Oshawa Ablaze

By Jillian Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

The Oshawa Fire Department has a long history. As early as December 16 1866, the Oshawa Village Council noted that some insurance companies in Quebec were refusing to insure municipalities without fire protection services.

Council passed a by-law that required every owner or occupant of a building to supply “ a good substantial ladder leading from the ground to the roof and that every owner or occupant shall cause the chimneys and stovepipes thereof to be properly cleaned at least once a month”. They also passed a by-law that required every citizen to assist at the scene of a fire. Those who refused assistance would be fined $5. This is the first recorded occasion of fire prevention in Oshawa.

Oshawa’s first department, which was organized in 1856, was made up entirely of volunteers under Chief Engineer Mr. P. Thornton by order of By-law 33.

On July 20, 1868, the Oshawa Fire Department was incorporated as a full time department by By-law 142. The first full time Chief was Patrick Thornton. He was responsible for 50 men with the Fire Company and a further 15 men with the Hook and Ladder Company, plus 1 engine, some ladders and numerous hose lines.

Thankfully, the Department was growing. Within the next 100 years there would be some major fires in Oshawa’s downtown core alone.

Oshawa Fire Department, 1905; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

Oshawa Fire Department, 1905; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

On Sunday December 8, 1872, a fire originated in George Hodder’s clothing and hat store on Simcoe Street. It was the worst fire in Oshawa up until that time. Wind, wooden buildings and lack of available water were very frustrating for the firefighters at that time.

The fire began at 7pm in Oshawa’s downtown area. When the fire began to spread and seriously threaten other surrounding businesses, firemen from Whitby came to the rescue.

A man named CW Smith jumped on a horse and raced to Whitby for the Merryweather steam fire engine, which was a new acquisition at the time.  Running on one cylinder it was made by Merryweather and Sons of London England. It was frost proof and considered to be the pioneer engine of Canada.  Fire stations in Whitby and Kingston had tested it the Merryweather, but Oshawa put it to the real test during the fire of 1872.

The Gibbs block, a large building on the south side of King Street was destroyed by flames. 19 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Spray from the hoses caused ice to form on the fire fighters clothes and bodies; citizens assisted by provided dry and warm clothing to them.

The Merryweather that saved downtown Oshawa in 1872, on display at the Whitby Public Library

The Merryweather that saved downtown Oshawa in 1872, on display at the Whitby Public Library

The cause of the fire was determined to be arson. It originated in a partition between the Fitzmaurice, a druggist and veterinarian, and the Hodder store. After a trial, it was the opinion of a jury that Fitzmaurice intentionally set the building on fire.  He was sentenced to three years in jail for instigating the fire for insurance purposes.

Oshawa would go on to purchase its own Merryweather machine at a cost of $5600 in 1875.

Oshawa's Merryweather Fire Engine, c. 1900, corner of Simcoe and Richmond; Oshawa Community Archives Collection

Oshawa’s Merryweather Fire Engine, c. 1900, corner of Simcoe and Richmond; Oshawa Community Archives Collection

Nearby was the McLaughlin Carriage Works. By 1877, the McLaughlins had outgrown their facilities in Enniskillen. The need for banking facilities, more skilled labour, and a railroad for shipping led to the company’s relocation to Oshawa.

Though the competing businesses expected McLaughlin’s business to fail, it was they who folded and due to increased business, McLaughlin was once again in need of expansion.

Robert McLaughlin made a deal with the town enabled him to trade locations and move into the old Gibbs furniture factory at Richmond and Mary Streets.

There he employed 600 people. In 1893 he took on two of his sons, George and Sam, as partners.

In December 1899, McLaughlin suffered a serious setback when his entire factory was destroyed by fire. He lost carriages in production, all materials, tools and equipment.

McLaughlin Carriage Fire, 1899; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

McLaughlin Carriage Fire, 1899; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

The town offered him a $50,000 interest free loan and, while the factory was rebuilt, he set up a temporary plant in Gananoque for a year. This factory produced 3,000 vehicles and the company was able to stay in the market. Prior to selecting Gananoque as their temporary factory, fifteen communities offered to help the McLaughlin’s re-establish their factory.

Richmond Street fire company, c. 1922; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

Richmond Street fire company, c. 1922; from the Oshawa Community Archives Collection

To learn more about other fires that have occurred in Oshawa, feel free to make an appointment with the Archivist or book the “Fire: A Photographic Tour of Fires in Oshawa” PowerPoint presentation for your special interest group. Please contact the programming department for more options.

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