July 31, 2013

1913 inferno devastated downtown Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

This week marks the 100th anniversary of Erin’s most dramatic fire, the loss of an important landmark and the start of a political battle in which penny pinching would trump demands for fire protection.

The Queen’s Hotel, located on the west side of Main Street across from All Saints Anglican Church, was a two-storey stone structure with two beautiful chestnut trees in front. It had an archway, like the one at Hillsburgh’s Exchange Hotel, which led to a back courtyard with a livery stable and drive shed for horses and buggies.

It was there that flames were spotted at 4 am on Saturday, August 2, 1913. The hotel was packed with guests for Civic Holiday weekend, celebrating Erin’s 2nd annual Old Home Week.

They all escaped safely as the fire bell rang and citizens spontaneously formed a bucket brigade from the mill pond just behind the hotel. The fire was well-established, however, and it spread from the shed to the stable and the hotel, then north to a shoe store, a butcher shop, an insurance office and the Steele & Foster General Store, the largest retailer in the village.

Volunteers rushed to help merchants save some stock, but the entire block of businesses was lost. The heat was so intense at its peak that it was impossible to walk on the street in front of the fire, and flying embers ignited the roof of All Saints and a furniture store. The bucket brigade doused these fires, and the roof of the Mundell Planing Mill as a precaution.

In her 1980 book, Main Street – A Pictorial History of Erin Village (available at the library), Jean Denison recounts the tale of Mrs. Ridler, wife of the hotel keeper, who after escaping from the building was standing outside looking in through the window of her room. When she spotted her teeth in a glass by the bed, she slipped a few pennies to an Erin youth who slid through the bedroom window and safely retrieved them for her.

The fire wiped out the Erin Armories, and was a huge blow to the commercial sector, destroying one third of the frontage between Charles Street and Church Street. The total estimated losses of at least $35,000 for buildings and contents are equivalent to about $750,000 in 2013 dollars.

Most of the information on this fire comes from archived issues of The Erin Advocate, but for some details I am indebted to historian Steve Thorning, who researched the event for an article in the Wellington Advertiser.

“Erin's fire fighting equipment in 1913 consisted of a bell, a couple of stacks of buckets, and some wooden ladders in various states of repair,” said Thorning. “It was truly a miracle that there were no serious injuries.”

Because Erin had no water works, fire fighting equipment or even a proper volunteer brigade, fire insurance was very expensive for business people. The hotel keeper Mr. Ridler lost contents worth $4,000, but was only insured for $1,000.

Advocate Publisher Wellington Hull was highly critical of the reeve and some village councillors for lack of action, warning that businesses would not be rebuilt without fire protection.

The political battle that ensued for the rest of 1913 will be the topic of a future column. A plan to spend $1,500 on a heavy duty gasoline powered pump, with 500 feet of hose, was deferred indefinitely. It wasn’t until after the nearby Globe Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1945 that the village got serious about fire protection.

The Queen’s Hotel block remained an empty lot for 33 years. Eventually, Dave Mundell built two stores there, renting one to Ed Holtom for his bakery.

It was a busy holiday weekend in Erin when the fire struck.