History Snapshot

The history of the Victoria Fire Department is extensive and has been well chronicled.  From its beginnings as a small volunteer group in 1859, to its formalization to a professional department in 1886; to where it stands today as a 123 member strong organization providing many specialized services to the residents of Victoria.  This history has been documented in the 2009 publication “First Water, Tigers!” and below is an excerpt from that book:

First Water, Tigers! The Victoria Fire Department – by Dave Parker
Last evening the roof of Rudolph’s Oyster Saloon, Waddington Street was discovered in a blaze. Had it occurred a day or so ago when the roofs were dry and the wind blew furiously, no one could guess at the result. When are we to have an effective fire department? This is a warning.  

The British Colonist
Victoria, Vancouver Island, June 1859
Even with the advances in technology available by the mid nineteenth century, fire was a threat that had to be taken extremely seriously. When what was at the time termed the `fire demon’ went on the rampage even the largest cities like London and New York had suffered major catastrophes. By comparison, a tiny, isolated fur trade fort was utterly defenseless, especially one that had undergone an incredible transformation.

Over the course of the fifteen years since being established in 1843, Victoria had slowly expanded beyond the protective walls of the Fort around the harbour and to the flat land and marshes to the east. The excellent deep-sea harbour at Esquimalt and Victoria had been connected by a path and then road. The population increased – not dramatically, but enough so that not everyone in town had connections to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Even though the resident population was very small, it was showing signs of becoming less homogenous and less disciplined than in the past. The Company was never the less in charge by virtue of an agreement with the British Government. Victoria was changing but at a slow and manageable rate. Fire wasn’t a concern at this time – but things would soon change and it would become a very real fear.

Early in 1858, word of a major gold strike on the Fraser River spread south to California. In San Francisco the news passed with lightning speed among the unemployed, and broke, miners left in dire straits after the passing of the 1849 rush. It wasn’t long before ships full of prospectors, many of whom were veterans of previous rushes – California, Australia and even the Queen Charlottes, began arriving in Victoria. The Governor, Sir James Douglas, who was also Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Company, was well aware of problems inherent in gold rushes. His method of maintaining control was simple: everyone headed for the Fraser River had to purchase a license and provisions in Victoria before they were permitted to proceed on to the `diggings’. The result was staggering!

Transients, many thousands of them, flooded into Victoria and set up camp anywhere they could find room – and space was not plentiful. The editor of the Weekly Gazette, looking out over the scene in early July 1858, was appalled. There were hundreds of rudimentary shelters, many of which were simply cloth stretched over tent poles with chimney pipes extending up through the fabric. Open fires were common. Referring to it as “The Arab mode of existence”, he described it in his column.

Hundreds of these miniature dwellings are scattered through our suburbs, some choking up ravines with their numbers, others spread out on the broad plain that surrounds the city. Others still spring up on the shores of the bay remote from the town’s centre.

Along with the flood of prospectors, inevitably came what we would today call entrepreneurs, those new arrivals who were eager to get rich by supplying the needs of the miners. Stores and other facilities were needed and that large numbers of structures had to be built and built quickly – time could not be wasted when money was to be made. More than 250 of these often-rudimentary buildings went up between 12 June and 21 August 1858!

Neither building standards, zoning nor a city plan of any kind existed. If there was space, a structure would appear. Desperately needed fire prevention bylaws hadn’t been enacted – there hadn’t been time – and in any case, many of the town’s leading citizens weren’t convinced that the overcrowding would last long. However, without this legislation, businesses that used fire such as blacksmiths, restaurants, tanneries, or laundries could be placed without any consideration for fire safety. There were other worries as well. All buildings in town were of wood construction and many shared common walls and often adjoining false fronts that would ensure the rapid spread of fire. Streets were narrow and fire could jump the gap very easily, especially when fanned by a stiff wind – a common occurrence. Even in the short term, if something went wrong and a fire broke out, disaster was all but inevitable.

There was a further problem, a significant one: Victoria hadn’t any means of fighting a fire, even a minor blaze. Even though what had been a tiny village had become a city, it didn’t possess those services we consider vital today. There weren’t any firefighters, nor was there apparatus. There was an excellent supply of water-the harbour – but how to get it on to fire was a problem. The Hudson’s Bay Company, the only government available, had to do something! Sir James Douglas agreed, and ordered two small manual pumpers some leather hose and other equipment from California.

San Francisco had a large and effective volunteer fire department, a model that could easily be applied to Victoria. The paternalistic attitude of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the person of Douglas made this impossible. It’s uncertain whether the Governor was concerned about increasing American influence in the colony or whether he simply wanted to retain control, but the American type volunteer department wouldn’t be a feature of Victoria until 1860.

The problem with the first fire department, which was organized by members of the community in August 1858, was that the apparatus was owned and controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company; it was stored in the fort; the Police Commissioner, a Douglas appointee, was in charge and the Company blacksmith, Edward Coker, was appointed

Superintendent of fire engines. The citizens of Victoria were less than thrilled. The theory was, so Douglas thought, that when a fire was discovered, everyone who wasn’t incapacitated, was expected to race to the apparatus and put out the blaze. It didn’t work out that way early in the morning on 19 October 1859. One of the largest structures in the city, the two story Patrick Block was what now would be termed `totally involved’. One of the few citizens who did respond described what happened, in an anonymous letter to the Gazette reporting that I was present at the fire Tuesday morning last, and although I put in some `big licks’ in the way of crying `fire’ until I was hoarse and helped to roll the hose from the reel when we arrived there, having thrown as much mud and whiskey in the fire as anyone else in the crowd…. Come, gentlemen who are engaged in the collection of subscriptions to start the Victoria Fire Department, let us understand, where we are to stand and how we are to act, but above all don’t stand still and let valuable time go by. Get the hooks, ladders, grapnels and axes prepared at once and ready to be used when needed…

A true volunteer fire department was needed, one that was independent from the government, or the Hudson’s Bay Company in this case.

Victoria’s first volunteer fire company, the union Hook and Ladder No.1, was organized in late November 1859. Following the well-established American pattern, it was very like a fraternal lodge in that it elected it’s officers and decided who would be accepted into the company. One rule was, and it was fundamental, that the member had to help support it financially – apparatus and a fire hall were expensive.

This was a period when all apparatus was moved and operated by hand. Only manual pumps were available until the mid 1860s and these required large crews to keep the handles that operated the pumps manned. The numbers of firefighters needed made volunteer departments necessary since no municipal government could afford the cost.

On 5 March 1860, the Deluge Engine Co. No.1 was formed from among British residents and, in competition, the American residents organized the Tiger Engine Company No.2 eighteen days later. Douglas had come to agree that this was the best means of providing fire protection for the city. Each company took over one of the Hudson’s Bay Company engines, and a quantity of hose. Turn out gear – protective clothing – was acquired, complete with New York pattern leather helmets and appropriately lettered belts. Each company had its own flag. They were much like the military of the period in terms of wanting some pageantry.

One of the good things about this form of organization was that any member could advance to the highest rank in the company if he had the ability needed and confidence of the other members. John Keenan, was well-qualified for high office: he was a former San Francisco fire fighter and, not insignificantly, owned a favourite `watering hole’, the Fashion Hotel and dance hall in Victoria.

Competition was an important feature of fire fighting in this era – it ensured that fire fighters put every possible ounce of effort into the battle. The engine companies raced each other to get the “first water” on to a fire and when pumping in tandem, the second engine would try to overwhelm the other by pumping harder – “washing” it. The “disgrace” would be duly reported the next day in the newspapers.

While the competitive element was basically good, things could get out of hand – even in Victoria. Chief Joseph Wrigglesworth left a record of one such occurrence.

I remember one night, a bitterly cold one it was, with deep snow on the ground… there was a big fire on Langley Street in a building owned by Dr. Mathews. The “Tiger” was the earliest to reach the conflagration and laid hose down the street. A few minutes later the ‘Deluge’ arrived and attached to their engine. The men of the Tiger engine, infuriated at such an act, demanded that it should be taken from the `Deluge’ and attached to their engine. The Deluge men refused. Then started such a fight as I’ve ever seen or participated in. We went at it hammer and tongs stumbling about in the snow. Nobody thought of the fire. It burned itself out.

The Victoria volunteers served the Victoria well, but in 1867, the seeds of the end were sown when the Tigers accepted delivery of their new steam pumper. With the introduction of steam pumping, the need for large numbers of men on the pumping handles gradually disappeared. Steam pumpers didn’t tire either, continuing to work until they ran out of water or fuel. The expense involved in purchasing, maintaining, and housing the new apparatus became too high for the volunteer companies. With the increase in the size of the city – longer distances with heavier apparatus, horse haulage was introduced and that meant fire halls manned on a continuous basis.

On 1 January 1886, Victoria fire fighters were all paid. The dreaded “hirelings” had taken over. The Volunteer era was over for British Columbia’s first fire fighters. It was gone, but it remained glorious in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been involved.