by Fred Payton
If anyone entering the Prince Albert Historical Museum is unaware that the building was originally a fire hall, it shouldn’t take long to recognise that fact. Certain visual clues are obvious – the big red pumper truck sitting in its stall, the brass fireman’s pole connecting the main level with the upper level, and the hose tower, in which the old cotton hoses were hung to dry so that they would not mildew. Of course, the Museum Interpreter would also inform the person that the building served as the Central Fire Hall from 1912 until 1975, and artefacts and photographs showing its history would be pointed out.
What the casual visitor might not get to see, or to hear about, would be some of the more arcane historical items regarding the city’s early Fire Department.
The sod turning for this building occurred on July 20, 1911. The department took possession on January 20, 1912. Prior to that, the Fire Department was housed in other facilities.
Initially, Prince Albert had two volunteer fire companies, one in Goschen and one in the Nisbet settlement. Shortly after its organisation, the Goschen company fought a fire. Although they lacked much in the way of equipment and lost the building, they saved a neighbouring storage facility which was full of grain. The fire company hauled buckets of water from the river, which they used to soak blankets on the roof of the storage facility. By such primitive means, they saved the building and the grain stored within.
Soon after that fire, equipment, such as buckets, axes, and ladders, were stored in a fire shed next to the Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse in Goschen. This shed was built in 1887 at a cost of $104. As there was no method to transport the equipment, the town’s Fire Committee would pay $5.00 to the first team of horses which reached the fire shed and haul the fire wagon to the site of the fire. The first team to arrive with the water cart carrying two or more barrels of water would receive $3.00.
Eventually, in 1888, two underground water tanks were constructed within the town site for the purpose of fire suppression. Fire crews were able to access this water, rather than waiting for the water tanks, but only if the fire was within close proximity to the tanks.
Although Number 1 Company was established originally in Goschen, and the Nisbet settlement company was Number 2, by 1905 the companies’ designation had switched. Number 1 Company was now in the main settlement, and Number 2 was in Goschen. In the autumn of that year, a new fire hall was built for Number 1 Company east of the existent City Hall (now the Arts Centre). The building was a two-bay facility with living quarters and meeting rooms upstairs. Horses used both by the city and the fire department were sheltered in the back of the building.
In the spring of that year, J.F. McKenzie, the Fire Captain for Number 1 Company issued notices advising people what they needed to do if they discovered a fire. First, they should ring the bell on City Hall Square, or tell the owner of the nearest steam whistle, or they should telephone the Telephone Central giving the location of the fire. In the latter instance, the person should communicate with City Hall and the Electric Light Station. Owners of whistles included the Hudson’s Bay Company, William Cowan & Company, the Electric Light Station, Golden Lion Brewers, Goodfellow and Son’s Planing Mill, and Sanderson’s Mill.
The community was divided into four Fire Brigade districts, and each district had a distinctive signal. For example, District 4, which ran from the Catholic Church (or 3rd Avenue West) to the West End of the city, had a signal that was four toots, followed by four seconds rest, followed by four toots, with four seconds rest, repeated as required.
Starting in 1906, all men applying to be volunteer fire men would be investigated and voted upon by the other members of the company. Members were expected to attend all meetings and practices, and even other activities such as parades. Missing any three of the foregoing would result in the member being dismissed from the company. The chairman of the City’s Fire and Light Committee was also provided with the names of the officers elected by the company for approval by the city’s council.
The volunteer firemen had been provided with caps in 1889, with the company’s number embroidered on the cap. In October of 1906 the city gave them the choice of being paid $2.00 per fire call, or being provided with uniforms. The men chose uniforms which, it would appear, were much more stylish than functional. Chief Wagner received four bids on the tenders for these “Fireman’s Suits”. W.A. Johnson, a Men’s Outfitters and Merchant Tailor, the Prince Albert Trading Company, the McLeod-Hamelin Company, and Louis Valade, a Tailor and Haberdasher, all submitted bids. Valade’s bid of $9.31 per suit was accepted, being “the cheapest and just as good cloth”. These uniforms were later borrowed by the City Band when they travelled to Regina to perform at the installation of the Province’s Lieutenant-Governor.
In the spring of 1908, the first hat badges (as opposed to embroidered numbers) were received, and accident insurance was taken out on the firemen, covering them 24 hours a day. Also, the city purchased a team of horses, a new hose wagon, and a ladder wagon for use by the fire department.
Although not the only set of horses purchased by the city, this set in particular was much loved. Pat and Myrtle served the department until 1920, when they were replaced by two one-ton trucks. It was said that Pat and Myrtle were so well trained that, when the fire bell rang, they would leave their stalls and run under the drop harness. If the men were delayed in hooking up the drop harness, the horses would return to their stalls and refuse to move.
A later comment about this in The Prince Albert Daily Herald brought a scathing response from the Prince Albert author of The Northern Trader. Harold Kemp had been a member of the Department from April 1914 until August 1915. He maintained that there was never any delay in harnessing Pat and Myrtle because the Fire Chief had trained ‘his men” to such a high state of efficiency, and kept them there by regular “timed practices”, that they would never be delayed!
Although a bylaw was passed by the town of Prince Albert in 1887 to establish the Fire Department, the first Fire Prevention By-Law which I have uncovered was passed in 1913. This bylaw authorised the Fire Chief, its officers and members “to enter any building in the City of Prince Albert at any reasonable hour in the performance of their duties”. Buildings were to be inspected as often as necessary, but business buildings were to be inspected not fewer than four times per year, and any other building not fewer than twice a year. Records were to be kept of such inspections, and the Fire Chief was to ensure that any problems identified were to be remedied within an acceptable time frame.
Business buildings in the bylaw included hotels, lodging houses, stores, office buildings, warehouses, mills, factories, and public buildings.
Other information which a visitor might find of interest with respect to the Fire Department includes that fact that the city bought the Fire Chief a motor cycle on which to get around. However, due to the rough roads, raised wooden sidewalks, and the speed at which the machine was driven, the front forks and frame were often bent and in need of repair. It turned out that a motor cycle was not one of the most successful purchases made for the Department.
The other purchase which one might find curious was that of blood hounds. These were purchased by the Chief in order to track miscreants who had been turning in false alarms. One of the dogs died within a month, but the other was used to track down escaped convicts from the Penitentiary. There is no record of either of the dogs catching anyone who turned in a false alarm.
I have been able to use considerable information from a history prepared on the Fire Department by Dori Jardine and her late husband Ross. This history, entitled Prince Albert Fire Department: From Then To Now, covers the story of the Department until 1981. Since that time, much more history has been made by the Prince Albert Fire Department. It may be time for a further attempt to record that history as they approach their 135th year of serving the community. The Prince Albert Historical Society will be holding its Annual General Meeting at 7:00 p.m. on March 18th at the Arts Centre. All those who hold current membership are eligible to attend. Members will be able to attend the meeting in person (we are limited to 19 people in person) or via Zoom. Please let our Curator know if you wish to participate. You can call her at 306-764-2992, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.