Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Year Dunnville Caught Fire

Historical Society Presentation: "1902, A Hot Year in Dunnville"

The nature of citizenship has changed radically over the past two centuries in Ontario. Now, we are expected to pay our taxes, vote every few years, and not complain too loudly about how onerous our civic duty is. Before though, every homeowner was expected to slog it out on work crews building and repairing local roads, and, in the event of a fire anywhere and at any time in the whole area, to join the bucket brigade and risk life and limb dousing fires.

On the 28th of September, the Dunnville District Heritage Association's researcher Judy gave an illustrated lecture called "Fire! 1902: A Hot Year in Dunnville," discussing the development of a professional firefighting force in Dunnville around the turn of the 20th Century, focusing particularly on 1902, a year when the town was struck by no fewer than seventeen major fires. Although the results were devastating in terms of property loss, they did accelerate the transition to the professionally trained (though still largely volunteer), high tech fire department that we enjoy today. Dunnville firefighters were untrained conscripts, every male citizen, until well past the turn of the Twentieth Century, although from the beginning their equipment was purchased and owned by the town; even in the 19th Century Dunnville was well ahead of other towns in the region, such as Welland and Hagersville, in adopting the latest firefighting technology.

Still, until 1892, fires were mostly fought using the ancient measure of the bucket brigade. Every able-bodied man in town was expected to be on call 24 hours a day to help put out conflagrations. It was BYOB, bring your own bucket, too. Houses that were too far away from the river were out of luck, unless a horse drawn tanker wagon was available to be summoned quickly enough. The presenter showed vintage photographs of Dunnville, pointing out a characteristic construction of the time, a tall tower in which fire fighters hung their fire hoses to dry. Hoses at the time had to be carefully dried out, or the water would destroy the materials out of which they were made.

In 1892 underground water pipes were installed in order to extend the area where houses were protected from fire. Firefighters were now able to shoot a stream of water 120 feet into the air, affording protection even to three storey buildings. But there were still problems. Water hydrants frequently froze in winter, leaving entire neighbourhoods vulnerable to destruction by fire. Someone on the town council suggested that they be covered in manure, but the firefighters balked. In turn, they requested that town councillors be the ones to connect hoses to the hydrant in the event of a fire during winter. This proved persuasive. Instead, boxes of straw were built to insulate the new hydrants; this made connecting hoses in winter a more pleasant prospect.

Dunnville had to rebuild its train station in 1903 and in 1938. In 1978 a combined fire hall, courthouse and police station burned down. Mills were particularly vulnerable to fires around this time. Flour dust filled the air, making a highly flammable mix. Often, vagrants would break into the mills built next to the river in order to find a place to sleep. A cigarette or cooking fire would then set the whole place ablaze. Often, the first sign that a mill was going to ignite was the sight of large packs of panicky rats rushing in a frenzied swim into the Grand River.

The DDHS gave this talk at an appropriate time for me. Early this summer the house across the street from us burned down, and the hulk that remained was only just demolished. I pointed the ruined site out to a visitor from Holland. She wondered why we keep building houses out of wood here in North America. Why not build them out of stone, as they do in the old country? The DDHS speaker brought this point up, mentioning that for one thing, wood is comparatively cheap here. After hearing the story of our year of fires, I wonder if it might not be a good idea to consider the entire life of a building before we decide whether to make it out of flammable materials.

Upcoming DDHS meetings this fall will be Pauline Johnson: A Poetess Between Two Worlds, on Wednesday, October 26, 2016, and World War 1: The Boys Come Home, on Wednesday, November 23, 2016. For more details, go to their website at: Held at 7 PM in the auditorium of Grandview Lodge, 657 Lock Street West, Dunnville, ON.

April Cormaci and other volunteers at the DDHA booth

Brown's Flour Mill, Dunnville Ontario, was destroyed in a spectacular fire on April 28th, 1902

The Live Oak Hose Co. and pumper engine 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition, Buffalo

Dunnville Fire Chief John Harvey Smith (1855-1931) who served from 1874-1924 and as Honorary Fire Chief until his death in 1931.

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