary from $25 to $50 per year. Council refused but Thompson negotiated an annual council grant to be dispersed among fire fighters based on rank and attendance at fires so that members who were more diligent in their duties were paid more.
Under Thompson’s command the fire service was modernised. Telephones were installed in fire fighters’ homes in 1917. In 1919, Thompson received complaints that the fire brigade was slow in responding to fires because the town’s horses were at work in remote parts of the town. He proposed investigating the possibility of the town purchasing a motorised fire truck. Thompson’s sudden death in 1920 at age 51 was a tremendous loss to not just the brigade but the entire town.
It only took five years for council to act on Thompson’s suggestion. In October 1925, the fire brigade took possession of a six-cylinder REO-Bickle fire truck. It was the first motorised vehicle in the department’s history (and until recently, it was maintained by the Bluewater Shrine Club).
The REO-Bickle was a powerful fire fighting weapon with the capability of pumping 300 gallons of water a minute through the engine’s two hoses. The 120 pounds of water pressure was considered too much for the town’s existing hoses so more durable ones were purchased.
The brigade still relied on teams of horses to transport fire fighters, water and equipment but the Goderich fire brigade was on its way to becoming the modern fire fighting service that it has become today.
Source: Goderich Sickle Star