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Manitoba History: Fire Fighting in Winnipeg, 1889

by Mrs. Roger Bamfield Cogan

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The following is an excerpt from the diary of Mrs. Roger Bamfield Cogan. She came to Canada from Bristol, England in 1889. On her way to join her future husband in Churchbridge, Assiniboia (now in Saskatchewan), she passed through Winnipeg. She recorded some very interesting observations on fire fighting in the city’s early years. The diary is now in the possession of D. J. Veale of Calgary, who made the material known to the Winnipeg Fire Fighter’s Historical Society, who in turn made it available to Manitoba History.

Winnipeg Fire Department, No. 2 Station, York Avenue and Smith Street, c1887
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Tuesday 25th June. We arrived here at Winnipeg at 12 o’clock today and found ... very comfortable quarters in the New Douglas Hotel near the station where they charge us 1½ dollars a day each including board.

Wednesday 26th June. A very fine day, very hot at mid-day but uncommonly cool in the evening. We have been writing letters and strolling about during the day, but have been very much put out to find that the train on the Manitoba & North Western Branch to Churchbridge was altered about a fortnight ago from Thursday to Saturday so that we have to wait here two days longer than we intended.

Thursday 27th June. A fearfully hot day in the sun, but with a stiff breeze blowing. We pride ourselves at home about the rapidity with which we turn out our fire engines in case of fire, so I will describe how they do it here in this little town of about 25,000 inhabitants.

They have three fire brigade stations in this town and as we stopped to look in at one of them, they invited us in and explained everything to us. The station house has three large double doors opening out into the street. Just inside one door is a two-wheeled carriage with a large metal drum fixed on it containing one hundred gallons of a chemical fluid which will extinguish a fire immediately; about 8 feet from this is a two-wheeled carriage with a quantity of hose-piping on it, standing opposite the middle door; about 8 feet from this again is a strong four-wheel steam fire engine which stands just inside the third door, and immediately behind this, fixed on the building is a steam boiler and fire kept up under it day and night which is attached to the steam engine and by which they constantly keep a supply of 5 lbs. steam in the boiler of the steam engine.

The fire place under the boiler of the steam engine is kept filled with chips of wood saturated with spirits or oil and a long stick with a saturated material is kept at the back of it, which ignites immediately it is applied to the stationary boiler fire, and putting this at once to the steam boiler fire, a big fire there is kindled at once which gets up a high pressure of steam in a minute or two as they gallop along; the movement forward of the steam engine pulls a small chain which detaches the pipes from the stationary boiler and closes the connecting valves in an instant. Each carriage stands with the shafts or pole towards the road and [these] are raised a little to enable the horses to get under them into their places ... The harness is all attached to the carriages and suspended sufficiently high for the horses to get in under it.

About the town in different districts are small iron boxes fixed outside the houses and by pressing a spring in ... these, a powerful gong is sounded in the fire-engine station and a figure on this gong denotes the district that the alarm is given from. The 4 horses are in stables immediately behind the fire engine and carriages, having a bridle on and a bit in their mouths day and night, the bit only being removed a short time for feeding. The door[s] of the stable open with springs and the fastenings of the doors are connected with the gong by springs and the doors fly open and the horses are so admirably trained that they immediately rush out of the stables and stand in their respective places underneath the harness. A staff of men are always on the spot, each having his particular duty, and the time allowed for them to start out of the station-house after the sounding of the alarm is six (6) seconds!

Over the carriage room is a bedroom for the men to sleep in, and the time allowed here for the men to slip on their pants and boots and be clear off in the night is fifteen seconds. In Chicago it is only 10% seconds. They of course would not have time to come down stairs, but there are several holes in the floor about 3 feet in diameter, 2 around the edge of the room[,] and down through the middle of this hole is a polished steel pillar about 3 inches in diameter and the men slide down this pole; one of them went up stairs and came down that way to shew us, and he came down like lightening. All this seems incredible but they told us that they had to practice getting ready for a turn out 3 times every day, 7 in the morning, 12 at noon and 7 in the evening ... They asked us to come in and see their practice at 12 o’clock, so we went there a few minutes before the time not to miss it.

Just at 12 o’clock the gong sounded from the telephone offices and they were all ready like a flash with the drivers in their seats, reins in hand and everything ready for a start. We should have been frightened ‘seeing the horses rushing towards us so had we not known how they had been trained. It would seem an utter impossibility but we have seen it done and therefore cannot but believe it. It must have taken a long time to train those noble animals to such perfection, 3 weeks on the average. In going back to the stables when all was over the horses turned outside the stable doors and backed themselves into the stables as they had been trained to do. They shewed us their printed book of rules stating the number of seconds allowed for the different operations in the different towns and seemed to take a pleasure in pointing everything out to us.

The above was written this afternoon and a very strange thing occurred this evening. We left our hotel this evening just after ½ past 7 and went to the Braddick’s to spend an hour or so with them and in going there we had to pass this same fire brigade station. As we approached it we saw 5 or 6 of the men, some in short sleeves, loitering just outside and chattering and just as we reached the first doorway, we heard the gong give 3 rapid strokes and in a second it all seemed a confusion of men and naked horses rushing about. We tried to watch the operations, but being outside and coming so unexpectedly, we could distinguish nothing but apparent confusion, and knowing it was some time past their practice hour we stepped quickly back out of the way and almost before we could look round the whole three teams were galloping out.

We tried to watch them down the road, but the smoke emitted from the engine fire which had been so suddenly lit was too dense to allow us to see them far. One of the men in his hurry had jumped on the engine without coat or hat. There was also a buggy there which was got out in a similar way and in which the inspector rushed after them to regulate operations[;] his horse was a few seconds longer coming out, but I heard that this was a young one being trained. I heard one of the men shout out No. 16 and on enquiring of the lad in the house after they were gone, they said the fire was in James Street East. This was a real genuine turn out and I think they must have been under 6 seconds in starting. We were very glad we happened to be passing at the moment though of course sorry for the owners of the burning property.

On our way back from the Braddick’s we saw the engines were all back in their places again and we enquired of the men if the fire had been a serious one, and they told us that when they reached James Street, they found it was a “surprise call” instituted by one of the insurance offices to see if all the men were in their places and everything in proper working order.

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