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.
Elora’s well-equipped and properly-trained volunteer fire brigade of today bears little resemblance to its 19th-century predecessor.
The firefighters of a century and more ago rarely held practice sessions, often suffered from poor morale, and had to cope with equipment that was often in disrepair. All too often, little water was available at fires, and their efforts could do little to retard the flames.
The earliest reference to a fire brigade in Elora seems to be a story in the Guelph Advertiser of Feb. 12, 1852, when an organized group of firefighters extinguished a blaze in the Wellington Foundry. Nothing about the organization of this brigade or its equipment is known. It was also short-lived: no fire company was present at fires in 1854 and 1855.
A new effort to organize a brigade took place in 1855, following fires at the brand-new Philip and Elmslie store on Geddes Street, and at the newspaper office. On both occasions, volunteers quickly pitched in, but succeeded in doing little more than creating confusion. It was obvious that some sort of organization had to be at the head of these volunteer efforts.
A committee struggled for two years to create a truly-volunteer force. It was to be supported by voluntary donations rather than taxes. No progress was made until Elora had its own council (separate from the township).
One of the first measures passed by Elora’s first village council, in 1858, was a fire bylaw. It made the reeve the fire warden, and the councillors deputies. All municipal officials were required to assist at fires, as were spectators who showed up to watch. The bylaw also provided for the creation of a volunteer brigade, with fire and hook-and-ladder companies.
The fire brigade seems to have been formed in late 1858 or early 1859. The volunteers appeared promptly when the Elora Mill caught fire in the small hours of July 3, 1859. They could do nothing to save the building, but were able to save the woolen mill across the river, using a recently acquired lever-powered pump.
Eleven months later, the woolen mill that had been saved by the fire department succumbed to flames. The fire had started in the top storey and the firefighters did not have sufficient hose to lift water that high.
Despite the constant threat of fire during the 1860s, when most Elora buildings were made of wood, council skimped on expenditures for the firefighters. Several months were spent arguing over a shed to house the pumper, and it either sat outside or in borrowed space in someone’s barn before a shed was finally built.
Improved fire protection found an advocate in Hugh Hamilton, a blacksmith who served on council in the late 1860s and as reeve in 1872 and 1873.
Without authorization from council, Hamilton purchased a second pumper and 500 feet of hose at a surplus sale in Hamilton in the fall of 1870. He had few critics; Elora had experienced a series of major fires during the year, including another at the Elora Mill, the Aboyne Mills, McBride’s grain warehouse, and three houses.
The epidemic of fires in the early 1870s resulted in an effort to install a waterworks in Elora in the downtown area. Its advocates claimed that the prevention of one major fire would pay for it, but the tightwads prevailed.
Despite the use of new and better equipment, including a second pumper, Elora suffered a long series of fires in the early 1870s, culminating in the conflagration that destroyed most of the factories on the south side of the river on Aug. 9, 1873.
The firefighters’ efforts were unsuccessful for several reasons. The pumpers could not produce a large stream of water, or throw it very far. Often, the firefighters could not get close enough to the blaze to do any good. They were also hampered by their water supply. There was plenty of water in the river, but in other parts of town they had to rely on what was available in shallow, dug wells.
The firefighters were most effective in containing fires and preventing them from spreading to adjoining structures.
There were also problems with the equipment itself in the 1870s. Council paid a caretaker the extravagant sum of $20 per year to maintain the hoses and pumpers. The hoses of the time were made of leather, and required careful drying and storage. There was no indoor storage for the wagon of the hook-and-ladder company. It stood outside, buried in a snowbank in winter.
Elora’s pumpers were themselves casualties of the 1873 fire. Volunteers worked for months to rebuild one of them, and were proud of themselves when they were able to produce a stream of water 20 feet high.
However, at a fire in 1874, the equipment was in such poor repair that the firefighters were unable to produce water until an hour after the fire had burned itself out. The disgruntled men resigned en masse.
A new fire brigade was formed almost immediately but, for the next 15 years, it went through reorganizations regularly, and council continued its practice of minimum expenditure.
Both pumpers were in good repair again in 1878, and remained so through the 1880s, but few expenditures were made for other equipment, or for such things as hose repair. Reinforced rubber hose was on the market by the 1880s, but the village recoiled at the expense.
When Hugh Clarke, the accountant in the Farran and Archibald private bank, was elected reeve in 1893, he quickly showed himself to be a champion of improved firefighting. He pushed a $100 expenditure for a complete study of fire protection in the village.
Two weeks later, he showed that he meant business by purchasing a steam-powered fire engine. It was second-hand, from the city of Galt, but it was the first effective piece of firefighting equipment owned by the village.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on June 2, 1992.