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Smoke, Sweat and Tears: The Calgary Fire Department

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

PC1068

Aerial Ladder, Calgary Fire Department (1906 or after)

Postcards from the Past, PC 1068

I have seen a lot of firefighters in the last few days, what with the news of grass fires and arson and house fires (and, possibly because of the fire we had on the third floor of our library) so while I was casting about for an idea for this blog, I started thinking about the history of our Fire Department. I have had a deep and abiding affection for firefighters, not just because they run into burning buildings while we run out, but because of an event when I was a wee girl. My mom was newly widowed with four kids. One night we smelled smoke and called the Fire Department. They arrived with their lights blazing, in their fire gear and quickly found the source of the smoke – a component in our TV cabinet that was melting. The TV was hauled into the back yard and we were safe. But the firemen didn’t just go away. When they found out my mom was on her own, they checked her insurance policy and informed her that she needed to up her coverage, they searched the back yard for my new kitten who had escaped during the fracas (it was something to see this small ball of fur settled into the enormous glove of the fireman who found him) and they checked to make sure everything was in order. They didn’t have to do that, but they did it anyway. So, for this, and all the other reasons, firemen have always been my heroes. (Police and EMS, too, but that’s for a later blog.)

We haven’t always had a Fire Department, although in a place where buildings were mostly of wood and were heated with fires and lit with candles and gas lamps, the need for a volunteer fire department was quickly recognized. When the great fire of 1886 broke out on the morning of November 7, church bells were rung, to call the volunteers and other citizens, men, women and children, to form a bucket-brigade. The fire, believed to be started by an “incendiary” would eventually consume at least 18 of the city’s wooden buildings. It also prompted the mayor to throw the doors open to a vigilante group which could deal with the culprit “as you like.” It was this fire that encouraged people to build with the local sandstone, earning Calgary the nickname “The Sandstone City”. It was also the impetus for the reorganization of the Hook, Ladder and Bucket Corps into two divisions, a ladder division and a hose division, each with 30 men, the purchase of a steam engine and the building of a fire hall. “Cappy” Smart (then just James or Jack) volunteered for the fire brigade in 1885 (before that he was the town’s first funeral director). In 1898 he became the first paid fire chief for the city. The firefighters were still volunteers, however, and had to pay $18 of their own money for their uniforms. It wasn’t until 1909 that the fire fighters were paid. They were given $70 a month with 10 hours off each week. Men lined up to join what was touted as the most advanced fire department in the country. The Calgary Fire Department is still recognized as a world leader in firefighting.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of firefighting in the city, we have a wonderful collection of photos, like the one above, in the Community Heritage and Family History Digital Library. We also have a good collection of books in the Local History room (and on the third floor, once the fire damage is cleaned up.) Notable are Yours for Life , 100 Years of Smoke, Sweat and Tears by Grant MacEwan, and Milestones and Mementoes, 1885-1985.

PC 936

The Webb Car, CFDs First Piece of Motorized Equipment, Cappy Smart is at the Wheel

Postcards from the Past, PC 936

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