Over the last 250 years several stories have been told about Halifax’s fires and the firefighters who fought them. Of the hundreds of stories made available to the Halifax Fire Museum, we have managed to select three stories which help illustrate some of the more significant events in the history of the Halifax Fire Department.
Smoke Eating Days Over
Mail Star, October 18, 1964 – Smoke eating days are over for a well know Haligonian who has been chasing fire apparatus since the time of horse drawn carriages. Deputy Fire Chief Allan Purcell, a veteran of 35 years with the Halifax Fire Department, steps down from the ladder on November 1 to end a career which he described as “exciting, thrilling, fascinating.”
“I’d do it all over again,” he said.
When Allen Purcell became a full fledged fireman at the age of 25, a childhood dream was fulfilled. He said he was “fire crazy” from the time he was old enough to run behind the horse drawn apparatus every time it left the fire station near his home. “There was something about fighting fires that fascinated me,” he said in an interview in his Almon Street home.
The experienced firefighter, who celebrated his 60th birthday October 13 recalled the early days of his career. The Department still had a couple of horse drawn vehicles when he joined as a hoseman.
Poorer Conditions Working conditions were not as good in those days. Firemen had only one day off each month. They worked 15 days on an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, had one day off, then worked the rest of the month from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.. But if there happened to be a second alarm fire or another member of the shift became ill, he missed the day altogether. And the pay was only $24.00 a week. Today, a fireman works 24 hours straight and has the following 48 hours off.
The retiring fire official served in all the city’s fire houses during his career, except the Bayers Road and Oxford Street stations which were built in later years. He was appointed Deputy Chief in 1946 under ex-Chief Fred C. MacGillivray.
Tragedy, Heroism In many cases, a fireman’s life is interspersed with tragedy and sometimes heroism. Deputy Chief Purcell recalled one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Halifax and the worst fire during his career, the Queen Hotel blaze March 2, 1939, which claimed the lives of 28 people and injured 18. He helped rescue several occupants of the burning building on that cold and windy morning…but he doesn’t know who they were. “You don’t worry about names at a time like that,” he said. His association with the Fire Department will not end with his withdrawal from service, “I’ll go back and visit them periodically,” he said.
Asked what he has planned for his retirement years, he replied: “I’m going to take it easy…rest up.”
He and Mrs. Purcell might do a bit of traveling, but “Halifax is my home and always will be,” he added.
Billy Beats the Odds
Mail Star, October 6, 1967 – Billy Wells doesn’t need to be reminded of the day the earth shook and the bed of the Halifax Harbour was split open. He was about as near as one could possibly get to the huge powder keg “when she blew.” “We didn’t know the ship was carrying munitions,” he said. Mr. Wells, now 87, is a resident of Halifax, and at the time of the explosion was employed by the Fire Department. He is the only survivor of the fire engine crew that answered the call to put the fire out.
“It was about twenty minutes to nine when we received a telephone call at the West Street Fire Station saying there was a ship on fire at pier number 8 (now pier 9).”
“Our fire engine, the ‘Patricia’, had a crew of eight men,” recalled Billy. “I was the driver and we immediately rushed down to the pier. The ship was almost along side the dock and the multicolored flames shooting form here decks to the sky presented a beautiful sight.
Thinking the crew were still on board, the firemen started to unroll the hose, he said. “That’s when it happened.”
When the Mont Blanc exploded, Billy was thrown clear of the fire truck and somehow managed to keep on land during the tidal wave that followed. Later he was taken to Camp Hill Hospital where it took him five months to recover from the blast which took the lives of more than 2000 people.
“The first thing I remember after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine.” he related.
“The force of the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm.”
Remembering vividly, Billy said he was standing “quite conscious” when the tidal wave came right over him.
“After the wave had receded I didn’t see anything of the other firemen so made my way to the old magazine on Campbell Road (now Barrington Street).
” The sight was awful” he said, “with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads off, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.
“I was taken to Camp Hill Hospital and lay on the floor for two days waiting for a bed. The doctors and nurses certainly gave me great service.”
It was miraculous that Billy survived after being literally “on top” of the explosion.
Today, apart from an arm lacking muscle and tissue as a memento of the occasion, William Wells, of 3168 Agricola Street, has half the steering wheel of the Patricia as a souvenir. The terrific impact from a man made destructive force, unequalled in power till the first atomic bomb, had sent Billy sailing through the air still clutching the wheel.
Bedford Row Fire Station Closes
Mail Star, October 18, 1969 – When Halifax Fire Chief G. F. “Sandy” Brundige put the lock on the Bedford Row fire station last week, he closed the door on 65 years of Halifax history. The familiar downtown station at the corner of Prince Street has been closed, along with the station on Oxford Street, and their combined operations moved to the department’s new central West Street station which was officially opened Tuesday.
The Bedford Row station opened in 1904. It was situated near an area of Halifax then known as “Irishtown” which extended from Salter Street south to where the Hotel Nova Scotian now stands. The department in those days was operated by volunteer “call men” from the Irishtown area. The volunteers had taken over from the Union Engine Company in 1894, and the history of the fire force dates back to 1768.
In 1904 the majority of call men were either coopers (barrel markers), painters or longshoremen. Like fire departments in today’s suburban communities, Bedford Row was the centre of an enlightened social life. Old timers can recall their parents talking of the gay winter sleigh rides and dances as well as one of the social highlights of the season, the fireman’s ball.
Names which still flicker in the memories of some include Captain Tony Strachan and Lieutenant Jimmy Lynch who were responsible for much of the social planning. And from others come the names of firemen like Barney Coy, “Shorty” Griffin, Bolivar Powell and “Piggie” Harrington, Sr. Among those who remember Bedford Row and its service to the growing Halifax community, is ex-fire chief, F. C. “Fred” MacGillivray. During his 45 years with the Halifax Fire Department Mr. MacGillivray served 30 at Bedford Row.
The former fire chief joined the Halifax Fire Department on May 1, 1918 when it officially became a permanent fire force with 95 men. However, his memories of fires go back as early as December 19, 1911 when he remembers carrying coal for the steam engines fighting a fire in the now long-gone King Edward Hotel. The hotel, damaged in the Halifax Explosion, said Mr. MacGillivray, was located on Barrington Street at North. “At that time, 1911, Barrington Street as we now know it had four names, Pleasant Street, Barrington, Lockman and Campbell Road. Following the explosion it was all changed to Barrington.”
Prior to his move to Bedford Row, Mr. MacGillivray served 15 years on West Street in the station house demolished only this summer to make room for the new central complex.
His early years on Bedford Row were in the era of horse-drawn apparatus. He easily recalled one of the earliest pieces of equipment being the “Alexander” an English built machine brought to the city in 1907.
“The Alexander could pump 1000 gallons a minute,” said Mr. MacGillivray, ” and there was nothing like her in all Canada.”
The Alexander was later joined by the Department’s first motor-equipped vehicle, the Patricia, and later the Cornwallis in 1917, the Chebucto in 1918, and in 1919, the City’s first aerial ladder. The Patricia was to gain on immortal place in the City’s history on December 6, 1917 when it was badly damaged while answering a burning ship alarm in the harbour. The alarm “ship” in question was in fact the Imo and Mont Blanc whose collision early that day all but obliterated the City.
All members of the crew of the engine were killed except for William Wells, the driver. The dead included Deputy Chief William Brunt, Captain Michael Maltus and hoseman Frank Killeen. Frank Leahy, another hoseman, was later to die of injuries.
In his 30 years on Bedford Row, where he rose from hoseman to chief, Mr. MacGillivray recalled many memorable incidents. The worst fire he or the Department ever fought was the Queen Hotel holocaust of March 4, 1939. A Captain at the time, he remembers being one of the men called to the scene by the third alarm which brings “every man and every piece of equipment.” Twenty-eight persons perished in the hotel. Among other indelible memories are the war years, during which the 77 year old ex-Chief remembers some 60,000 freighters entering port, ten percent damaged by fire or enemy action. The Kay’s Department store fire on November 30, 1950 and a Smith Street fire some years later are grim reminders of the danger of fire.
Looking back with pride on his years on Bedford Row, Mr. MacGillivray recalls the Department always maintained good equipment and had a hard earned reputation as a fine fire fighting force. “I didn’t make it that way,” he adds, “I inherited a good Department.”
It was an inheritance, jealously maintained which he proudly handed over to the present Chief on January 1, 1963.