A group of firefighters standing in front of a building 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.

The Early Days of Fort William's Fire Department

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.

A group of men standing together wearing suits and hats 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.

A group of firemen in uniform standing in front of glass doorsA 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 Ward Locations

  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

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

A group of firefighters and a dog sitting together in uniformThe 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.

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.a man standing beside a cart with wheels and a tank

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.

the front of a building with vehicles in frontAs 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.

 Fire Brigade Outside Town Hall

 This photograph is one of the earliest of the Port Arthur Fire Brigade, taken outside of the town hall.


A group of firefighters standing in front of a building


The caption reads: "Masonic Temple and Port Arthur Fire Dept. 50 yrs. ago."

City of Thunder Bay Archives Series Number: 128

Accession Number: 1991-01#15

 1918 Annual Report

A typed report with a red Fort William Crest at the top

The text of this report reads as follows:

"To the Chairman & Members, Fire, Water & Light Committee. Gentlemen:- I beg to report as follows on the operations of the Fire Department for the past year 1918:


During the year the Department responded to 158 alarms, used 12,600 feet of 2 1/2 [inch] hose, 1,900 feet chemical hose, and 70 - 3 gallon hand chemicals.


The total insurance involved on property endangered [$]3,561,803.00.


The total loss on property for the year $73,306.55.


Of the fires during the year one at the Canada Car plant and one in a derrick scow belonging to the Great Lakes Company were responsible for the greater portion of the loss. These two fires account for $42,453.00 of the loss.


During the year 300 feet of hose was disposed of to the Works Department and 500 feet of new hose purchased. At a recent fire this year at the Superior Elevator, 150 feet of hose was destroyed when an explosion took place burying the hose so that it could not be extricated, and it will be necessary to purchase 500 feet this year to keep our supply. Last year we disposed of one old team of horses and replaced them with a young team. We have one team at the present time that should be replaced by a new team.


The fire apparatus and equipment are all in good order with the exception of one 28 foot ladder, which was broken at the Superior Elevator fire. The material for this ladder has been ordered and it will be replaced on the apparatus in a few days. We also lost one play pipe and two axes at this fire, but expect to recover these when the grain has been removed."


A typed report with a Fort William crest at the top


[page 2] "The fire stations will require considerable paint this year as no money was spent during the war, paint material being very high. The roof of the Pacific Avenue Station has been giving trouble and it will likely be necessary to tar and gravel it this coming summer, we will also have to make considerable repairs to the south half of the Central Fire Station roof, this is a galvanized iron roof and it is rusting badly.


During the past year we have made a great number of inspections of the business places and are still continuing these inspections, in all cases our recommendations have been complied with. These inspections I believe have helped to keep down the loss.


It is gratifying to be able to report that no loss of life occurred during the year from fire, also, that no member of the Department met with any accident other than minor cuts from broken glass. The horses of the Department also coming through the year without any serious mishap.


In a former report I asked that the heating plants at the Central and Brown Street Stations be changed to steam heating, both these plants are inadequate and expensive. I did not push the matter during the war as steam heating material was very high and I would respectfully suggest that this matter be looked into and if it is found that prices have come down, that the work be undertaken if possible.


For the past number of years, that is to say, during the war, I have been asking for an automobile to take the place of the small car which I have driven for the last five years. The purchase of this car has been put off by different committees from year to year with verbal promises for the future. The war time policy of economy being cited on each occasion, so that it became necessary for me to fall in line and acquiesce, but Gentlemen, during all this time I have been made the butt of all the jokers in the City over the present car, and I would respectfully suggest that you give this matter your serious consideration at an early date.


In conclusion I desire to thank the members of last year's Committee for their hearty support during the year.


I also wish to thank the Officers and Members of the Department for the cheerful manner in which they discharged their duties during the past year.


Respectfully submitted, A.D Cameron, Chief of Fire Department."


Handwritten: "A further report will be found attached."


City of Thunder Bay Archives Series Number: 16 TBA: 208-12

 Early 1900s

In this photograph, the firemen can be seen extinguishing a fire. Though the date is unknown, it was likely taken in the early 1900s, as it pictures horses being used to pull vehicles.


A photo of firefighters putting out a fire on a street with billowing smoke


City of Thunder Bay Archives Series Number: 129

Accession Number: 1992-01#24

 Dominion Association of Fire Chiefs

This 1917 photograph shows the Dominion Association of Fire Chiefs of Port Arthur and Fort William. As can be seen, the photo is in three pieces, and a portion of it (from the right side) is missing.


A photo that has been torn and taped together of a group of men and women


The text on the bottom of the photograph reads:

"The Dominion Association of Fire Chiefs - Pt Arthur & Ft William - 1917"


City of Thunder Bay Archives Series Number: 129

Accession Number: 1992-01#25

Contact Us