As you may imagine, the Central Fire Hall is one of the better-known buildings on Lombard Street. Built in 1886-7, the 131-year-old building has had four tenants. It remained a fire hall until 1969 when the department moved to a new facility at Front and Princess Streets. It then became the home of the Second City Comedy Club until they moved to a bigger space on Blue Jays Way (they’ve since downsized to a location on Mercer Street). Next, Gilda’s Club used the space to serve families touched by cancer. Next, in 2013 it was renovated for the Complections College of Makeup Art and Design (CMU).
Digging into the past of the Lombard Street fire hall meant learning about the history of Toronto’s Fire Department. Before the city established its first volunteer fire brigade in 1826, it relied on a bucket brigade. To stop the spread of chimney fires, which were common, the city passed a bylaw in 1820 mandating that every household make available two leather buckets and a ladder. The first fire engine in Toronto was named “York” and it was stationed in The Firemen’s Hall on the west side of Church between Court and Adelaide Streets, about where the Hostelling International hostel is today.
Whenever the city acquired a new fire engine or hook-and-ladder truck, a volunteer “company” of men would attach themselves to that piece of equipment. The trucks were numbered and given names like “Rescue”, “Montreal” and “Deluge”. By 1846, the city had 4 fire engines and 2 hook-and-ladder trucks and three fire halls—the original Church Street Firemen’s Hall, one at Bay and Temperance and one in the St. Patrick Market at Queen and John. Fire engine trucks were hand-drawn and hand-powered. Hook-and-ladder trucks were used for rescue but served primarily for clearing away combustibles which essentially involved pulling down adjacent structures using large hooks and ropes.
Present day 107 King Street East is the scene of Toronto’s first firefighter fatality. In this Torontoist article, Kevin Plummer describes the early days of firefighting and chronicles the November 22, 1848 fire on the southeast corner of King and Church that claimed the life of fireman William Thornton.
In 1862, the city consolidated nine engine companies and 263 firemen into one fire department. It acquired two steam pump engines and up to 28 water tanks. Despite these improvements, fire fighting efforts generally remained disorganized. Firemen were still volunteers (it would be another 12 years before a paid department was approved) and had to provide their own protective leather helmets and jackets. The steam pump engines were a vast improvement over the hand powered pumps, but they had no way of getting them to a fire without commandeering nearby horses. Firemen would leave their workplaces or homes on the sound of an alarm and get to the site any way they could, many on foot. Once on site, response times were slow. Engines had to be hooked up to a water source and the heavy wooden ladders and large steel nozzles were difficult to manoeuvre.
In 1874 the city approved a paid fire department with four engines and four fire halls located at Bay & Temperance, Yonge Street, Portland, and Berkeley Sts. The city installed 97 street-corner fire alarm telegraph boxes. The fire department totalled 50 employees: 1 chief engineer, 2 deputy chiefs, 1 electrician, 1 assistant electrician, 4 engineers, 4 firemen, 7 foremen, and 26 firefighters. Horses and drivers were hired on contract. To speed up on site response time, the city acquired its first chemical engine in 1884. These engines carried a supply of water that, when combined with a chemical solution, could be expelled at high pressure (this is how most hand-held fire extinguishers work). This allowed them to get a start on a fire while waiting for the other fire engines to be hooked up to a water source.
In 1886, architect David Roberts Jr. completed the design of the new Central Fire Hall. A July 10, 1886 article in the Toronto Evening Telegram described the hall as “an ornament to Lombard Street”.
“The plans have been completed and in a few days Architect Roberts will open tenders for the erection of a new central fire station on the north side of Lombard near Jarvis Street. With steam heating apparatus the building will cost $20,000. The station will have a frontage of sixty-three on Lombard street by a depth of eighty feet. The basement will accommodate the steam heating apparatus. The ground floor will be divided into a single and double hall. The first 58 x 35, will give room for a hose reel, and in the second ?6 (illegible) x 97, the hook and ladder truck will be stationed. The horses will be stabled in the rear of the halls. A broad stairway leads up to the next floor, which provides comfortable sleeping rooms for the firemen and office for Chief Ardagh and Assistant Chief Graham. The third floor has been laid off into recreation and bath rooms and quarters for the electrician. The building will be an ornament to Lombard Street. The order of architecture is Norman. The walls will be red brick, with Credit Valley brown stone dressings. A home tower 100 feet high rises at the western corner of the station.”
The building was completed in 1887. It has classic features of the Richardsonian Romanesque style including red brick and the use of rough-faced sandstone at the base, as string courses, and on the window and doorway arches. Two gables face the street, another faces east. The bell tower was added in 1895.
1906 architectural drawings of the Central Fire Hall show a state-of-the-art building designed for the specific needs of the fire department. This section of the plan shows the two bay doors opening from Lombard Street onto two apparatus halls (a third apparatus hall (could be) WAS accessed from Richmond Street). In the middle of the building, separating the front and back halls, were the horse stables, stalls, and manure pit. There was space for aerial extension ladder and a small room behind the tower held the telephone and signal office.
The chief’s office at the back of the building beside the Richmond Street apparatus hall completed the main floor. On the second floor, 18 bedrooms with lockers and a lavatory with a tub provided comfortable space (too comfortable, according to some critics) for the firefighters. This floor also contained a hay loft and feed bin for the stables below. The top floor had an electrician’s office and bedroom and an electrical appliances room. It also had a large billiards room (this is probably what the critics were most envious of), with sliding poles that would dump rushing firefighters straight into the apparatus halls. The basement had space for an old apparatus room, cellar, coal room, furnace, boiler room, heater, a washroom closet, and urinals.
Firefighters at the Lombard Street Station battled some the city’s most serious fires. On January 6, 1895, the Globe building at the corner of Yonge and Melinda Street caught fire and proved devastating to the Lombard Street brigade. Shortly after responding to the fire and manoeuvring their aerial turn table truck, a wall of the Globe building fell, smashing the truck and crushing fireman Robert Bowery, who died in the hospital later that day. The Chief of Lombard Street Central Fire Hall, Chief Richard Ardagh, became trapped by fire in an adjacent building and jumped to safety from the third storey. He died from his injuries 3 weeks later.
It is clear that firefighting was a dangerous job. An article published by the Toronto Evening Star on February 10, 1898 did little to recommend the job to potential applicants. Lombard Street Fireman Pencher describes his day of non-stop action responding to a serious five-hour fire at a wholesale grocery business after a midnight alarm. Jolting awake and speeding off half-dressed through the winter night on the hook-and-ladder truck, he determinedly goes about his duties. “The brass couplings were full of frost. Every time his fingers touched them the skin blistered and the skin was torn off as if the metal was red hot”. Pencher’s job was to climb the ladder and manoeuver the hose into the heart of the fire. The reporter chose to treat the event with comic flair. “Pencher was first up the ladder, and with his axe smashed in the windows and climbed into the dense darkness. He did not know what was beneath his feet nor how far it was to the floor, but jumped unhesitatingly down, alighting into a broken box of tinned goods, which rolled like lightning from beneath his feet, throwing him headlong. He quickly picked himself up and started forward. Someone gave the order to turn on the water. When the rush of water came, the nozzle swayed and writhed around like a snake, for the instant hurling Pencher around like a shuttlecock. Then assistance came and the nozzle was pushed further and further into the building”. Bone weary, Pencher returns to the Firehall to a series of catnaps disrupted by cleaning and polishing, responding to less serious fires, and giving a tour of the facilities to a group of citizens.
The fire brigade often faced huge conflagrations. Large buildings in the core of the city were constructed with big open spaces full of combustibles, open stairwells, and no fire walls. Skylights that allowed daylight into the interiors of buildings were conduits for fire to easily jump from one building to the next. Not only were building practices antithetical to harm prevention, these buildings were in fact called “conflagration breeders”. The fire department was inadequately equipped to deal the conditions they faced. There were not enough fire engines, water hoses were not long enough, and the pressure was too weak – it could not reach higher than 3-4 storeys. Overhead wires also inhibited firefighting.
Despite the risks, the city was reluctant to pass laws requiring business owners to build more responsibly. It was the fire insurance companies that forced the issue by refusing to insure any premise downtown that was built of wood, but changes were not made soon enough. One week prior to the Great Fire of 1904, the fire chief warned the city council that they were taking on more risks every year.
It was on April 19th at about 8:30 pm when Fire Chief John Thompson had just sat down to a cup of tea at the Lombard Street Firehall when he got the call from Alarm Box 12. So began the efforts to fight Toronto’s most devastating fire. Chief Thompson broke his leg at the outset and ceded authority to Chief John Noble. The fire started in the E.S. Currie Building, a neckware manufacturer, near the northwest corner of Wellington and Bay. The fire first spread north, stopping at Melinda Street, but a shift of high wind caused the fire to jump 66 feet southwards, across Wellington Street, to engulf the Brown Brothers bookbinding building. At 11 pm, calls were made to fire departments as far as Hamilton and Buffalo. But fire spread rapidly despite valiant efforts by firefighters and business owners. This area was the printing district and the buildings were filled with highly combustible materials (23 printing establishments were lost). Aided by fierce winds, it took less than 30 minutes for many buildings to burn down entirely. Stands were made at the Telegram building north on Bay, and the Minerva and Kilgour Brothers buildings, south of Wellington towards Yonge street. These buildings had water towers and sprinklers, which helped stop the spread of the fire. The fire was pronounced under control at 4:30 am but would smoulder for another two weeks. Because the fire occurred at night, there were no fatalities; however, several firemen suffered injuries. Aside from Chief Thompson, eight other Lombard firemen were injured, mostly temporary blindness caused by cinders and smoke.
The fire swallowed up 20 acres of the business district. It destroyed 98 buildings, 220 businesses and cost $10 million. Between five to six thousand workers were left jobless, mostly women and girls. Pictures of the aftermath remind one of a bombed out city. The city would rebuild quickly and the fire department would finally get the investment it needed to better protect the city.
In 1909, the Lombard Central Fire Hall became Station No. 5 when a new headquarters was built at Adelaide Street West near York Street. Pictured here are members of the Lombard Station No 5 in 1924. The Lombard Street Firehall continued to fight fires for several decades in the downtown core. It finally retired in 1969 after 83 years in service as a fire hall.
Sources consulted: Marta O’Brien, Evolving Toronto: Shaped by Function, University of Toronto, October 2017 (course notes); Kevin Plummer, Historicist: Toronto’s First Firefighter Fatality, November 14, 2014; Bryan Ratushniak, Video: Iron Men & Wooden Ladders, 2004; Nancy Rawson & Richard Tatton, The Great Toronto Fire, Boston Mills Press, 1984, History of the Toronto Fire Department, The Burial Fund of the Toronto Fire Fighters, 1924; photos from City of Toronto Archives as captioned; articles from the Toronto Evening Star (Feb 10, 1898) and the Toronto Evening Telegram (July 10, 1886); John Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto Volume 2, 1896; Canadian Fire Fighters Museum.