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Chapter 8
Fire Brigades and Fence Viewers
Table of Contents

Title Page
Author's Preface
1 The Road through Richmond Hill
2 First Peoples on the Land
3 The European Settlers Arrive
4 From Miles' Hill to Richmond Hill: The Birth of a Community
5 Tories and Reformers
6 Stagecoach Lines and Railway Tracks
7 The Neighbours at Mid-Century
8 Fire Brigades and Fence Viewers
Living with Divided Loyalties
A Time and a Place for Swimming
Community Spirit
The First Village Council
"Wants of the Village"
"A Local View of 1874"
Who Was Who in the 1873 Municipal Elections
The Richmond Hill Fire Brigade
Fighting Fires with Hand Pumpers
The Trench Carriage Works
Miss Aiken Then Sang "The Woodland Tree"
Life in the Newly Incorporated Village
9 Picture Post Card Village of the 1880s and 1890s
10 Rails through Richmond Hill
11 The Flowering of Richmond Hill
12 The Village Transformed
Epilogue
Appendices
Table of Illustrations
Index

The Richmond Hill Fire Brigade

Announcement of a fund-raiser for the Richmond Hill Fire Brigade on New Year's Night, 1889.
One of the first public services to be supported by the village council was the Richmond Hill Fire Brigade. Its saga tells us much about community life in Victorian Ontario and the problem of defining a relationship between municipal council and volunteer organization. While firefighting issues dominated the agendas of numerous council meetings through the 1870s and 1880s, the story begins much earlier.

Parker Crosby, owner of a dry goods store destroyed in the disastrous fire of April 1866.
Shortly before noon on the morning of Sunday, April 15, 1866, while most Richmond Hill residents were worshipping in church, fire broke out in Henderson's grocery and hardware store on the east side of Yonge Street. The blaze spread quickly to Crosby's dry goods store, Coulter's tailor shop, and Waterhouse's general store, "all of which were in a short time reduced to ashes." The nearby Hodge residence was gutted and the Anderson house seriously damaged.

Crosby Hall, home of the Parker and Mary (Holmes) Crosby family, at 38 Bedford Park Avenue. The original frame structure of 1863 was brick-clad by their son Isaac in about 1889.
The burned-out merchants lost most of their stock, including the new "Spring importations" at Crosby's and Henderson's.Parker Crosby was particularly hard hit, with only $2,600 of insurance to cover losses estimated at $7,000. 9 Nevertheless, the enterprising Crosby quickly rebuilt, this time with more substantial construction materials, and called his new premises the Fire Proof Store. In 1869, his son Isaac took over the business, which prospered for years to come as Richmond Hill residents continued to buy dry goods and other merchandise at "The Fire Proof."

Following the fire, Crosby rebuilt and renamed his emporium the Fire Proof Store - known to succeeding generations of village shoppers simply as "The Fire Proof." Here the store is shown bearing the name of his son and successor, Isaac Crosby.
But fireproofing was a rarity in the 1860s. Just eight days after the first blaze, at seven o'clock in the evening of Monday, April 23, 1866, another fire threatened Richmond Hill. This blaze originated in the senior department of the Common School (later known as the Public School) on the west side of Yonge Street, and "for a time seriously threatened the entire destruction of the whole set of [ school] buildings." Villagers responded quickly, some holding the flames in check with a traditional "bucket brigade," while others "made a splendid run for it" north up Yonge Street to Elgin Mills. There they roused the Elgin Mills volunteer fire brigade, which responded with its horse-drawn "engine," or water-pumping wagon. The schoolhouse was saved. 10

Frank Sims models a uniform worn by a volunteer with the Richmond Hill Fire Brigade, circa 1889.
The two back-to-back fires alarmed the community and started people thinking about organizing a Richmond Hill volunteer fire brigade with its own fire engine. "With a good company organized," the York Herald pontificated, "we may by the exercise of reasonable prudence escape another misfortune, or lessen its severity." 11 A committee was formed and meetings were held, but donations towards the purchase of an engine proved disappointing. Then on Wednesday, May 30, the season's third fire broke out, destroying the stable and barn of the old Halfway House Tavern. Again, only the valiant efforts of the Elgin Mills brigade prevented the blaze from spreading farther.

This third fire must have jolted Richmond Hill's reluctant donors into action, for by August, enough money had been raised for the committee to authorize William Trench, Jr., its most prominent member, to purchase a "fire engine," which was actually a water-pumping wagon. Villagers were invited to witness this machine demonstrate "its capabilities for throwing water" at a trial at five o'clock in the afternoon of Saturday, August 18. The shrewd committee then held a public meeting two hours later, at which villagers were encouraged to put up more money for fire protection - for the building of an engine house, the formation of a proper fire company, and the sinking of water tanks. 12

Through the fall of 1866 a volunteer company was gradually established, under the leadership of "Captain" Trench. Over the next several years, money was raised through concerts featuring the celebrated Patterson Brass Band, Mr. Spalding's "popular string band," and "musical contributions from Toronto." But brigade members turned out rather irregularly for practice sessions and the company languished between fires. Richmond Hill was fortunate to escape any major blazes like those of the spring and summer of 1866.

With its incorporation as a village in 1873, Richmond Hill now had an official body that could provide leadership in fire protection. Still, in those days of limited governmental action, an arm's-length relationship continued between village council and the volunteer fire brigade. Reeve Abraham Law did call a public meeting in March to reorganize the fire company and William Trench, Jr., was again elected captain, but the perennial problems of funding and attendance at monthly practice sessions continued. In 1877, the fledgling fire company actually disbanded after council refused a request to buy a new fire engine.

The formation of a new company in 1880 finally led to some measure of long-term stability in Richmond Hill's fire-fighting activity. The new company boasted some forty dedicated volunteers who turned out for regular monthly practices under a new captain, John Sanderson. Pride was built up through an annual Firemen's Parade and Supper. Best of all, the village council authorized the purchase of a $750 wagon, which, although second-hand, nevertheless boasted "a crane neck and mahogany box inlaid with white wood and ironwork." 13 In 1881 the company was formally incorporated, and each village councillor became a fire warden responsible for fire protection in his own ward.

Notes

9. York Herald,April 20, 1866.

10. Ibid., April 27, 1866.

11. Ibid., April 20, 1866.

12. Ibid., August 17, 1866.

13. The Liberal,May 13, 1880.

 


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Copyright Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991