“Saturday was a busy day for the Hamilton fire department – the busiest day it has had for a good many years. Fate, chance, fortune, luck, whatever you like to call it, made arrangements to celebrate the day that the boys had mapped out for a sort of holiday, by the fiercest fire that has raged here for a long while.”
Hamilton Spectator. June 15, 1885.
Saturday June 13, 1885 had been a day much anticipated by members of the Hamilton Police force and members of the Thirteenth Battalion.
One year previously a picnic organized by both organizations had been planned, but adverse weather had kept the attendance very low, and money was lost.
The police and the bandsmen were determined to try again to organize a picnic which would pay off debts from the previous picnic, and hopefully raise substantial money to pay for new instruments for the band, and new acquisitions for the police library.
The day of the picnic was hot but dry and things looked good for attendance at Dundurn. A pro baseball game was scheduled, numerous band concerts throughout the day and a full schedule of athletic events was planned, including a tug-of-war between the police and fire departments.
However, the best laid plans were negated by something the firemen at Dundurn could not ignore:
“It was while the department was at Dundurn that an alarm came from box 27, corner of King and Wellington streets, at 2:40 o’clock. A telephone message was sent to Dundurn and the department started for the spot. The Bay street hose wagon was the first to arrive. It got there fifteen minutes after the alarm was rung. The other wagons, hose, reel, truck and steam fire engine arrived a few minutes afterwards. When the department got there the
FIRE WAS FIECRELY BURNING
in the rear of 172 and 174 King street east, premises owned by Ald. Doran and occupied by A. Swayzie as a flour and feed store, and by Thomas Stern as a butcher and green grocer’s shop. The rooms above Stern’s butcher shop were lived in by William Snaith. The fire started in the stables in the rear. How? Nobody knows. A spark from a passing engine, a match, a cigar, the work of an incendiary. All are possible. It started anyhow. The stables were of pine, dry as tinder and filled with inflammable material. The flames had gained good headway before they were discovered. The alarm was rung, and people in the immediately vicinity put in their spare time carting out household goods and stuff from the stables. The stables spread down either side of the yard. In one of them was the horse and some hay and straw. The horse was tied. It broke loose from the stall,
DASHED THROUGH THE FLAMES
and was saved A sleigh, a wagon, one set of single harness and a set of double harnesses were burned. The flames could not be controlled. They had spread up to the houses before the department arrived, and did a good deal of damage before they could be subdued. But after the firmen got there, it was not long before they got the best of it. Both stables are totally wrecked. The rear portion of the houses is badly burned, and the stock in both stores is in bad shape. Mr. Swayzie carried $1,700 on his furniture, stock and the contents of his stables, and he expects that his loss will reach this figure. Mr. Stern had no insurance on his stock. Mr. Snaith had none on his furniture. Both stock and furniture are almost
and Mr. Stern’s loss is all the harder to bear, because only a week or so since, he laid out $100 in fixing his little shop up.” 1
1 “Gone Up in Smoke”
Hamilton Spectator June 15, 1885.
It had been hard work for the Hamilton firemen to knock down the blaze, but when it was effectively out, they had to go work once again:
“The wind was blowing a gale from the sou’west and it carried sparks, smoke and cinders high in the air, where they fluttered and fell. About 3:30, the flames were got under control, the steam engine was being hauled back to the central station, and the boys were making ready to go when a breathless messenger came with the information that Fearman’s pork factory on Rebecca street was in flames. The steam engine was sent for and the department hustled around to the place as fast as they could. Mr. Fearman’s establishment was on Rebecca street, between Ferguson avenue and Wellington street.
IT COVERED EIGHT LOTS,
110 feet deep. It comprised three buildings, A, B, and C departments. A was the one of red brick nearest to Wellington street, and was used principally for rendering lard. In the southwest corner of it was the ‘cooler’ or ice house, beneath which an immense amount of meat was in pickle in large pickling vats. Department C, the building at the west, was the principal storehouse. There was another immense cooler in this place, in which thousands of tons of ice were packed, and meat and lard was packed and hanging on the ground and upper floor all around it. In the central building was the office and a small room used for retailing goods in the wintertime, and three large smoke houses. The rest of the place was utilized for cutting up meat and the wall and rafters were covered with meat in casings.
THE FIRE STARTED
at the southwest corner of the roof of this building. Mr. Frank Fearman, who runs the office at the factory, had been over at the fire on King street. He stayed there until it was nearly out, and came back to see if all was right at the factory, the direction of the wind making him fear that sparks might set the roof on fire. He walked around and got up through a window on the roof and made the discovery that his fears were correct. The roof was on fire. Men in Brennen’s lumber yard adjoining had seen the flames and were trying to put it out with buckets of water. But this was useless. A spark had evidently got in through a window in the garret, and had set fire to some paper bags lying immediately inside. The flames spread
ALONG THE DRY RAFTERS
and had burned a hole through the roof before the men in Brennen’s yard discovered them. Instead of giving the alarm in the office, they tried to douse it out by pouring on buckets of water. When Mr. Fearman discovered how things were, he rushed back to the office and telephoned to the house, the retail store on Macnab street and the telephone office.
“In the meantime, the flames had made immense headway. They swept down the roof, gathering volume with every foot, and, in a very few minutes, the whole upper part of the building was on fire. Young Mr. Fearman and all the men in the building got upstairs endeavoring to save the stock. They stuck to it until the smoke drove them out. An immense crowd gathered quickly, and a number of them
VOLUNTEERED THEIR AID
and helped to get the stuff away from the flames. A good deal was got out in pretty good condition. It consisted mainly of lard in tubs, and hams and bacon in casings. With every moment, the fire grew stronger. The heavy wind fanned the flames, and the most strenuous efforts of the firemen could not check the advance. The people across the road and for several blocks around, felt that the fire would not be particularly slow about stretching the street. They moved their household furniture out. Rebecca, King William, Wellington and Wilson streets were loaded with goods. Wilson street was so thickly covered that it was almost impassable, and a horse and buggy could not get down King William street from the railway track to Wellington. Several times the roofs of the houses on Rebecca street, across the road
FROM FEARMAN’S FACTORY
got on fire, and one stream of water was kept playing on them all the time, going from roof to roof. It was difficult work to keep the fire from spreading from the flying sparks and cinders. But the work was well-done and happily it was confined to the factory. The immediate locality is full of small houses, most of them old and dry, and if the fire had once got its grip in there, the result would have been decidedly disastrous. The roof of the Canada Clock company’s building on Kelly street ignited from a blazing brand, but a little water speedily discouraged the ambitious aspirant. Altogether the roofs of fifty houses in that locality must have started to burn, prompt doses of water making them take it out in starting
“While the upper portion of the factory was in flames, and effort was made to save stuff on the ground floors. People turned in and worked hard. They succeeded in getting a good deal out of the way, but it was all more or less damaged by fire and water. The stuff was taken into a yard across the road, and piled there until teams could come and take it away. About an hour after the fire had started, the walls of department B fell in, floors and everything coming down with a mighty crash. The smoke houses alone were left. Some 5,000 pieces of meat were in these, but it is all damaged and of little or no use. The fire was blazing fiercely here and in department A. In both of these departments, there was a good deal of valuable plant, including four iron tanks
FOR RENDERING LARD,
and machinery for cutting up the meat. The plant altogether values at about $20,000, and from present prospects, it will not be fit for much beyond old iron. Department A was used principally for rendering lard, though a good deal of meat was stowed there. There were, in all, about 800 tierces of meat, each holding about 300 pounds. A good deal of this was destroyed. There were also between 4,000 and 5,000 ham, some 500 of which were saved, though some of these are more or less damaged. Through the building were some 200 pickling tanks. A number of these were under the ‘cooler’ in the east section of the building. It was thought at first that these would be saved, but the flames got underneath, and, with the water, probably made the contents of the vats of little value. After the central part of the building had gone in and the east section was seen to be
A MASS OF FLAMES,
the attention of the firemen was directed principally to save the west section, used as a storehouse. As before stated, there is an immense ‘cooler’. In this department. In the upper story there, between 1,500 and 2,000 tubs of lard were stored, and on the ground floor some 10,000 sides of bacon and other meats, the estimated value of which is $70,000. A great deal of the lard is melted and useless. The exact condition of the meat stored on the ground floor has not yet been ascertained, but it is probable that there is some damage to it. The walls of this building are left standing, but the roof is completely gone, as is also the roof of the east portion of the building. In these latter portions, parts of the walls still stand, but they are unsafe and liable to fall at any moment. The firemen worked with a will, and on towards evening had the flames pretty well under control, though it was
before any of them left, and nearly 2 o’clock before they all left. The chief put on a gang of relief men who kept the water playing on the smouldering ruins the rest of the night. Every inch of hose in the department was in use, and hose from several large factories was pressed into service. Several times, the line that stretched across the street caught on fire through bits of burning wood falling on it, and when the chief discovered this, he had the line soused with water every few minutes to keep it in shape. A couple of hydrants burst, and a hose burnt once. The water pressure was good. The stand pipe was put on at the reservoir, and
GOOD STRONG STREAMS
were obtainable all the time. The steam fire engine did splendid service. It was stationed on King William street, and two lines of hose stretched from it.”1
The Fearman’s factory fire attracted a lot of attention:
“While the fire was at its height, the greatest confusion and excitement reigned for blocks around. The streets were thronged with people. Now and then a shout would come that someone’s house was on fire, and the vast crowd would surge down the street, only to come back after a moment’s absence. This was repeated a dozen times through the afternoon. In Brennen’s lumber yard, men were busily engaged piling lumber on Grand Trunk railway wagons and carting it out of the way. So great was the excitement that the men didn’t seem to care whether they were hit or not. A board was tossed down from the top of a pile.
IT CAUGHT A MAN
in the small of the back and felled him to the ground. At any other time, he would have imagined himself hurt, but he was too busy to consider a little thing like that just then. He picked himself up and went on with his work. A good deal of damage was done to household furniture in the streets. Men and wagons dashed over it, crockery was sashed and sections of chairs, beds and bedding lay everywhere.”1
Hamilton firemen, as usual, were fully up to the task they faced with the Fearman’s fire:
“The firemen worked like heroes, and yesterday they were all more or less played out after their severe exertions. Faces and hands
BLISTERED AND BLACKENED
with the heat, singed hair and eyebrows and bruises from falling timbers are a few of the things they carry around as mementoes of their work. Poor George Brewster, foreman of the central station, was badly hurt. He was standing on a lean-to at the back of the central section of the building directing a stream of water through a window, when the frail structure came down with a crash. Brewster sprained both his ankles severely, and was badly bruised around the body. He was unable to stand and had to be carried to his home.”1
The owner of the factory, one of the biggest of its type in Canada at the time, was approached :
“Mr. Fearman was seen by a Spectator reporter yesterday. He was unable to give exact figures, but estimated that his total loss at between $150,000 and $200,000, about $100,000 of which is covered by insurance. The loss is principally on stock and machinery. Fortunately, the books are saved. Mr. Frank Fearman had presence of mind to lock them in the fire proof safe, which appears to be all right. Mr. Fearman said : ‘I have just finished making improvements in the building and additions to my plant which cost me $4,000. I had some new rendering tanks at the station. It was very lucky that I did not bring them up before and have them placed in position.’
“ ‘Will you rebuild your factory on the old site?’
“ ‘I cannot say. Inducements are being held out to be to go to other places, and whether we will remove to Toronto, go to the States or remain in Hamilton we have not yet decided. We will start again tomorrow morning as well as we can, and for the present have engaged Simpson, Stuart & Co.’s old warehouse. Necessarily we cannot begin to fill orders as we did before, and
A BIG PORTION OF THE LOSS
will be in the stoppage to business. People turned out bravely to help to get the stock out. To them my most heartfelt thanks are due. Men came to me Saturday and gave me their hands and their sympathy, and that was worth more to me than money.’ ”1
The Spectator concluded its coverage of the fire with the following notes:
“There were a number of nails of salt-peter in the building. It is strange that none of them exploded.
“Thomas Chappell, Mr. Fearman’s foreman, was almost suffocated while helping to take stock out of the burning building.
“A new mill for grinding bones had just been put in the factory, though it was not set up. It cost $230, and is now worth just what it will fetch as old iron.
“It is but fair to Chief Aitchison to say that he would not allow the department to take part in the picnic Saturday, until the market, fire and police committee instructed him to do so.
“Charles Peebles, a young lad residing at 113 Hunter street east, met with a rather serious accident at the fire. A roof in falling struck him, inflicting a deep scalp wound and bruising his head and body. Dr. Bingham attended him, and he is now recovering.
“It is a wonder that the firemen managed to confine the flames as they did. The high wind blew burning brands blocks away, and cinders made the streets black. It was only the greatest care that prevented the sweep of the score of frame cottages north and northeast of the factory.
“C. J. Bird, 82 John street south, had a small fire in his house Saturday. The children were playing with matches in an upstairs bedroom, and the clothes on fire. Mr. William Hill, employed in his brother’s grocery next door, rushed in and put it out.
“C. H. Dempster, 13 Catharina street, called out the department at 4 o’clock yesterday morning. Some blazing soot had fallen down the chimney and the fire board had ignited. He got it out without any difficulty and before the department got there.
“A small frame house in the rear of coal oil Johnny’s house on King William street was set on fire three times Saturday while the big fire was in progress. Straw was piled up in a corner and ignited. P. C. Strongman discovered it each time and put it out. The people in the house had vacated.
“It is said that there was insufficient police protection through the night and that a great many hams and sides of bacon were stolen by people in the neighborhood. The police arrested several alleged offenders in this respect yesterday. Common stealing is bad enough, but stealing under these circumstances is the very quintessence of dishonesty.”1
As for the picnic at Dundurn, the fires not only drew the firemen away, they also drew a huge number of citizens to watch the excitement, keeping attendance low. The policemen and bandsmen lost money again.