Fire in the Drill Sheds
It was Saturday evening and my thoughts were nice and still,
When I saw a fire in the drill shed, very much against my will.
Then the fire bell sounded; then the firemen came,
And they worked with might and skill until they subdued the flames.
I am so sorry for the drill sheds, and the beautiful trees
And the Virginia creeper that used to bow to the breeze.
We are sorry for the redcoats, and for Major Moore's swords;
For Bandmaster Robinson's music, which we all so much adored.
But we will soon have another drill shed, and our flag will float in the breeze;
Then every heart that weepeth now shall sweetly be at ease.
God bless our noble chief and firemen with long and peaceful lives;
May they enter heaven at last, where there are no hasty drives.
-Mrs. Rebecca Jackson.
Appeared in the Spectator, May 26, 1886.
During the early evening hours of May 20, 1886, there were only five people within the walls of the Drill Shed of Hamilton's crack militia unit, the Thirteenth Battalion.
The three sons of the the Thirteenth's Bandmaster Robinson were upstairs in the band room with Sergeant Evans, being outfitted with new uniforms.
When Walter Robinson was leaving the Drill Shed to go home, he noticed smoke and flames slowly running along the eaves of the building. Rushing back inside to warn his brothers, George and Willie, Walter then telephoned the fire department and then began to assist Sergeant Evans move the Thirteenth Band instrument and music out of the boardroom.
Caretaker Harris, hearing of the fire, opened the main front gate of the drill shed so the firemen could quickly enter the building to begin fighting the flames.
Unfortunately, a passerby on James street north, seeing the open gate, ran into the yard and opened the drill shed's Main door:
“The effect was instantaneous and appalling. The draught created by the opening of the door smote the flames, which, now, instead of crawling, leaped and flew along the timbers, and in a few seconds the whole interior was one sheet of fire.”
“A Big Conflagration : the !3th Battalion's Drill Shed and Armoury Gone”
Spectator. May 24, 1888.
Meanwhile Sergeant Evans and the three Robinson boys worked heroically to save the music and instruments of the Thirteenth Battalion Band. Gathering up armfuls of music sheets, they were able to make three trips from the band room to the street before the accumulation of dense smoke in the Drill Shed prevented any further attempts to save more music:
“Young Willie Robinson, coming out for the last time, was almost buffeted in the face by the advancing sheet of flame. With a snare drum under his arm, he cleared the staircase at a bound, and escaped into the open air with a scorched face and a sprained ankle. The retreat of the others down the stairs was cut off and they were obliged to jump out of the front windows.”
Upon arrival at the scene, Chief Aitchison quickly perceived that the Drill Shed could not be saved and directed the efforts of his men to prevent the fire from spreading:
“The heat was so intense that the crowd was driven back, unable to endure it, and the branch men working on the south side were almost baked alive and were on the point of succumbing when Chief Aitchison instructed them to lie flat on the ground behind the fence and play on the flames from that sheltered position>
There being no wind, the flames shot up over a hundred feet in the air, meanwhile
“Thousands of fiery tongues were thrust out between the boards and timbers, whilst overhead for many blocks around, hung a heavy black cloud of smoke, blotting out the last rays of daylight.
Chief Aitchison had immediately ordered the clearance of gun powder and prepared ammunition from the gun sheds, which were separate structures from main Drill Shed itself. With the assistance of some city policemen and ordinary citizens, this order was accomplished in short order, much to the relief of all concerned.
Another important rescue was completed by Captain Zealand. His first though upon arrival at the fire was of the regimental colors of the Thirteenth Battalion. Breaking a window of the officers' quarters, he groped his way through the smoke to where he knew the colors were stored, retrieved them and brought them to safety.
The battalion's regimental papers were saved by a young French Canadian citizen, Peter Legaire, who risked his life to literally snatch the precious documents from the flames.
After the fire was brought under control, it was time to fully assess what had been in the conflagration.
Bandmaster Robinson lost more than anyone else. He told a Spectator reporter that nearly the music he had accumulated over the years had been consumed by the flames:
“There are many original compositions and I don't know how many arrangements of my own, besides an immense quantity of printed music, very little of which has been saved. Besides several instruments and nearly all the music, all the new helmets which we imported from England for wearing at the Knight Templars' demonstration in St. Louis next fall, have been destroyed. Fortunately the new uniforms were not in the building.”
The battalion itself lost all the great coats, rifles, belts, leggins and helmets which were stored in the armories. The officers' quarters were completely destroyed with the loss of valuable paintings, glassware, electro-plated tableware etc. All the officers lost their swords, while Col. Gibson lost his personal collection of revolvers which were kept at the officers' quarters.
Major Moore was interviewed by a Spectator reporter about the militia's losses :
“I think $4,000 is a small estimate of our loss as a body. We had some very valuable pictures in our officers' quarters and some that were not worth much in themselves, and yet that money could not buy, on account of the tender memories connected with them that made them dear to us. We had relics there from every officer that has ever belonged to the battalion, things that money cannot buy.”
Hamilton's wooden drill shed had been built in 1863, while the brick additions which formed the gun sheds and armories had been added in 1877.
On May 25, 1886, Mayor McKay called a public meeting to consider the question of rebuilding the drill shed and armories. Held in the Council Chambers at City Hall, the meeting was largely attended by prominent citizens including all the officers of the Thirteenth Battalion.
Mayor McKay began by declaring the necessity of bringing the matter of rebuilding the Drill Shed before the Dominion Government as soon as possible. He also told the representatives of the Thirteenth Battalion that there was general sympathy among Hamiltonians over the losses sustained by the soldiers in the recent fire.
Lawyer Frank Mackelcan told the gathering that the losses in the fire were not only to the battalion but to the public in general :
“It is necessary in the interests of the country at large that there should be a drill shed here, for Hamilton is a frontier town, and in case of a call to arms, the the Thirteenth would be one of the first regiments called out.
Lawyer Mackelcan believed that Hamilton could call on the federal government to replace a building which years before was given by the citizens of Hamilton. Timing of the request was of the utmost importance, since it was necessary for parliament to place a sufficient appropriation for the purpose in the budget before the session ended.
In a resolution read by Mr. Mackelcan, the citizens of Hamilton respectfully asked the federal government to rebuild the drill shed at the earliest possible date, and to include estimates to that end in the budget which was then being worked out.
The resolution also directed Mayor McKay to telegraph the city members of parliament of both Hamilton ridings, and Senators Turner and McInness to urge that the matter be pressed forward without delay.
Mr. Adam Brown seconded the motion and recommended that the government proceed with the building as quickly as possible in the interests of keeping the local volunteer militia unit together:
“Unless the drill shed be rebuilt at once and thoroughly equipped, there was danger of the Thirteenth battalion going to pieces, and the government should be plainly informed of this danger.”
“The New Drill Shed : Resolution Passed at a Public Meeting”
Spectator. May 26, 1886
Lieutenant-Colonel John Morison Gibson spoke to the meeting on behalf of the Thirteenth battalion. He was thankful for the sympathy of the itizens over the battalion's loss, but he denied that the Thirteenth would go to pieces if a new drill shed were not immediately erected:
“If necessary the battalion would drill in the open air and find other plans to store our arms and stores. But a new drill shed and armory is eminently desirable, and unless prompt action is taken to ensure its erection, there is danger of a long and dangerous delay.”
Adam Brown was able to respond to Lieutenant-Colonel Gibson's remarks. He explained that his reference to the danger of the regiment going to pieces without a new drill shed was not intended to reflect upon the zeal and resolve of the officers and men of the Thirteenth battalion. He only wished to point out to the elected officials the bad effects a delay in reconstruction could cause.
Major J. J. Mason rose to declare that not only should the drill shed be rebuilt, it should be larger than the old one, fronting on both James and Hughson streets.
On February 3, 1887, the plans of the proposed new Drill Shed arrived in Hamilton and were taken to the caretaker's house in the old Drill Shed yard, where local contractors were allowed to study them carefully with a view to tendering for some of the work.
To be constructed of brick, the new Drill Shed would have dimensions of 255 by 100 feet, with frontage on both James and Robert streets. The drill yard was contained in the enclosure to the south, while the armories were also placed in the south side of the shed. Orderly and store were located at the west side of the building, while the officers' quarters were over the armories in the southwest corner of the building.
The drill proper was 200 by 80 feet in size, and included a gallery at each end for spectators or for use as bandstands.
Finally, the building featured square towers at each of the corners facing James street. The roof was expected to be of iron, but the newly-arrived plans called for a wooden truss structure with shingles. There was also a display or ornamental gable in the center of the Robert street side.
The materials to be used in the construction of the new drill shed were to be of the finest red brick, with facings of Credit Valley sandstone, and the thresholds, steps and curbing of the proposed building were to be made out of Hamilton limestone.
The Spectator reporter who had access to the government plans was enthusiastic in his praise for them:
“The structure will undoubtedly be one of the finest and most complete of its kind in the Dominion, and will be an attractive addition to our already large collection of handsome public buildings.”
On Friday evening, September 15, 1888, the members of the Thirteenth battalion mustered at their temporary headquarters at the old Canada Life building on James street north, near the Main street intersection.
Headed by the band, the regiment paraded north on James street to the nearly-completed Drill Hall, where, after depositing their rifles and other accoutrements, a trip was made back to the temporary headquarters where the members of the regiment, in the words of a Spectator reporter picked up “the balance of the paraphernalia of war.”
“Their New Quarters : the Thirteenth Battalion Moves into the New Drill Hall”
Spectator. September 15, 1888.
The same article in the Spectator noted that the formal opening of the new Drill Hall on James street north occurred just two years and four months after the May 23, 1886 fire which had destroyed the old drill shed “and with its fiery extinguishment perished the time-honored cradle of martial ardor in this city for the last quarter of a century. Here it was that in the exciting times of the Fenian raid in 1866 the battalion, many of whose members are numbered with the dead, mustered to march to the frontier and repel the invaders.”
The formal opening of Hamilton's new Drill Hall was scheduled for Wednesday, October 17, 1888 with the Thirteenth Battalion Band giving a free public concert.
The building had been constructed at a cost of nearly $50,000 by the local contractor, M. A. Pigott, working under the direction of C. W. Mulligan, the federal government's supervising architect.
Over 2,500 citizens attended the opening band concert and all comfortably fit within the Drill Hall's immense dimensions :
“The battery boys in their smart blue and gold uniforms and the officers and men of the battalion in their red coats lent a gay and festive appearance to the scene, which was highlighted by an array of flags and Chinese lanterns on the walls.”
“Opening the Armory : An Immense Gathering at the Band Concert”
Spectator. October 18, 1888.
The Thirteenth Battalion band was at his finest musical form at the concert to mark the opening of the Drill Hall and the audience response to their efforts was most favorable:
“Seats were placed for those who wanted to be seated, but by far the greater portion of the crowd promenaded around the parade ground, seeing and being seen, and feeling as happy as big, smiling sunflowers. Everyone was there with his cousin or his aunt or his sister or some other fellow's sister, and they promenaded and chatted and listened to the music, and recalled the old-time concerts in the old-time shed when the people used to stumble around the rutty old mud floor and be just as merry without the insinuating odor of tarred cedar blocked flooring permeating the atmosphere. And several young people were flirting, but they weren't caught at it.”
The band's programme included a clarinet solo by Walter Robinson, the Concert Aria by Bergson. Walter received a hearty encore from the crowd.
The highlight number of the evening, in the Spectator's man's opinion, was , “the popular and descriptive piece, Payday at the Old Plantation (which) was heard to much better advantage than in the open air and the thunderous applause that followed it showed how thoroughly delighted the audience were with the manner in which it was played.”
The evening was a pronounced success, auguring well for Hamilton's military preparedness as the nineteenth century drew to a close.
Saturday afternoon, November 24, 1888, the Thirteenth Battalion underwent its first formal inspection since moving into its new quarters.
In the months after the fire at the old drill shed, the Spectator reported that regiment was reduced to a shadow of its former self:
“And only the indomitable spirit zeal and perseverance of a handful of officers succeeded in keeping the corps together during the period when it was without proper equipment or a suitable place to drill in.”
“Our Citizen Soldiery : Annual Inspection of the Thirteenth Battalion”
Spectator. November 26, 188.
The Thirteenth battalion had been down to its lowest numerical level in the famed militia unit's history, being barely able to muster one quarter of its full strength for drills during the previous spring. The officers were able to help the corps withstand this crisis and by November the battalion have been restored enough to present a very favorable impression to the inspecting officer, Colonel Otter, the country's deputy adjutant-general.
The inspection was held at the Crystal Palace grounds where 355 members of the Thirteenth battalion paraded in review under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Gibson. While the inspecting officers passed up and down the lines, the battalion's band played as all the regiment's soldiers presented arms;
“The movement being performed with a precision and unison that drew expressions of approval from the immense crowd that surrounded the field.”
After the usual inspection of arms and accoutrements, the regiment broke into column and march past manoeuvrings:
“The ground was rather rough and some of the companies were a little soggy, but, on the whole, this showy evolution was well done.”
The finale of the performance on that inspection day was the trial of a new attack in extended order which the Thirteenth did not execute properly:
“However, it is rather an intricate movement and no opportunity has been afforded of practicing it sufficiently.”
In his remarks, Col. Otter expressed his delight in the tremendous improvement the Thirteenth battalion had made since the previous year's inspection. The only parts of the Thirteenth's performance in the inspecting officer's opinion were the marching past and the extended order manoeuvrings.
Colonel Otter felt that the completion of the new Drill Hall would benefit the regiment's efficiency:
“You have now the advantage here of an excellent drill shed, and from what Col. Gibson tells me of the programme for the coming winter, I have not the least doubt that every advantage will be taken of it so far as you are able to do so. The corps in Montreal and Toronto excel you because they have competition and something to work against, and we all know that in every sphere of life, such fair and honorable competition is always an advantage to everyone concerned. I am very glad, indeed, to have had the pleasure of inspecting you.”