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Time and time again, Newmarket was devastated by fire

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod looks at the period from the mid-1800s to 1900 when Main Street and other areas of town were completely destroyed by the scourge of the times

Fire profoundly shaped the development of Newmarket. In this first of two parts, we shall look at the period from the mid-1800s to 1900. You may wish to read my previous articles on the fire department, the Stickwood Brick Factory, my history of Main Street and the waterworks for additional information. 

Fire has proven to be a major hazard for our settlement stretching right back to its origins. One by one, the early wooden buildings constructed by our ancestors were being reduced to ashes. For example, J. B. Caldwell, a Main Street merchant, was burned out three times.  

One of the first priorities immediately following the incorporation of the community as a village in 1857 was the organization of a fire company and the installation of water tanks throughout town to provide protection.  

The tanks were huge box-shaped cisterns, built of cedar planks, situated at the edge of the sidewalk on the principal streets. When water was needed it was pumped out by the fire engine. One serious disadvantage was that in cold winter weather the water frequently froze.

There may have been a few of these tanks in the village earlier but the first reference dates back to the time of the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1860, when a new water tank was reportedly built by a few private citizens on Water Street.

In the mid-1840s, a disastrous fire swept through the west side of Main Street, destroying all the buildings between Timothy Street and Water Street, including the frame house built by John Cawthra at the foot of Main (1820), which was replaced by the brick structure still standing on the northwest corner of Main and Water streets.

Perhaps the worst fire, in terms of damage to our heritage, occurred Dec. 6, 1862, when a raging fire broke out at half past three in the morning in a wooden tenement occupied by Mr. Dieterle, a watchmaker.  Given some difficulty in making the fire engine work properly initially and a strong northern wind, the flames spread south until parts of the Central Hotel, and all buildings adjacent on the east side of Main Street and the building opposite the Railway Hotel were all consumed.  

The premises of Mr. Henderson, grocer, were soon on fire, followed by the tenements occupied by John Wilson and B. Lee, shoemakers, and W. Lee, a baker. While these were burning, attempts were being made to pull down the building of William Wallis, saddler, and Mr. Prest, a shoemaker, but before they could do this. the fire had reached them.  

The flames spread to the Caldwell chair factory, later the site of the Chainway store, the second storey used as the Temperance Hall. Eventually, the flames reached the sash, door, and furniture factory of Joseph Millard. 

The Hook and Ladder Company (fire brigade) directed efforts to pull down the building occupied by John Graham, a toy and fancy shop, but the flames were to reach it as well. By this time, the fire seemed to be under control, although the entire commercial block was on fire in several places.  

The flames from the burning tannery were swept north by the wind and finally re-attacked the Central Hotel. Its sheds and other out-buildings were destroyed. At the same time, the North American Hotel across the street containing a marble shop and barber shop was also ablaze. The origin of the fire remained unknown to this day. 

On Oct. 13, 1871, it was discovered that the old mill built by Joseph Hill at the foot of Main Street was in flames. A strong wind was blowing from the south, leading to fears that the entire village was doomed.  The flames spread rapidly and soon the warehouse of Bastedo and Lee on Water Street had caught fire as well.  

On the opposite side of the street, the residence of William Roe was threatened. In fact, it started to burn several times but was eventually saved by the heroic actions of the fire brigade and vigorous efforts of citizens.  

The new bridge on Water Street was in flames and was seriously damaged. At the same time, the shed, and stables of Mr. Bowden, on the east side of the creek were consumed with most of the contents destroyed.  

Sparks and cinders carried by the high winds set fire to the village lock-up (jail) on Timothy Street but it was deemed advisable to just let it burn and to direct all available resources to saving the more valuable properties in imminent danger at the south end of Main Street.

Also, in 1871 another destructive fire was discovered at the rear of the Timothy Botsford premises.  All the buildings were of wooden construction and everything between Botsford Street and the brick store of R.H. Smith, at the corner of Timothy and Main Streets were destroyed.

There were three major fires in 1875 within the village. In May, the foundry of William Cane burned with a loss of $20,000. In August, Marsden’s Mill, the old wooden structure built by Donald Sutherland, succumbed to fire with a loss of $22,000. Following this misfortune, the mill was eventually rebuilt of brick, with greater capacity and modern machinery installed.

Then in October of the same year, fire swept through the east side of Garbutt Hill (Prospect Street). The building occupied by Mr. Jolly and George Partridge, the houses of William McMaster, Pater Davis, Thomas Raper, Elwood Hughes, Reuben Robinson, and Doctor Lundy were all destroyed.

Left standing was the cottage at the corner of Garbutt Hill (Prospect) and Gorham Street built by Charlie Gorham but occupied at that time by Doctor Widdifield.  Unfortunately, the adjacent house to the east on Gorham Street was destroyed.  

This disaster prompted a public meeting of the citizens committee to investigate the ways and means of establishing an adequate water supply for fire protection, drawing on a fund of $15,000.

In 1878, Doctor Bentley’s drugstore, and a tin-ware shop owned by Mortimore and Son, a frame building on the east side of Main Street south of Timothy Street, were both destroyed by fire. Spreading north, the flames reached the Bowden bake shop and fruit store, reducing it to ashes.  It was estimated that Dr. Bentley’s loss was nearly $8,000 having only partial insurance coverage.  

That November, the Gorham Woollen Mill, originally the property of Eli Gorham, the north part of the building having been erected in 1836 and the south part added in 1841 were both destroyed.  

At 11:30 pm. of April 17, 1886, the town was awoken by the continuous ringing of the fire alarm and a sky illuminated by shooting flames. The large two-storey wooden-ware factory of William Cane, as well as two adjacent drying kilns, a storehouse, the office, and several sheds with quantities of valuable lumber, were on fire.

Citizens and the firemen did heroic work to save the building with women forming bucket brigades, but the buildings were of wooden construction and the fire protection was inadequate, and so their efforts were doomed to failure. The result: 100 men were left unemployed, the loss to the Mr. Cane was estimated to be $50,000, and for the town, an appalling disaster that could not be stated in monetary terms alone.

A public meeting was called and council was asked to exempt the firm from taxation for 10 years and provide $5000, to be spread over 10 or 20 years, to assist Cane in rebuilding on at least as large a scale as before. Opinions were expressed that it should have been $10,000. Cane’s factory was an industry of great economic importance, not just to Newmarket, but to a wide area of North York.

Arrangements were quickly made to use nearby buildings for temporary operations while plans were made to rebuild the factory, a large brick structure on a substantial foundation of limestone and securely embedded in the swampy ground. Several Newmarket buildings have foundations constructed of this limestone.

Cane’s would install an excellent system of waterworks, build a firehall and purchase a hose reel and full equipment, replacing a series of large barrels arranged on the roof designed to hold water and fight fires.

The next year, the second storey of the paint shop on the east end of the factory burned, caused by a workman carrying a lantern while investigating the amount of benzoin in a tank.

In July 1887, Reesor’s Mill was destroyed by fire, sacrificed so the firemen could turn their efforts to saving the surrounding properties. In the mill at the time there were 12,000 bushels of wheat, 640 barrels of flour, 12 tons of bran and shorts and 11 tons of feed, a loss of approximately $40,000. 

In my articles on the History of Newmarket High, I detail the fires that ultimately destroyed three separate buildings, perhaps the reason why the ‘Phoenix’ moniker was adopted for school publications.  

In my history of Pickering College, I point out that the very existence of the school in Newmarket can be traced back to the destruction of the original school in the village of Pickering. Pickering College suffered two fires here in Newmarket that we will look at in my subsequent article covering the period from 1900 to the present.

The scourge of fires continued into the 1900s, as we will discover in the second part of my two-part series.

Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Articles from The Newmarket Era; The Minutes of Newmarket Council; Oral History Interviews Conducted by Richard MacLeod; Information from the archives of Rod Brunton (Archivist of Newmarket Fire Services)

********************* 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].