Chief Richard Ardagh’s Ultimate Sacrifice

Richard-Ardagh-colorIt can easily be said that Richard Ardagh was one of the most important figures in the early formation of the Toronto Fire Department. Born in Thurles, Ireland in 1832, Ardagh joined the volunteer Brigade in the spring of 1847. As a young 15-year-old he was assigned to apprentice on #1 Hook & Ladder at the Court Street Hall. His first fire was on Market Lane (now Colborne St.) later that year. Just over a year later his crewmate William Thornton became the first Toronto fire fighter to die in the line of duty. By 1853, at the young age of 21, Ardagh was made Captain of Truck 1, in charge of a crew notoriously known as “The Wreckers”. In the 1860’s he heard the call of the Wild West and headed out to the Rockies. He missed the department, though, and came back shortly thereafter. Fire Chief Ashfield (who happened to be his brother-in-law) let him back on the job immediately, but only as a fireman as Ardagh was too busy running as Councillor in St. David’s Ward to hold any higher rank. He was successfully elected in 1864.

His first love was the department, though, and in 1866, with the death of Assistant Engineer Charlton at a fire on Yonge Street, his brother-in-law promoted him to the department’s second highest position. By 1876, he had risen to Chief Engineer, in charge of the newly formed full-time force. For the next 19 years he saw the T.F.D. through remarkable change and growth. All that would end, though, with the Globe Fire.

As a blizzard raged during the early morning hours of Sunday, January 6th 1895, a serious working fire was taking hold of the Globe Newspaper building at the corner of Yonge and Melinda Streets. Fed by strong winds, flames had already spread to several exposure buildings on Melinda, Jordan and Yonge Streets. Deputy Chief Thompson had just struck the General Alarm as Chief Ardagh showed up from his home at 319 Sherbourne Street Leaving the Globe building to his Deputy, Ardagh took two men, Captain Silas Smedley of Ladder 3 and Captain Frank Forsyth of #6 Hose, and made his way into the adjoining Caswell Printing Building on Jordan Street. As the men checked for extension the building flashed over. Trapped at the second floor window, Captain Forsyth decided to jump for it. He landed in the snow with some minor injuries and ran for help for his two trapped brother fire fighters. Meanwhile, pushed by the flames up the Ardagh and Smedley found themselves at a third floor window looking down at an alley off of Wellington Street. They had only two options, so the men shook hands and jumped for it. Smedley went first and landed with a broken ankle. He crawled his way to the street where Forsyth had just returned to with a search team. Chief Ardagh, a big man and 63 years old, hit the ground a lot harder. He suffered serious internal injuries, which, at the time were beyond the help of doctors. In any event, the Chief refused to go to the hospital and was taken to his home in a horse-drawn taxicab. Over the next couple of weeks, the Chief put up a brave face to visitors, including his son Charles, Captain of #11 Hose. But the injuries proved too overwhelming for the older man. At 10:20 A.M. on January 27th he succumbed to his injuries. Perhaps as an evil portent to his imminent demise, the Chief’s dog, “Bo”, the department mascot, had died the day before. The Chief was never told of his dear friend’s death. He was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery with full department honours.

Courtesy TFS Capt. Jon Lasiuk


Great Fire of Toronto: April 19, 1904


A night watchman, making his rounds on a cold and windy night, discovered a fire in a 4-storey brick neckwear factory at 58 Wellington Street West. He ran up Bay Street and pulled Box 12, located at King, at 20:04 hrs. A normal assignment of 5 hose companies, two steamers, an aerial, the water tower, a ladder truck and a couple of chemical wagons, and the salvage company under the command of Fire Chief Thompson arrived at the scene and went to work. An interior attack from the front was having some effect but the building was ablaze from top to bottom and fire extended into exposure #4, a similar structure. A general alarm was called and the chief and a couple of men took a line in to try and head things off. This is when things went bad. The fire cut them off on the 2nd floor, trapping them upstairs. They tried shinnying down the hose but the chief lost his grip and fell, breaking a leg. He was carted off home and Deputy Chief Noble sent for. Meanwhile, things deteriorated quickly. Warehouses at exposures #1 and #4 started to burn, as the flames overwhelmed interior crews. Flames worked their way quickly over to Bay Street, threatening John Ross Robertson’s Telegram newspaper building. Equipped with window sprinklers and made of concrete, the 10-storey edifice was further protected by a brave group of employees armed with buckets and standpipe houses. In the heat and blinding smoke, they made a successful stand.

DC Noble had arrived to find a horrifying sight. Even the steamers could not provide a stream capable of penetrating the heat and the crews facing the 30mph wind found the streams snapped off at the nozzle. Soon buildings on the south side of Wellington, opposite the fire, began to burn. Two large warehouses, each a half block deep towards Front, took off, dooming the structures on the west side of Bay and the north side of Front. To make matters worse, stores on the east side of Bay, south of the Telegram, were now well involved. The temperature dropped to 20F and firefighters were further stymied by falling wires and buildings, and hoselines lay abandoned in the streets as the men ran for their lives.

With the wind howling and gusting to 55mph the blaze became a firestorm, and at 2230, the mayor sent a desperate plea to nearby villages and several cities with steamers for aid. With the glow readily visible in the night sky, crews from the Junction, North and East Toronto, the Beach and Weston quickly readied their equipment and sped to the scene to back up the weary city boys. Farther afield, special trains were readied in Hamilton, then Brantford, Peterborough, Niagara Falls, London and Buffalo. The large, 6-storey brick Darling Dry Goods emporium on the south east corner of Bay & Wellington ignited and the flames swept down both sides of Bay, taking out large and small buildings alike. On the fringes, desperate firefighters tried to corral the monster as it tried to outflank them, forcing its way across Front. The crews from Hamilton arrived, an amazing 90 minutes after the call. They made a stand at the Queen’s hotel, a large building situated on Front west of Bay, replacing exhausted city and Junction members who knew that losing the hotel would wipe out everything to the west. They were forced to improvise hydrant connections as the threads didn’t match but still managed to get their engines in service and stop the fire from taking the large building. As this was happening, multiple hose streams west of Yonge Street prevented the fire from jumping into the east downtown. They were aided by the employees in the Minerva Building just west of Yonge on Front, who made a stand similar to that at the Telegram. After roaring through the block-long premises of Eckardt Casket, behind the buildings on the south side of Front, the fire attacked those on the West side of Bay, above the lake. Meanwhile, it also marched ever eastward on Front, putting the Customs House at Yonge in peril.

It was now 02:00, but the low, open style of Eckhardt’s factory allowed the weary firefighters to set up effective water curtains and they lost just one more building in this area. The crews on Yonge teamed up to drench first the Bank of Montreal (now the Hockey Hall of Fame), then the Customs House, preventing any extension eastward. Below that were the railway tracks, which made an effective firebreak. The worst was now over, and welcome reinforcements in the form of Engines 12 and 13 from Buffalo, along with a couple of dozen firefighters, had now made the scene. They were followed by the contingents from Brantford and London.

As the sun rose, the appalling destruction became fully apparent. Almost 100 buildings, most of them substantial 4 to 6 story mercantile and manufacturing concerns, were laid waste. More than $10 million in property losses were incurred, and rebuilding took many years. Fortunately, injuries were surprisingly minor and only one fatality was connected with the fire; that of a workman struck by a falling wall a couple of days later. Even as the ruins still shouldered, burned out merchants were advertising alternative locations and contractors were hauling away debris. An economic boom, spurred by the rebuilding, swept the city and for the first time, the economy and population began growing faster than in Montreal. Improvements to the fire service were also made, with more steamers put into service and the high pressure system built.

Copyright GTMAA Trumpet. Images courtesy City of Toronto Archives and Toronto Public Library.

Hurricane Hazel: October 15, 1954

Firefighters and residents examine the destroyed wreck of the Kingsway Lambton ladder truck. Source: Toronto Telegram/York University Archives

Firefighters and residents examine the destroyed wreck of the Kingsway Lambton ladder truck. Source: Toronto Telegram/York University Archives

The most devastating storm in Toronto history was not expected to leave a lasting impression. Hurricane Hazel, a category 4 hurricane when it hit the U.S. a few days earlier, was pretty much spent. As it passed over Lake Ontario, however, it absorbed huge amounts of moisture and it hit the city packing 75 mph winds. Hazel dumped 8 to 10″ or rain on the western area, most of it into the Humber drainage basin. The storm continued north, turning the Holland Marsh into a lake. Once the howling winds and rain had died down, people ventured out to look at the devastation and start cleaning up. Fire departments west of the Don were inundated with calls for flooded basements, downed trees and power lines and, occasionally, trapped people.

Soon, every fire crew in Etobicoke, York, East York and Toronto was on the road; North York and was also busy. The worst, however, was yet to come. Rains had been frequent in October already and the ground was saturated. Almost all of what Hazel dropped collected in the brooks and streams, turning them into torrents which then flowed into the Don River, Etobicoke Creek and, mainly, the Humber River. Calls were now being received by the various brigades in Etobicoke to save people trapped in cars or trees by the rising river. Toronto alone rescued over 50 people, East York had to retrieve at least a dozen more, mostly from the Don Valley.

One such call went to the Kingsway-Lambton Volunteer Fire Department for a motorist stuck in his vehicle on River Road, which angled down onto the shore of the Humber. The volunteers proceeded to the location with the ladder truck and were followed by one member in his car, but the victim was nowhere to be seen. When they tried to leave again, the car, then the ladder truck, became stuck and the flood waters rose quickly, stranding the 8 firefighters. One swam to safety but barely made it. Help arrived, but the truck could not be pulled out and boats could not be launched into the churning waters. As the rig rocked in the water, one man was pulled to safety by police with ropes. The rest were suddenly swept down stream as the truck overturned. Of the six who fell in, only one managed to make it to the bank downstream and safety. The remaining men, Deputy Chief Clarence Collins and firefighters Frank Mercer, Roy Oliver, David Palmateer and Angus Small were drowned. All were married and had 7 children between them.

The TFD made a huge contribution in the wake of the disaster. Over 600 off-duty firefighters took part in the search for bodies, which were scattered all the way to the river mouth, and a crew of four manned the Kingsway Lambton hall until provisions could be made to provide adequate coverage. Hazel claimed 81 lives in Toronto and destroyed hundreds of buildings, mostly in the river valleys. Once the city had recovered, all building on riverbanks was banned and a system of natural flood channels and reservoirs was created to ensure that a similar disaster could not happen again.

Copyright GTMAA Trumpet

The Rupert Hotel Fire: December 23, 1989

On a bitterly cold evening a tenant in a large 3-storey brick walk-up at 182 Parliament Street over a grocery store at 344 Queen Street East apparently tried to burn some papers in his second floor room. The flames quickly got beyond his control and he and his companion fled. Unfortunately, the room was located off the main staircase and the blaze quickly extended into the stairwell and second floor hall. The dry, century-old structure (known previously as the Rupert Hotel) burned rapidly and there was upwards of three-dozen people there at the time, most trapped in their rooms. The old manual fire alarm did little to warn occupants and to make matters worse, a help call was in progress at 613 Parliament, confusing 911 operators who fielded panicked calls from the premises.

In fact it was Air Supply #1, responding to the other fire, who first discovered the appalling scene which included billowing smoke and people hanging from windows and jumping onto an adjacent bus shelter. The quick witted driver sounded his siren and horn to warn anybody remaining inside while he alerted TFD dispatch about the disaster and requested a help call.

With all of the east downtown companies already committed, the response time was lengthened but arriving crews went to work. The fire was already blowing out top floor windows and had full possession of the hallways but the front was laddered and several firefighters forced their way into the terrific heat of the second floor where they discovered the unconscious form of a male tenant. He was quickly wrestled to a window and the large individual was lowered to Queen Street and waiting paramedics. He survived severe smoke inhalation and burns.

By now, the conditions were untenable and all members evacuated. Hose crews with 65mm lines could not penetrate into the building and ladder pipes were set up. Third alarm crews assisted with more lines and it was observed that the fire was extending to the #3 exposure at 338 Queen, which housed an art gallery and store. More ladder pipes, totalling five, and large lines were brought to bear and, six hours later, 18 crews had subdued the inferno using 35 streams.

The old Rupert Hotel was devastated, the roof and upper floors collapsed, now covered with tons of ice. Many people were missing and it was this scene that crews searching for them faced. Using the Bronto aerial towers, a power shovel and front end loaders on the unstable building, TFD and city crews spent days chopping through the ice and debris to locate the bodies. The final toll was ten, the highest for any building fire in Toronto history, with dozens injured and $1.6 million in property loss.

Copyright GTMAA Trumpet

The S.S. Noronic Disaster


The early hours of September 17, 1949 saw one of the most concentrated efforts of men and apparatus ever put forth by the Toronto Fire Department. This would be the morning that the S.S. NORONIC would burn while anchored in Toronto.

Mr. Harper, the watchman for the Canada Steamship Lines, first noticed the fire as he made his rounds on Pier No. 9. The fire department was then quickly called by telephone. At 2:38 AM, Acting Platoon Chief J. Stevens responded to the scene with 1 pumper, 1 hose wagon, 1 high pressure truck, 1 rescue squad, and 1 aerial. When Chief Stevens passed through the York St. underpass and saw the top decks of the ship fully involved, and passengers jumping into the water, he ordered a second alarm before even arriving.

The second alarm was struck on Box 6, Queens Quay and Bay at 2:41 AM. It brought a district chief, 4 pumpers, 1 aerial, 1 hook & ladder, 1 fire boat, as well as the Deputy Chief and Chief of Department Peter Herd.

Chief Stevens proceeded into the ship by a lower side door, and heard the boilers exploding. He returned to the pier to see people floating in the water, some deceased and some alive. No. 5 Aerial, a 1931 aerial truck with a wooden aerial, extended it’s aerial to the bow of the ship to rescue passengers on the main deck. As the tip of the aerial touched the bow, 6 men and a woman immediately climbed on and started down. The weight was too great, however, and the aerial ladder snapped sending the people into the water. All were eventually saved. When Chief Stevens witnessed this mishap he ordered a third alarm.

The third alarm was struck at 2:46 AM, bringing one more district chief, 5 pumpers, 1 high pressure truck and 3 aerials, one of which had a 75’ aerial.

No. 1 aerial, a 1947 rig, extended its steel ladder to ‘C’ deck, but when it fell short, a ground ladder had to be tied to the end. Many passengers were saved by this ladder.

While the aerials were engaged in rescue work, the fire boat and pumper crews were busy pouring water into the burning hulk. Ground ladders were put up to the stern of the ship to assist those evacuating the upper decks. Ladders were also dropped to water level to rescue those who had jumped.

The fire boat was dispatched to the fire at 2:39 AM, arriving at 2:46 AM. It travelled 1½ miles to reach the scene. The fire boat used deck turrets supplied by 2½“ lines on the burning ship, as well as numerous hand lines.

The fire was officially called under control at 4:51 AM, although firefighters could not board her until after 7:00 AM due to the intense heat. When on board the grim job of removing bodies began. As the number grew a temporary morgue was set up in the CNE Horticultural Building. Many passengers died in their beds from smoke inhalation, others died attempting to open red hot metal doors. Many assisted firefighters in transporting the injured to hospital, including taxi drivers and civilians.

The S.S. NORONIC was built in 1913 and was owned by Canada Steamship Lines. It was 362’ in length and 52’ wide. It carried a crew of 171 and 524 passengers. On that fateful morning, 402 people were rescued due only to a supreme effort of the fire department, but 119 perished.

The fire was apparently started in a linen closet and quickly spread. The ship was a complete write-off and was sold for scrap. The pier and nearby buildings suffered $5,000 damage.

This was the first response for the new Box 12 canteen which had been delivered to No. 3 hall some two days prior. Karl Lee, Walt McCall, and John Skillen were some of the buffs that made it to the scene. Karl reported driving by the ship at 12:30 AM and noticed a large party on board.

Approximately 115 firefighters and 9 officers fought the fire. They used 555’ of ladder, 91 salvage covers, 13,000′ of 2½“ hose, 200’ of 3½” hose, and pumped 1,719,312 IGPM of water. The trucks burned 275 gallons of gas and used 12 gallons of oil.

Although there was a great loss of life, the T.F.D. should be commended for the tremendous job they did in the face of such an impending disaster, in rescuing the number of people they did. A professional job, well done.

Originally published in Vol 2, No. 9 issue of the MTMAA’s Trumpet newsletter, Fall 1976. Author Gary Wignall.