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.
Fires have permanently changed the main streets of every town and village in Wellington County.
Happily, with modern equipment, highly skilled volunteer firefighters, and stricter building codes, these occur far less frequently than in earlier decades.
For the size of its main street, Erin village has had more than its share of major blazes. At least a half dozen conflagrations claimed business blocks between 1890 and 1945. With this record, it is astounding that Erin was the last village in the county to assemble a proper volunteer fire department.
The biggest of the fires broke out at about 4am on the morning of Aug. 2, 1913. A neighbour noticed the flames coming from the driving shed at the rear of the Queen’s Hotel, the larger of the two hotels in downtown Erin, situated across the street from the Anglican Church.
The hotel property consisted of a complex of buildings. The main building, along the street, was a two-storey stone structure, and it had a couple of extensions at the rear. An archway on the north side (similar to that on the old Exchange Hotel building in Hillsburgh) connected with the Queen’s livery stable. The roadway through the arch led to a courtyard behind the hotel, enclosed by a driving shed and a couple of outbuildings.
Erin’s firefighting equipment in 1913 consisted of a bell, a couple of stacks of buckets, and some wooden ladders in various states of repair. On the morning of Aug. 2, the bell quickly summoned a goodly portion of the village’s population. It as a warm night, and most people had their bedroom windows open. In an amazing display of spontaneous organization, they formed bucket brigades from the mill pond, located just at the rear of the hotel, while the braver of the volunteers ascended ladders in a futile attempt to douse the flames.
The fire had made good progress before the citizen’s brigade got into high gear. By then their attempts to extinguish the flames consuming the driving shed proved futile. The blaze soon spread to the hotel’s livery stable and to the main building. This was Civic Holiday weekend, and the hotel was filled with guests in town to celebrate Erin’s 2nd annual Old Home Week.
The hotel’s masonry walls only contained and intensified the flames, driving back the volunteers with their useless buckets of water. The hay and dry wood of the livery stable, on the north side of the property, ignited the building attached to it, containing Steven’s shoe store. It was doomed, as was the next business, the Steele and Foster general store, the largest retail establishment in town.
Two small retail spaces were situated on the first floor of the Queen’s Hotel: Tom Hume’s butcher shop and J.C. Blackwood’s insurance office. They lost everything.
To the south of the Queen’s Hotel, a narrow alleyway offered protection to the general store of Ritchie and Ramesbottom, and to McKeig’s barber shop attached to it. Both businesses sustained some fire and water damaged, but the structures survived.
The showers of sparks did not only endanger the buildings adjoining the Queen’s property, but also threatened those across the street. The roof of the Anglican Church caught fire several times, as did Wood’s furniture store, to the south of the church. For a time there were fears that the flying embers threatened the next property, Mundell’s planing mill. The bucket-and-ladder volunteers doused the roofs of these buildings with water to retard the falling sparks.
While some volunteers worked the buckets, others helped merchants remove their stock to safety. The heat was so intense that it was impossible for a time to walk on Main Street past the burning buildings. By mid morning, the volunteers felt confident that they had contained the fire, but it smouldered on into Sunday. Smoke and the occasional flame were still visible to those passing the site on their way to church.
Considering the untrained volunteers, the lack of equipment and the general bustle and confusion, it was truly a miracle that there were no serious injuries. Flames were still flickering when insurance men started to add up the losses.
They placed their estimates in the $35,000 to $50,000 range, equivalent to at least $2 million today. The Queen’s Hotel had been valued at $6,000, with the furnishings and amenities worth another $4,000. The stock alone in the two stores to the north of the hotel topped the $20,000 mark. As well, the Erin armories, with some uniforms and equipment, had occupied part of the Queen’s property. Everything in the armories was lost.
All the affected properties carried inadequate insurance. Because Erin had a record of recent fires, and because the village maintained neither a proper fire brigade nor any water supply, fire insurance rates were sky high. Property owners preferred to gamble.
Most of the commercial sector of Erin was concentrated on the west side of Main Street, between Church and Charles. The fire wiped out about one-third of the frontage between these two streets.
Recriminations began before the ashes cooled. Wellington Hull, editor of the Erin Advocate, devoted more than half of his account of the fire to a scathing attack on Erin council’s refusal to provide adequate fire protection.
Municipal councils frequently are guilty of bolting doors after the horse has escaped. Here they didn’t even close the door. At their regular meeting on the Friday following the fire, Erin council approved money only to purchase some new buckets and to replace ladders that had broken or burned.
Several citizens expressed outrage at the inaction. Letters in the Advocate from “Citizen” and “Ratepayer” offered economical solutions, given that Erin had a good supply of water running the entire length of the village. One pointed out that the loss in the fire would have paid for a good fire brigade ten times over. Several people believed a $500 expenditure would secure a good gasoline engine and pump, and 500 feet of hose.
Reeve Charles Overland dismissed all proposals with a wave of the hand. “We must keep taxes down,” he proclaimed repeatedly. During August, several merchants kept up their pressure on council. Steele and Foster, the biggest losers, stated that they would leave town if council would not provide adequate fire protection.
Council met again on Aug. 22. That night, councillor J.H. Gibson introduced a bylaw that would provide fire fighting equipment, to be financed through a $1,500 debenture. Two other councillors put forward an amendment to do nothing until council had decided what to buy.
Reeve Overland supported the amendment, and Gibson’s motion was lost. A few minutes later, council voted to go to the CNE at public expense to look at firefighting equipment.
Ratepayers and merchants packed the room for the next council meeting on Sept. 12. The result was a lively and lengthy discussion on the fire issue.
At the end, Reeve Overland relented slightly and agreed to hire Toronto engineer C.H. Fletemeyer to study the fire issue and bring back recommendations.
There the matter rested.
By election day, the fire issue had burned out. Voters returned Reeve Overland and the whole council by acclamation for 1914, except a disgusted councillor J.H. Gibson, who decided not to stand again.
Erin council eventually decided to purchase a chemical fire engine. The village stored it in a shed at the rear of the old Globe Hotel. The site of the Queen’s Hotel remained a vacant lot for the next 30 years, a constant reminder of the 1913 fire and Erin’s poor fire fighting capacity.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Feb. 8, 2002.