August 07, 2013

Fire protection boosted after Globe Hotel burned

As published in The Erin Advocate

The fire that destroyed the Queen’s Hotel and a block of businesses in downtown Erin 100 years ago sparked a furious debate over spending money on fire protection and a water works system.

In the end, the village council of 1913 listened to the people and did exactly what most of them were apparently content with – virtually nothing.

The village had suffered many fires, and Advocate Publisher Wellington Hull was fed up with seeing the buildings of his advertisers go up in smoke. He pushed for purchase of a gasoline-powered pump and 500 feet of hose to replace the bucket brigade method of firefighting.

“Such a purchase would be backed up by every sane person in the community,” said Hull, in a Page 1 editorial.  “Will they wake up from this lethargy and do so? A long-suffering community awaits to see.”

He said the council should be composed of “energetic business men who will not stubbornly and wilfully sit by and watch the place burn up.”

A letter to the editor said, “It seems a shame that our fine Village is fifty years or more behind the times. We must either go ahead or go back. It will take years to get things back to where they were before this fire.”

Council’s first response was to replace some broken buckets and ladders. Reeve Charles Overland said they had to study the possibility of installing a water works system, which Hull predicted the people would not support.

“The discussion of water works looks very much like a scheme to sidetrack the whole question of fire protection for an indefinite time,” said Hull.

A letter writer attacked the reeve: “He sits on his high horse and hurls defiance at those who would do something. The one idea with him is to keep the Taxes down. It looks as if it will be up to the citizens and business men to get behind the Council and push them up to the point of doing something; and failing in this, see that we elect men who have not such narrow and contracted ideas.”

Councillor J.H. Gibson proposed that a bylaw be submitted to the ratepayers for a $1,500 debenture to buy a fire pump and hose, but the reeve and his allies defeated that with an amendment to only research the costs.

Councillors went to the Canadian National Exhibition to price equipment, but at their next meeting they only voted to hire engineer Herbert Bowman of Berlin (now Kitchener) to report on a water works. That report was presented at a public meeting on November 20, 1913.

“The revenue from consumers would soon more than pay for the operating expenses,” said Bowman, outlining the need for a municipal well and pump house. “You are fortunate in having a high hill situated so close to the village that it makes an ideal location for a reservoir.”

The total cost was $10,000, which financed over 30 years would have added $650 per year to the village budget. Hull proclaimed that, “With a system of this kind, outsiders would easily be induced to locate here, manufacturers would come in and the place would take on new life.”

But it didn’t stand a chance. After council rejected demands to submit a fire protection bylaw to the electors, the Advocate editor lambasted them for their “flimsey twaddle and lame excuses” and urged that they be replaced.

He may have represented the views of some business people, but not of most voters. Councillor Gibson stepped down, but the reeve and other members were re-elected for 1914.

Council eventually decided to buy a second-hand chemical fire engine, designed only as a first response unit while hydrants were being hooked up. This type of unit had a tank with about 50 gallons of carbonated water, carried on a cart. In the event of a fire, sulphuric acid was mixed in, and the chemical reaction provided up to 15 minutes of water spray. (A reservoir and water main would have kept two hoses going for four hours.)

That was it for fire protection until the mid-1940s. The chemical engine was not of much use when the Globe Hotel (originally the luxury home of mill entrepreneur Daniel McMillan, and now the site of the Bell building and Credit River Motor Co.) was destroyed by fire in January 1945.

The Globe Hotel before and after the 1945 fire

“Public reaction to the blaze, not surprisingly, followed a similar line to that in the wake of the Queen's fire 32 years earlier, with proposals for better equipment, a properly trained volunteer force, and a municipal water system,” says historian Steve Thorning.

This time, council eventually heeded the calls for better protection. In the spring of 1946, they spent $300 for a second-hand gasoline-powered fire engine pump, on a two-wheel wagon, with 2,000 feet of hose. It was almost exactly what was expected to cost $1,500 in 1913.

In November of 1946, Erin finally established a proper volunteer fire department. It was the last village in the Wellington County to do so, and it would still be many years before a comprehensive water system would be in place.