Fighting Fire: The History of the Guelph Fire Department

In 1921, Wyndham Street was a prey to flames – so read the front page of the Guelph Evening Mercury. A major fire broke out at Robert Stewart Lumber Co. in the early morning of July 6, 1921. Chief Knighton and the Guelph Fire Department quickly responded to the call. Despite their quick response time, and assistance from volunteers and out-of-town fire departments, little could be done to extinguish the flames fueled by dry conditions and an ongoing heatwave. The factory and several adjoining buildings on Wyndham Street burned to the ground.

Today, Guelph’s skilled and well-equipped firefighters might find unimaginable the firefighting techniques and equipment used over the long history of the department..

Records show the fire department was in existence shortly after the town of Guelph was established in 1827. A hand pumper was purchased by the town in the 1850’s and taken to fires to create pressure for hoses to flood burning structures. Alexander Congalton was the captain of the volunteer fire department established in 1856, named the Victoria Engine Company No. 1. They stored their equipment in a small back room at the new town hall on Carden Street until a stone annex was built in 1865.

Advancements were made in fire prevention measures. In 1867, council passed a bylaw that only stone could be used for building structures near the downtown core. Water to fight fire was the impetus behind the city’s first public waterworks. After a typhoid outbreak in 1890s, the water source was switched from the Speed River, close to downtown, to the Arkell Springs, south of the city. A pipeline consisting of wooden planks wrapped with iron bands and sawdust was constructed from the Arkell Springs in 1907, providing water for fighting fires throughout the city.

On October 1, 1909, Guelph’s Fire Department was officially founded, and firefighters became paid, full-time public servants. The city’s first motorized firefighting vehicle, a Model-T Ford, “The Little Red Devil”, was purchased in 1917, outfitted with a hose reel and a chemical cart. Still, the firefighters relied on horses for transporting firefighters and equipment until the horses were retired in 1927.

Today, the fire department has grown to six stations across the city, has a fleet of 16 emergency response vehicles, and over 170 personnel. The tradition courage and service Guelph’s fire department demonstrated during Guelph’s Great Fire in 1921 still carries on today. We are thankful for their service.

Black and white negative. Men and women (5) standing in front of ruins on Wyndham Street. Waterhoses in foreground; ladders;

The Great Fire, July 6, 1921 | 1973.48.29

Colour slide of a black and white photo of several firemen, wearing their uniforms of double breasted coats and hats, sitting on two fire wagons pulled by two horses each, wearing feather plumes, and one buggy pulled by one horse. Leaning against a wall in the left of the photo is another fireman. The photo is taken in a sort of courtyard with the fire hall in the background. On the left wall of the two storey stone building are four large square sets of windows on the top level with three garage doors, two open and one closed, below. On the right wall there are three round top windows with one set of round top garage doors below.

Guelph Fire Department in front of City Hall, c. 1910 | 2009.32.2465

Posted by Dawn Owen on December 2, 2019

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