Victoria’s first volunteer fire companies

Selim Franklin had endured substantial losses in the 5th of the ‘Great Fires’ of San Francisco. Six times San Francisco had been torched to the ground by an arsonist. Lives and buildings were destroyed. People lost their savings while gangs looted. So when Franklin set foot on Vancouver Island in 1858 and saw all those wood shanties and tents around Fort Victoria, he shuddered to think of what could happen.

Franklin and a few other businessmen convinced Governor Douglas of the need for volunteer fire companies. They purchased fire engines at a cost of just over $5,000. Volunteers, many of whom had served in the fire brigades in San Francisco, were familiar with these heavy machines, tested them out the day they arrived on July 28, 1858.

early fire engines had to pulled by ropes

It was challenging to keep volunteers in Victoria as many left to go to the mainland to search for gold. Interest was revived in January 1859, however, and officers were appointed for two fire companies, and two cisterns (where water could be stored and used in case of a fire) were built  without government help. These cisterns were located on Store Street and on Government Street. Back then it was customary to use gunpowder to blow up buildings to stop fires from spreading. Hooks were used to tear down wooden structures.

The first major fire in Victoria

The first major fire in Victoria occurred on October 18, 1859:

Yesterday morning between four and five o’clock the town was alarmed by the cry of fire. On arriving at the scene of alarm, the flames were bursting from the east end of the large two-story wooden building on the corner of Government and Johnson streets owned by Thos. Pattrick & Co. In a short time it was entirely enveloped in fire, rendering all efforts to save it from destruction futile, and within an hour it was a smouldering ruin.

$8000 worth of liquor stored in the warehouse helped to ignite the flames which burnt one side of the Union Hotel nearby. To prevent the fire from spreading, a house was torn down as well as several small sheds. Three people who had been living in the top floor of the warehouse barely escaped. One threw himself out the window and another managed to get down the stairs just as they collapsed.

The total loss to property was estimated at $13,350. It was believed that the fire was largely stopped by the Marines stationed at James Bay. The fire engine didn’t arrive until later, being under the direction of the police magistrate.

Hook and Ladder

The next day, the Daily Colonist newspaper voiced the opinion that something must be done to set up a permanent fire department. The government was reluctant to spend the money, however, and it was left up to the business community to raise $1,500 for an alarm bell and a hook and ladder rig to be shipped from San Francisco.

On November 22nd, the Union Hook and Ladder Company was formally organized with members given red shirts, black trousers, wide leather belt and cap, similar to the uniforms worn by one of the well known San Francisco fire companies.

the machinery arrived in January, 1860

Contracts went out for a two story building to house a “Hook & Ladder Truck, Fire Engine and Hose Carriage, with Cupola for Alarm Bell.” The first fire hall was built at Bastion and Wharf Streets.

The two original companies were reorganized into the Deluge Engine Company No. 1 and Tiger Engine Company No. 2.

Deluge housed themselves in a rented building on Government between Yates and Johnson, while the Tiger Company leased premises around the corner, on Johnson Street between Government and Broad. Eventually Tiger Company moved into its own hall.

The companies raced each other to the fires and sometimes battled with each other for the sake of being first.¬† Two men with the Tiger Company fell beneath the wheels of their hand-drawn engine while racing to a false alarm. Their injuries were “painful” but apparently not serious.

Membership in all three companies (Tiger, Deluge and Union Hook and Ladder) was limited to about 70. Applicants were carefully screened and voted on by ball ballot (three black balls and the man was “out”). Benefactors were rewarded with honorary memberships.

Political Clout of Volunteer Fire Companies

It wasn’t long before the volunteer fire companies made their mark on the City’s politics. This came as no surprise to some because in the United States, where many had come from, fire companies had a long history of political influence. Many who wanted to enter into politics first started in a volunteer fire company.

During a debate on the Fireman’s Protection Act, Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken said, “There is no doubt but these fire companies will end in political societies but at present they are the most useful organization in the colony.”

Victoria continued to rely on its volunteer fire companies throughout the gold rush years all the way until 1886 when the City established a paid fire department.