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Remember This? Constant threat of fire prompted town's first fire brigade in 1858

In Newmarket's early years, many Main Street and surrounding buildings were destroyed repeatedly in fires brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].

Fire and the threat of fire was the scourge of life in our town since its beginnings in 1801. One of the first things we did as an incorporated village was to form our own bucket brigade. Consisting of a small hand pump with which we could draw water from the various wells or from nearby creeks, we would spray water on the various fire hazards.

At that time, all tax revenue, including licence fees from our multitude of taverns, was collected by the township. However, as early as 1854, the local town folk began to complain that their fair share of these taxes wasn’t being returned to the village for the purpose of building and maintaining roads and sidewalks and, in particular, providing fire protection.  

An application was made to the governments of Upper and Lower Canada for a charter of incorporation as a village for Newmarket. This was granted in May 1857 and on Jan. 1, 1858, the first council was elected.

One of the first orders of business for this new council was to establish a fire brigade. As well, water tanks were built at the major intersections of the village. These huge cisterns could each hold 5,000 gallons of water. These cisterns were planked over and surrounded by a box-like guard rail for public safety. An upright mobile steam fire engine and pump were also purchased, along with more buckets, hoses,and ladders. We now had our first fire department, so to speak.

The fire department’s first major test came in 1862, when a major fire destroyed all the buildings on the east side of Main Street between Timothy Street north to the Central Hotel (currently Made in Mexico restaurant). The fledgling fire department was criticized when it was learned that a crucial hour was lost trying to fire up the boiler in the new fire engine, as the pump had frozen. However, it must be said that once in operation, the fire engine and pump provided excellent service.

Within two years, the buildings that had been destroyed were rebuilt with brick made at the Stickwood Brickyard (see the related article link below). A new brick firehall with Council Chambers above it was constructed in 1866 just north of the town’s first Registry Office at the corner of Millard and Main streets and, for several years, was also used by the Town Clerk for his office.    

A 500-pound bell that was capable of being heard throughout the village was installed above the firehall. This village bell was rung weekdays at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. (see related article link on town whistles below).  A special device attached to the clapper allowed for an accelerated stroke to alert everyone of a fire. These two buildings were eventually demolished in 1952 after falling into disrepair. A new firehall was then constructed, which still stands there today, although empty.

During the period 1871 to 1882, disastrous fires again wiped out all the buildings on the east side of Main, on the east side from Timothy Street south to Water Street and all of the buildings on the east side of Prospect Street between Gorham and Pearson streets.

During this period, the old flour mill built by our first resident, Joseph Hill, near the Water Street dam, the Woollen Mill of the Gorham Family, the flour mill of Mr. J.W. Marsden on the site of the Office Specialty Building, and the William Cane plant were all reduced to ashes. You will remember from my Cane article that the building was destroyed twice during this period. During the next five years, the Cane factory and several other mills were destroyed by fire, a hazard that didn’t seem to be to be going away.

It must also be remembered that during this period, epidemics of cholera, typhoid fever, diphtheria, small pox and scarlet fever were running rampant locally. In 1881, a particularly serious epidemic of diphtheria swept through town. Scarcely a family escaped this tragedy, with sometimes families losing all their children to the disease. It is said that the bodies were piled up at the cemetery, too many to be processed by the undertaker efficiently. This was later attributed to the keeping of livestock in small sheds at the back of houses and to the contamination of the drinking water.

In March 1887, this led to a public meeting at which a decision was made to construct a public waterworks system. Within weeks, an artesian well was drilled, contracts were signed, and gangs of men began to dig trenches to lay pipes throughout the village.  

The process began at what is now Bayview Road and Davis Drive, proceeding down to Main Street and along Main to Water Street, where a new waterworks building was constructed on the west side of the mill pond (part of it survives today). Within a year, hydrants were installed along Main at every intersection, all driven by a high-pressure steam boiler and a steam engine and two pumps in the new waterworks building at Fairy Lake.

Five additional artesian wells were drilled along the east side of Fairy lake and a huge water reservoir was built. All the artesian wells were connected by pipes and the water was then pumped into the reservoir.  A second reservoir was built where Pickering College now sits, holding up to 160,000 gallons of water that was open to the elements and stood 25-feet high and 50 feet in diameter.

Water from the Water Street reservoir was pumped twice a day to a reservoir at Garbit Hill (Prospect Street), maintaining a constant pressure of 40 pounds per square inch. Pipes were laid along all principal streets, providing clean and safe water to more than 200 local families. The railway was also provided 30,000 gallons of water daily.

The whole project was financed by a 25-year debenture and it was finally complete in 1888.  You may remember from my article about Henry S. Cane that this whole project was driven by his initiative and far-sighted vision.

It should be mentioned that the instances of disease dropped sharply with the completion of the waterworks project.

In my article about the town whistles, I told the story about the system of steam-generated whistles that signalled regularly throughout the town. The use of a system of long and short blasts signalled the location of the fires in town. A third artesian well was drilled in 1895 that doubled the amount available to a growing town.  

The volunteer fire department now had three hose reels, each with 500 feet of hose. The hose reels looked like two-wheel carts with leather straps attached that allowed the carts to be mobile, drawn to the fires by six firemen each. They had a hook and ladder wagon with nine ladders, pike poles, axes and extra buckets. A team of horses was kept at a livery stable across from the firehall, used to haul this wagon to the fire scene. One of the hose reels was kept at the south corner of the Alex Muir school property.

A few buildings in Newmarket were lit by a private electric plant by early 1886. In 1887, the street light came to Newmarket streets when arc lights were installed. In 1896, plans were underway to build a steam-generated electric plant at the waterworks.

This proved to be an excellent investment as the old kerosene lamps were replaced by electrical lighting, reducing the hazard of lamp-generated fires. Eventually, power was purchased from the Metropolitan Railway company. By 1910, Ontario Hydro had come on the scene, but the Town decided to stay with the Metropolitan Railway to avoid building a costly new building since the railway had its own infrastructure in place.

Newmarket continued to generate some of its own power until 1930 when Metropolitan Railway closed shop and Newmarket moved to Ontario Hydro to purchase their power. In the next few years, new electric pumps took over from the steam-driven pumps and the waterworks, which had served Newmarket for all those years, was eventually shut down.

If you’re interested in reading more about the background related to this article, please see the related article links below.

It sometimes amazes me just how far we have come over these many years.

Sources: The Newmarket Era; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhalla; Oral History Interviews done by the History Hound; Articles in the Newmarket Historical Society Newsletter; The Newmarket Archives; Disease and Epidemics by George Luesby; The Fire Brigade by George Luesby