Remembering the Great Fire of Toronto (1904): April 19: Snapshots in History
On April 19 and beyond, those with an interest in Toronto’s history might look back to the Great Fire of Toronto that occurred on April 19, 1904. (This was the second such fire in Toronto’s history following the Great Fire of Toronto that happened on April 7, 1849.) G.W. Shorter, author of Toronto Fire of 1904 (published in 1964 by the Division of Building Research, National Research Council, Canada), succinctly set the stage of what had happened some sixty years before he wrote the following words:
“The weather in Toronto on the evening of 19 April, 1904, was cold and blustery. The air temperature was below freezing (24° F) [about -4.4° C] and snow flurries were occurring accompanied by strong winds from the northwest at 30mph [about 48.3 kph]. All was quiet in the heart of Toronto's mercantile area. Few people were on the streets as almost all the buildings in the area had been closed since 6 p.m. At 8:04 p.m., a police constable patrolling his beat in the area saw flames shooting skyward from the elevator shaft of the Currie Building, 58 Wellington St. and immediately turned in an alarm. Before the resulting conflagration was extinguished, it would destroy approximately 100 buildings, causing a property loss of $10,350,000.”
Now let us turn to Toronto historian and Toronto Sun columnist Mike Filey who noted in his April 19, 2015 article entitled “The Great Fire of 1904” that the fire occurred at exactly 8:06 p.m. on April 19, 1904 at the Currie Building because the time and location information appeared on the punch tape in the Toronto Fire Department’s Alarm Office.
The April 21, 1904 issue of the Globe newspaper published an article on page 1 entitled “BUSINESS MEN MEET THE DISASTER BRAVELY: Making Arrangements For Rebuilding THANKS FOR ASSISTANCE The Generous Aid of Other Fire Brigades Stemmed the Tide of Disaster-- Origin of the Fire Believed to Have Been Bad Insulation of an Electric Wire-- Sketch of the Scene Yesterday --Insurance Loss Estimated $8,885,000, but Total Loss Between $13,000,000 and $15,000,000-- Many Messages of Sympathy-- Some of the Incidents of the Fight Against the Flames THE REMAINS OF A GREAT WAREHOUSE WHERE THE FIRE ENDED”. On page 7 of the April 21, 1904 issue of the Globe newspaper, there appeared two photographs with the following titular description: “Before and After the Great Fire: LOOKING SOUTH ON BAY STREET WHERE THE FIRE ORIGINATED”.
Emblazoned in large capital letters on page 1 of the April 20, 1904 issue of the Toronto Daily Star newspaper was the banner headline: “SWEPT BY FIERCE FLAMES: CONFLAGRATION RACES THROUGH THE WHOLESALE DISTRICT – LOSS ABOUT $13,000,000”. On page 2 of the April 20, 1904 issue of the Toronto Daily Star newspaper, an article appeared in the left column under the headline: “THE LOSS WILL BE $13,000,000: The Insurance Companies Are Interested to the Extent of $10,000,000: A LIST OF THE AMOUNTS: An Estimate of What Some of the Heaviest Sufferers by Fire Will Lose”.
To view the articles in full, please access the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card.
The City of Toronto created a virtual exhibit of the Great Fire of 1904 on the city’s website. The virtual exhibit also contained a section on some companies affected out of the total of over 125 businesses that were burnt out, including: The Brown Brothers, Limited (Wholesale stationers and bookbinders - 51-53 Wellington Street West); Wyld-Darling Co. Ltd. (Dry goods wholesalers - 63-65 Bay Street (at Wellington, south-east corner)); W.R. Brock Company (Dry goods wholesalers - 64-68 Bay Street (at Wellington, south-west corner)); Warwick Brothers & Rutter (Printers, bookbinders and wholesale stationers - 68-70 Front Street West); M. McLaughlin & Co. (Flour mill - 2 Bay Street); E.W. Gillett Co. Ltd. (Manufacturers of grocery items; 32-34 Front Street West); and, Kilgour Brothers (Bag and paper box manufacturers -
21-23 Wellington Street West). Many of the burned factories and warehouses were less than twenty years old and symbolized the prosperity, commercial acumen, and modern business practices of their owners. Unfortunately, the City of Toronto’s growth was outstripping its inadequate infrastructure, whether it was firefighting, transportation, water supply management and so forth. (See also: The Archives of Ontario’s virtual exhibit entitled The Great Toronto Fire: April 19, 1904).
Some 5,000 to 6,000 jobs were lost as a result of the fire and an area of some 7.9 hectares (about 19.5 acres) was affected directly by the fire. More than 250 firefighters battled the nine hour blaze; some smouldering continued for weeks afterwards. Five firefighters were injured as a result of fighting the fire, including Toronto Fire Chief John Thompson who fell off a ladder and broke a leg. Staff at the Evening Telegram newspaper building on Bay Street spent hours throwing water out of the building to keep the flames at bay. Similarly, employees and guests of the Queen Hotel (similarly located to the Royal York Hotel today) set up bucket brigades, put wet blankets out of the windows, and fought off the flames before the fire could cross Yonge Street.
The Great Fire of 1904 clearly demonstrated Toronto’s inadequate firefighting infrastructure to deal with such a large-scale fire. About a week or so before the fire, during the budget debate process at City Hall, Toronto Fire Chief John Thompson told then-Mayor Urquhart that “(w)e are taking more risk every year; we are running on wonderful luck" during his plea for an increased budget of $35,000 per year to which Mayor Tom Urquhart had replied, "Oh, I guess we'll have to risk it another year," following the opposition of the city’s controllers to increased funding. Nancy Rawson and Richard Tatton, in their book The Great Toronto Fire (1984), referenced an insurance appraiser who noted that at the time of the 1904 fire, Toronto had only five fire engines, compared to 16 in Montreal, 30 in Buffalo, 35 in Cleveland, and 60 in Baltimore.
Other municipalities rushed to help, aided by the railroads ferrying firefighters and equipment. Much of Toronto’s supply of fire hoses had been damaged. Hamilton supplied 12 firemen and 1,600 feet of hose; Brantford sent two steam pumpers, while Niagara Falls, Peterborough, Toronto Junction, and Kew Beach each supplied a pumper. The City of Buffalo sent two pumpers, 27 firefighters, and 2,000 feet of hose and fought to save buildings in the Yonge Street-Front Street area, including the 1885 Bank of Montreal building that now houses the Hockey Hall of Fame. In fact, the Buffalo firefighters commented on Toronto’s inadequate 1.5-inch hoses.
Needless to state, the City of Toronto’s political leadership of the day changed its tune in the aftermath of the 1904 fire. The City hired more firefighters, purchased more equipment, and allocated $1 million for a high-pressure hydrant system that was completed in 1909. The positive effect of the high-pressure hydrant system in the city’s downtown core was that the more powerful, higher capacity pumps, aided by a new water main system and high-pressure fire hydrants, were capable of sending water to the upper storeys of the taller buildings which were becoming more commonplace.
Surprisingly, no was killed at the time of the fire and its immediate aftermath. However, one death did result on May 5, 1904. John Croft had been working on demolition at the damaged W.J. Gage Building (54-58 Front Street West) on May 4, 1904; the first two sticks of dynamite planted by Croft exploded as expected. The one remaining dynamite stick did not detonate as planned. Thus, John Croft went to examine that dynamite stick at which point it exploded in his face, maiming him severely. As historian Mike Filey tells the story on page 74 in his book Mount Pleasant Cemetery: an illustrated guide (1999 - second edition, revised and expanded), “at 9:50 in the morning, May 5, 1904 the Great Toronto Fire had claimed its first, and thankfully only victim.” John Croft was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Plot P, Lot 2242. Jamie Bradburn, writing on the Torontoist.com website, also told the story of John Croft in his May 31, 2008 article entitled “Historicist: The Story of Mr. Croft” and the subsequent renaming of Ulster Street to Croft Street in John Croft’s honour.
There are a variety of good articles online about the Great Toronto Fire of 1904:
The Great Toronto Fires of 1904-and 1895 (Goad's Atlas of the City of Toronto: Fire Insurance Maps from the Victorian Era, Nathan Ng)
Hot time in the old town (The Globe and Mail, Stephen Wickens, 2004)
The Great Fire of 1904 (Toronto Star, Adam Mayers, 2008)
The Great Toronto Fire of 1904 (blogTO, Derek Flack, 2011)
The Great Fire of 1904 (Toronto Sun, Mike Filey, 2015)
Remembering the Great Toronto Fire of 1904 (Spacing, Adam Bunch, 2015)
Toronto has a history of rebuilding after two great fires (toronto.com, Jessica Young, 2018)
Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:
Consider viewing some of the digitized items relating to the 1904 Great Fire of Toronto from the Toronto Reference Library’s Baldwin Collection:
Area of fire wholesale district Toronto Canada Tu. April 19th and Wed. April 20th 1904.
Map, 1904, English
Notes: Shows buildings destroyed or damaged in the great fire of 1904 in the Bay - Wellington - Esplanade area; Publisher: Charles E. Goad, Toronto; Rights and Licenses: Public Domain ; Medium: 1 map: lithograph, colour; backed with paper; Extent: 50 feet = 1 inch; Source: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: T1904/4Msm).
Fire (1904); aftermath of fire, Wellington St. W., looking n. from s. of Wellington St., w. of Bay St.
Picture, 1904, English
Rights and Licenses: Public Domain ; Medium: Photograph; Extent: Unknown; Source: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: 976-26-16)
Fire (1904); aftermath of fire, Wellington St. W., looking e. to Bay St.
Picture, 1904, English
Rights and Licenses: Public Domain ; Medium: Photograph; Extent: Unknown; Source: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: 976-26-17)
Fire (1904); aftermath of fire, lane, e. side of Telegram Building.
Picture, 1904, English
Notes: TEC145Ak; Rights and Licenses: Public Domain ; Medium: Photograph; Extent: Unknown; Source: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: C 1-45b)