1876 fire devastated downtown Clifford

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

All the villages and towns of Wellington County have experienced major fires to their downtown areas.

For its size, Clifford has suffered more than any. Many readers will recall the last major fire there, which claimed the Mansion Inn, the major landmark of Clifford’s main Street.

The 1993 conflagration was the latest in a series of blazes that erased much of the 19th century ambience of Clifford’s commercial sector.

Previous fires in 1913 and 1943 destroyed several businesses each time. In 1918 the livery stable of the Mansion Inn and a couple of dwellings went up in smoke.

The first big Clifford fire ranks as the biggest. It broke out on the afternoon of Oct. 18, 1876. Within hours it had reduced a third of Clifford’s business core to smouldering ashes.

E.T. Gibson’s grocery and fruit store operated on the east side of Elora Street, half a block south of Allan Street. This was a new business, open only a couple of years. Like much of the business core of Clifford, it had been part of the great boom in economic activity following the opening of the Great Western Railway station only four years earlier.

A small residence was attached to the rear of Gibson’s store, and occupied by a couple named Crozier. On the fateful afternoon they were out, and had left a couple of small children to fend for themselves. The bored youngsters amused themselves with a box of matches, with the inevitable results.

The strike-anywhere matches of that time used white phosphorus, an explosively combustible material that would burst noisily into flames under the slightest provocation. Scared and helpless, the children fled. Within moments the flames had spread to an adjoining stable.

Dry hay and straw in the stable, combined with the wood construction and a warm and dry fall day, quickly fed the flames.

David Mollison, operator of a nearby general store, was the first to arrive. He had a horse, buggy and set of harness in the stable. With difficulty he got them out in time.

By then the flames and smoke had attracted people from all sides. There was a confused rush to set up a bucket brigade. It was too late.

The fire was now out of control, and spreading to the stable of R.A. Cook’s Commercial Hotel. The dry pine timbers in the large stable caught quickly, with a heat so intense that getting close enough to the fire to do anything was impossible. Onlookers realized that the entire block was doomed.

Bill Ford’s shoe store was next to the stable. Working quickly, he removed most of his stock of boots and shoes before the heat drove him back.

Within minutes the fire had spread to the next business, Thomas Frood’s drug store. He was not able to remove much of his stock. The store contained quantities of alcohol, linseed oil and other chemicals that added further fuel to the blaze.

The heat became so intense that it broke the windows on Jonathan Hillhouse’s tinsmith shop across the street, to Dr. Mackie’s drug store and office, and to Mollison’s general store. Showering embers started small fires on these buildings, which the impromptu volunteer fire brigade managed to extinguish. All three of these businesses suffered major damage, but the firefighters managed to save them.

From Frood’s drug store the fire spread to Doering’s general store, which was in the same block as George McDonald’s American Hotel, at the corner of Elora and Allan Streets. At the time, McDonald leased the American Hotel to John Doepfler, who was a key figure in organizing the firefighting effort.

The volunteers had now abandoned all hope of fighting the fire, and devoted their efforts to saving nearby buildings, particularly Lee and Boyd’s general store.

Store owners brought out all the blankets they had in stock, and residents ran home to get more. The volunteers soaked the blankets in water and spread them on the roofs of nearby buildings, where volunteers stationed themselves with shovels. The bucket brigade, running a relay down Elora Street to the creek, supplied additional water to keep the blankets wet and to extinguish any embers that landed. These exhausted workers kept up their desperate efforts for more than two hours, suffering from burnt clothing and singed hair as the fiery embers rained down on them. At times it seemed the fire would overwhelm them, but in the end they prevailed.

Other workers set to work on the ground. They tore down and carried away two small outbuildings in the path of the fire, and a lean-to on the livery stable of the American Hotel. The removal of the lean-to exposed the straw inside to flying embers. Miraculously, the building and its contents did not catch fire.

By midnight the worst was over, though the burned-out blocks continued to smoulder for a couple of days.

Only through the efforts of the residents who volunteered as firefighters was the rest of the business core saved.

Clifford had no volunteer fire brigade, and no firefighting equipment other than the buckets, shovels and blankets brought to the scene by the residents.

Fortunately, there was no strong wind that day to fan the flames and scatter the hot embers more widely. The entire commercial core of Clifford had a very close call that day. The final toll: two hotels, four stores and a livery stable totally destroyed, major damage to three other stores, and minor injury to most of the structures in the commercial core.

Insurance men put the damage in the $40,000 range, equal to perhaps $4 million today. But most of the buildings carried little insurance, and some none at all.

The fire deflated much of the local optimism that had accompanied the opening of the railway. Clifford’s businessmen were struggling to establish the village as an important market and commercial centre to rival nearby Harriston. The general economy was suffering in 1876, and the fire further diminished the prospects for Clifford.

Some of the businessmen moved away, rather than rebuild, but not all were despondent in the aftermath of the fire.

George McDonald led the way for a reborn downtown. He rebuilt his hotel in brick on a larger and more substantial scale, and opened it as the Mansion House. For more than a century it would dominate the main business corner of Clifford.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 9, 2001.

Thorning Revisited