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The Early Days

This page contains information on the Fort William Fire Department and Port Arthur Fire Department from their inception until approximately 1920.

The Early Days of Fort William's Fire Department

Fort William Brigade, 1894

The modern Fire Department would not be what it is today without the experiences of the earliest brigades. Usually composed of volunteers, both the Fort William and Port Arthur Fire Brigades began their firefighting legacy simply and efficiently. In Fort William, the men were referred to as the “Fire Brigade” until 1905; the following year, annual reports changed the title to “Department”. In 1909, there were 25 volunteer firefighters in the Department. Two years later, the Department had grown, and consisted of one Fire Chief, two captains, 14 professional firefighters, and a number of volunteers.

The equipment and firefighting techniques used by the Department in the early 1900s were significantly different than those in use today. Before fire trucks and other such vehicles were widely available, horses were used for transportation to fires. Though the trucks of decades later required frequent maintenance (so much so that there was an on-site mechanic at the station), horses required stables, feed, veterinary service, and harnessing equipment, and needed to be replaced regularly.



1906 Department Inventory

A short 1905 report to the town hall contains a request for a stable, horses, harnesses, 500 feet of new hose and a hook and ladder outfit. A list of equipment at fire stations in 1909 consists of "Two Hook and Line machines, two hose wagons, one winter sleigh, one hose reel, one chemical apparatus, [and] 3,500 feet of hose" (1909 Henderson Directory). The Fire Department at this time was reliant on simple equipment and hard work in fighting fires.

During the 1920s motorized vehicles began to take the place of horses for transportation needs. In 1921, two motors were bought by the Fire Department and attached to buggies that had previously been drawn by horses. As a result, three horses were retired and another team of two was given to the City Works department. This was not the end of the horses’ service to the fire department, however. Although their use had declined, there was still plenty of work for horses to do, and the animals continued to be purchased and cared for. 


Firemen, 1906-1908

A sense of creativity and innovation surrounded the early adoption of motorized fire fighting vehicles. New parts were purchased separately and combined with old to create the most useful fleet possible. Motors, chassis, and other parts were exchanged and recombined in order to reduce the department's dependence on horses.



The location of a fire was conveyed by an alarm bell. For instance, if there was a fire in Ward One, only one alarm would ring. If there was a fire in Ward Two, two alarms would ring, and so on. The four wards covered the following area:
Fort William Wards 
Ward  Location 
 1 North of Dease St., including the Coal Docks 
 2 Between Dease St. and Arthur St. S., and Island No. 1 
 3 Between Arthur St. S. and Empire St. 
 4 Between Empire St. and the Kaministiquia River 


Department Members, 1909

By 1913, the growing needs of the community led the Chief to ask the City to fund a third station in the North end (Pacific Avenue Station), and add two more firemen to the Department. Technologies were also advancing: the 1912 Annual Report makes the first mention of chemicals being used to combat fires. The Fire Halls also saw upgrades. In 1914, the Department requested that steam heating be installed in the fire stations, as operating the hot air furnace had become too costly. Work on this renovation was not completed until 1927, due in part to the high cost of materials and the need to conserve resources during the First World War.



The Early Days of Port Arthur's Fire Department

7th Annual Ball Committee

The Port Arthur Fire Brigade was founded in 1876, with the motto “Fly to save life and property”. In 1884, the same year that Port Arthur was incorporated as a Town, the Fire Brigade was made an official municipal service. By 1889, the fire equipment was paid for at the town’s expense: a hefty $4,000 per year. The firemen of Port Arthur were paid 25 cents an hour, and the first horse team cost them $5. The Fire Brigade also participated in its share of fun. The Fireman's Ball was planned by a team of men from the Fire Brigade. This was held on New Year's Day each year, starting in the 1890s.  


For the Fire Brigade in these years, equipment could be difficult to come by, and was even at times borrowed from private citizens. W. J. Schwigler, owner of “the Old Mining Exchange” hotel, owned an 1867 fire engine which he allowed the Brigade to use during fire emergencies. For some time this was the only fire engine available in Port Arthur. The 1867 engine may have been one of the three of its kind in North America. 



Port Arthur's First Engine

At the turn of the 20th century, the Port Arthur Fire Brigade had 30 volunteers. One engineer was hired in a permanent position from 1901-1911. Staffing was similar to that at the Fort William Fire Department. Port Arthur also kept three horse teams at the fire station, vital for transportation. The first powered automobile that used for firefighting was the 1913 Seagrave pump/chemical/hose truck.


One noteworthy characteristic of Port Arthur's Central station was its fire bell. The bell weighed 2,100 lbs and was given to the Fire Brigade in 1884, but was housed at the town hall, as the fire station was located at the Coal Docks during this time. After the Town Hall burnt down in 1907, the bell was moved to the fire hall.

The bell was made by the Jones Troy Bell Foundry Company in New York, with the following inscription: “This bell presented to the Town of Port Arthur Fire Brigade - April 15, 1884”. The bell's remarkable size had in fact been a mistake, as the designer had used the wrong proportions.


Port Arthur's Fire Bell

As expected, the bell was used for fire alarms, but was also used to signal the beginning of council meetings. Like in Fort William’s original alarm system, the number of tolls of the bell would signal which ward the fire was in, and continuous ringing would signal a general meeting. After the move to the Court St. station in 1907, the bell could not be heard, as the brick tower it was placed in was designed to be soundproof. A steel tower was constructed at the top of the tower, so that the bell could be heard again. 

The fire bell was taken down in 1955 because it was deemed unsafe, and was stored in a Board of Works yard for several years. In 1961, the issue of mounting it surfaced again, and there was debate as to where the bell would be displayed: Connaught (Gore) Park, Waverley Park or Hillcrest Park. The bell is in Hillcrest Park to this day.   



1918 Annual Report

Early 1900s


Dominion Association of Fire Chiefs


For more information on this subject, or any other subject of interest, please visit or contact the City of Thunder Bay Archives.