Table of Contents
One of the first public services to be supported by the
village council was the
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
|Announcement of a fund-raiser
Hill Fire Brigade on New Year's Night, 1889.
Shortly before noon on the morning of Sunday, April 15,
1866, while most
residents were worshipping in church, fire broke out in
grocery and hardware store on the east side of
Yonge Street. The
blaze spread quickly to
Crosby's dry goods
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.
owner of a dry goods store destroyed in the disastrous fire of April
The burned-out merchants lost most of their stock,
including the new "Spring importations" at
Henderson's.Parker Crosby was
particularly hard hit, with only $2,600 of insurance to cover losses estimated
9 Nevertheless, the enterprising Crosby
quickly rebuilt, this time with more substantial construction materials, and
called his new premises the
Store. In 1869, his son
Isaac took over the
business, which prospered for years to come as
residents continued to buy dry goods and other merchandise at
|Crosby Hall, home
Mary (Holmes) Crosby
38 Bedford Park
Avenue. The original frame structure of 1863 was brick-clad by their son
Isaac in about
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
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
volunteer fire brigade, which responded with its horse-drawn "engine,"
or water-pumping wagon. The schoolhouse was saved.
|Following the fire, Crosby
rebuilt and renamed his emporium the
Store - known to succeeding generations of village shoppers simply as
Proof." Here the store is shown bearing the name of his son and
The two back-to-back fires alarmed the community and
started people thinking about organizing a
volunteer fire brigade with its own fire engine. "With a good company
York Herald pontificated, "we may by the
exercise of reasonable prudence escape another misfortune, or lessen its
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
Tavern. Again, only the valiant efforts of the
brigade prevented the blaze from spreading farther.
models a uniform worn by a volunteer with the
Hill Fire Brigade, circa 1889.
This third fire must have jolted
reluctant donors into action, for by August, enough money had been raised for
the committee to authorize
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.
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
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
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
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
fire-fighting activity. The new company boasted some forty dedicated volunteers
who turned out for regular monthly practices under a new captain,
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.
York Herald,April 20, 1866.
April 27, 1866.
April 20, 1866.
August 17, 1866.
The Liberal,May 13, 1880.
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991