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Monday, October 6, 2014

1893: Firefighters rush to extinguished the flames

Central Fire Station in Montreal on Craig Street
So it's May 16 in the year 1893 in Montreal, and and smoke is sighted by the fireman on night duty in the tower of the Montreal fire station. He rings the alarm bells that wakes up the men down stairs.

In the past there was only a volunteer fire force, with only the night watchman on duty.  His job was to sit in the tower above the fire department and watch for smoke.  Whent he rang the bell, men were aroused from their beds, or from the doings of their daily lives. Then business as usual, or sleeping as usual, was suspended while the citizens rallied to fight the flames, according to the March 11, 1893, isue of The Dominion Illustrated Monthy.

The authors said:
Hand engines were used in those days, and forty men formed the complement for each engine. Forty muscular men make a force that is not to be despised, and they contrived to pump out a strong stream of water for some time— but muscles were apt to become overtaxed, and the volume of water to vary in Consequence. When the alarm bells rang, the first available horse (provided it didn't belong to a doctor) was pressed into service to haul the equipment to the scene of action. The owner of the animal might or might not protest, but he must submit perforce—and he could get indemnified in due course by filing his claim at the City Hall. The water supply was by no means pertect in Montreal, in the days of the volunteer force. Indeed it was largely in the hands of a body of men who owned vehicles, which are commonly called watercarts. The corporation had a standing reward for the first water puncheon that put in an appearance to feed the engines. This was supplemented by a smaller sum to those that came later. Consequently, as may be imagined, there insued a great rush of "drawers of water" when the fire bells rang out. Of course the river furnished the volunteer brigade with a
supply in many instances, and in others a well would often be available.
The Montreal Fire Brigade is responds to an alarm.
On the first day of May 1863, however, a full and paid force of firefighters were on duty in the house for the first time, and they had equipment that was organized and ready for any emergency.  The men sleep in the station's dormitory, and each man has a bed, a chair, and a cupboard of his own.  Each man is always expected to be ready for the call to duty, whether it be day or night.

There were nine stations in total, and 30 alarm boxes in different parts of the city. All someone had to do when smoke was sighted was set off one of the alarms and the force was called to duty.

The Montreal paid firefighters on the way to a fire.
As the alarm on this night, all the men are sleeping in their beds except one.  The article notes that...
...the men sleep in their clothes, with their top-boots placed conveniently near. One man always keeps watch in the room below. When an alarm sounds, the first thing is for all hands to haul on their heavy boots. Then a rush ensues for a man-hole that is cut in the floor of the dormitory. This has a sliding-pole of polished brass running through the centre, stretching from the ceiling overhead to the ground-flat where the reels, engines and things are. The men slide down this brass slidingpole swiftly and safely; the horses are already standing in position and the snapping and automatic maneuvring ensues, as before described. Coats, gloves and helmets are always kept on the vehicles, and they are usually donned long after the wild rush to fight the flames has commenced. They have systematized things so that the actual time lost in answering a night alarm is only a couple of seconds longer than when one occurs in the light of day.
So the alarm sounds, resulting in the following sequence of events,
Montreal Fire Brigade in action. 
The clock stops, the doors of the stalls fly open, the halters attaching the horses unbuckle, and the animals, trained to that end,rush forth and wait, each in front of its allotted vehicle. Then the harness, suspended over the places where the beasts are taught to stand, drops upon their backs.
The collar is so constructed that a slight pressure snaps it around the animal's neck, the reins are made fast to the bit by means of a flexible steel spring fastening, and the belly band is also snapped secure. Of course each man is drilled to know his own particular duty. The driver mounts the box, and, when the harness is literally snapped on

The horse's back as aforesaid, he gives the reins a sharp jerk. This opens the street door and at the same time detaches the harness from the gear whereby it was suspended from the ceiling—and it also signals to the intelligent beasts that the time for actual starting has come. Then the other men spring upon their assigned vehicles, and the grand gallop through the streets to the scene of action ensues. These events that take so long to describe, are done in a marvellously short space of time. Eight seconds after the stroke of the alarm sees the detachment on the street enroute to the box whence the signal sounded—think of it, eight seconds! Truly this is a fast age.
This may be the dream job for men, yet it is not so glamorous as one might think.
One may see from the things aforesaid, that the life that seems so attractive when viewed through the glamour that is lent by the galloping of steeds, the ringing of bells, and the frantic excitement of citizens, great and small, is not altogether to be envied. For it is not nice to be on duty for twenty-one hours out of the twenty-four, with only one afternoon and burning building fell and buried three firemen beneath it. Those of their comrades that saw this thing, rushed to he rescue. In this they were joined by several citizens. It was known that the rest of the wall might tumble down upon them at any moment.
You see they did not dream of allowing their mates to perish without making an effort to save them —and it happened that the rest of the wall did fall. Of course no time was lost in digging beneath the ruins, and ultimately all were exhumed. The three that had suffered from the first falling of the wall lived—eleven of their would-be rescuers lost their lives. This, I repeat, is a simple tale.
But it manifests that there are brave hearts amongst those paid to fight an evening off every week. This particularly when one has a home to go to which is brightened by the presence of a wife and children. Decidedly it is not. But there is the spice of danger, the excitement of constant alarms, and the fierce joy of combat— the things in short that make small boys and grown men regard firemen as heroes—as indeed they are! For if it is heroic to do one's duty without the dread of danger, it is doubly so, in men's eyes, to die in the doing, which is no unusual occurrence.
For example, take the fire that burned the Woodware Manufacturing Company's place on St. Urbain street, in April, 1876. The alarm sounded early on a Sunday morning, and was promptly responded to by the brigade. It is a simple tale! It happened that part of the wall of the fire fiend in Montreal. Many other instances might be mentioned: indeed they are all too common. Allusion is made to the above because the number that perished is unusually large.
Apart from the actual danger to life and limb, there is the discomfort. It is no small thing to jump from a warm bedon a cold winter's night, to mount the driver's seat on a hose reel sleigh, and to go tearingfull tilt through the streets, too busy managing the horse to find leisure even to put on a coat.
It means the loss of a second or more to finish dressing before starting. Maybe that space of time would involve letting the detachment from another station reach the destination first. For there is a friendly rivalry in these things. Then again, when the temperature is very low, strange results befall. The hose freezes and refuses to work be towed back to snake-like thing, plugged with solid ice.
The men are necessarily exposed to the streams of water that are turned upon the burning building. This freezes, and their clothing becomes caked. They cease to look like beings of flesh and blood in consequence, and come to resemble perambulating ice columns.
Ultimately their trowsers crack at the knee, because being continually on the move, there is a constant strain on the ice formation, that has eaten into the fibres of the cloth. In due course this strain overtaxes the strength of the material, wherefore it breaks with a break that resembles the cut of a keen knife.
The same thing occurs with other portions of their apparel; but ordinarily the knee is affected first. Since the adbent of the present chief, Alderman Stevenson (who is Chairman of the Fire Committee) has ordered rubber coats and boots to be supplied, which is a great improvement on the old order of things. A few smart blows and the ice peels in cakes from the impervious surface of these. But in the days when the department served out pilot cloth pea-jackets and leather boots, it was not easy for the men to remove their clothing after a fire in winter. Sometimes they doused the buttons with boiling water, to make them flexible ; frequently they were obliged to cut them off altogether.
While all the men were paid differently, the average annual salary for regular privates in the year 1892 was a measly $500 to $600.  The fire chief was paid a bit more, and had a much better living arrangement.

This post is published here in honor of all the firefighters who lost their lives over the years trying to help other people, and all those who have risked, and those who presently risk, all that life has to offer to help those in need.  While the equipment and the training has changed over the years, the job is still the same with all the same risks.  This is in honor of National Fire and Safety Week.

The article concluded with these words, that still ring true today.
It is impossible to do the brigade full justice in an article like this. If one reads the daily papers, one gets an idea of the work they are called upon to perform, and of the dangerous nature of that work. The nearest approach to the old time man of blood and war in these days is surely the fireman. He is used to danger, because it is in the ordinary course of his daily duty. He is trained to obey implicitly and to act unmindful of what may befall—and his life is subject to constant alarms.
The end.

  1. "Montreal Fire Brigade," The Dominion Illustrated Monthly, March 11, 1893, volume 2, number 2, Montreal and Toronto, pages 67-73
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