The Demon Fires of Columbia Avenue: 1927 and 1929
With the 30th anniversary of the MacLean School fire coming up in February, I thought I’d do a series of retrospectives of other fires in Rossland’s past – and there are plenty to choose from.
The history of the Mountain Kingdom is riddled with devastating fires. The first major one, occurring in 1902, saw the entire block of Columbia and First Avenue, from Washington and Spokane, burn to the ground. The fire started at the Burns & Co. meat store and quickly spread to The International, a hotel, and then onto the north block of Spokane Street and Second Avenue.
It was a windy night and it was feared the whole town would be lost. Fire crews were rushed up from Trail on a special train run to help the Rossland firefighters. Miraculously, there were no casualties, though the fire chief, D. Guthrie, did have to jump out of the second story of a building after being caught there. He sustained some injuries from that fall, but was up commanding crews about an hour later.
But imagine the heart of downtown Rossland, Columbia Avenue, looking like a war zone. That is not an exaggeration after the two “demon fires” of 1927 and 1929. Each fire burned down significant section of Columbia Avenue, leaving very little behind but smoke and charred remains – and a lot of devastated business owners and townsfolk.
The 1927 fire occurred on the bitterly cold night of January 21, in the middle of the southern side of the block of Columbia Avenue between Washington Street and Queen Street. While the local fire brigade was reported to have arrived on the scene quickly, they immediately ran into a big problem: the water lines were frozen. Without any way to put the fire out, all the firemen could do was watch from the side lines as the fire eventually burned itself out. In the end, most of that block was destroyed.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all I could find on the 1927 fire, though there are a few photos in the news clippings I saw while researching this story at the Rossland Museum. I couldn’t find any casualty numbers, but that may mean that there weren’t any. And I couldn’t find any numbers on how much the damages amounted to financially, either. How odd it was, though, to see a shot of Columbia Avenue with an entire central block missing – the block that now houses Ferraro’s, the liquor store, the Credit Union, and other businesses. It was very easy to compare these photos to pictures I’d seen of bomb devastation from the Second World War.
As bad luck would have it, almost exactly two years later, March 1, 1929, the opposite block of Columbia Avenue, book-ended by the Bank of Montreal building and the post office, also burned to the ground, leaving only those two buildings intact. Good thinking on the part of the designers, as both were constructed from stone and brick. This fire was discovered at about 11:30 PM by someone at the old city hall. The cause is still unknown, but it started at the back of the centre of the block.
Once again, fire crews were on the scene quickly, but once again they had a big problem. A particularly dry fall had left the newly built 25 million gallon reservoir with little water in it, so plan B was instigated: water pumps from the mines were utilized, but this was not ideal as the water pressure wasn’t enough to make much of a difference. Once again, firemen and citizens stood futilely by as the block burned to smouldering rubble. It was also a particularly windy night, and the fire managed to jump over Columbia Avenue and burned down the prestigious Rossland Club at the corner of Queen Street and LeRoi Avenue.
There were three other structures that survived this fire apart from the Bank of Montreal and the post office (which was gutted and ended up losing its third story, and some very lovely architectural features). One was the store room of the drug store owned by J.C. Urquhart, which was constructed from brick, and another was a vault in the office of someone named William Baker. Finally the “moving picture box”, constructed from cement, belonging to the Star Theatre, owned by S.J Hackney, also withstood the flames. Again, I could not find any reports of casualties.
But what rose out of the ashes of this fire were significant upgrades to the equipment and infrastructure necessary to fight fires in the downtown core, especially during the winter. The fire chief at the time, Chief Martin, re-organized the volunteer fire brigade and also, being someone on top of the technology of the time, acquired gas masks for his men and a special thawer for frozen water pipes during the winter. The city pitched in and purchased the fire department a “White truck.” This was equipped with 2200 feet of hoses of various diameters, ladders, a 130 gallon water tank, and a water pump. It was automated, putting some horses out of a job, and it had special “tractioneers” that could be attached to its wheels in order to successfully negotiate hills in the winter time. Also, a new fire alarm system was built for the town, which involved 28 electric alarms located at points around the city, all hooked up by eight miles of “hard-drawn” copper wiring. Additionally, water lines and fire hydrants were insulated for cold weather and winter firefighting.
In terms of waking up the city to the realities of living in a predominately wooden-structured buildings and the climate complications fire crews encountered during these two fires, the 1929 fire seems to have had the most significant impact on the town. While there were many large fires yet to be fought, the scale of devastation seen in 1927 and 1929 would never be matched.
– news clippings and archival material from the Rossland Museum
– Rossland: the Golden City, by Lance Whittaker
– Rossland: The First 100 Years, by Rosa Jordan & Derek Choukalos